With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram banned by the Kremlin, TikTok is the last global social media platform still operating in Russia. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it announced that it had banned new uploads on March 6 to protect users from Russian “fake news” law.
But a new report found that the ban was inconsistently enforced; that uploads of new war-related content outnumbered anti-war content by 10-1; and that these pro-war posts now dominate TikTok’s war-related content. This has left the platform, after the ban was fully enforced, effectively frozen in time, with Russian TikTokers unaware of the new developments.
Crucially, this means that there is no content on TikTok in Russia detailing the recently uncovered massacres of civilians by Russian forces in Bucha, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities.
In the “Tracking Exposed Special Report: Content Restrictions on TikTok in Russia After the Ukraine War,” digital rights group Tracking Exposed analyzed a sample of war-related hashtags on TikTok and looked at the volume of content posted between on February 20 and April 5. Based on this sample, Tracking Exposed estimates that, before the ban was announced, 42% of war-related content was anti-war, while 58% was pro-war. After the ban, an overwhelming 93.5% of war-related content was pro-war, while only 6.5% was anti-war.
The group also found that the ban had been implemented incorrectly. Between March 7 and 24, content could still be uploaded in Russia. This led to pro-war content outnumbering anti-war content on TikTok. After the ban, ten times more pro-war content was posted for each anti-war video, compared to before the ban.
Tracking Exposed found two loopholes in TikTok’s content posting ban: one was poor implementation, and the other was the ability to upload through the web version of TikTok.
The group found that as of March 25, no new uploads were possible in Russia, and content from outside Russia is now completely banned, thus leaving pro-war content to dominate.
TikTok originally announced the ban on new uploads to protect its Russian users from Russia’s “fake news” law, which makes it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail to post anything false about the Russian military in Ukraine.
Marc Faddoul, co-director of Tracking Exposed commented in a statement: “Since the war began, TikTok’s policies in Russia have been opaque and inconsistent. In particular, the fact that the platform did not properly implement the upload ban they had announced was taken advantage of to flood the platform with pro-war narratives. Meanwhile, critics of the invasion have disappeared. Now the Russians are left with a frozen TikTok dominated by pro-war content. There will be no Russian Spring on TikTok.”
Tracking Exposed is a European non-profit organization fighting for digital rights through algorithmic research. The full report dataset, as well as a Jupyter notebook to render the graph, are available here.