On 6 February, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it was launching its latest social media foray: a dedicated TikTok channel. In a statement, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the launch had been planned “for ages”, but admitted the timing was not by chance — recent events had “sped up” the process. “This isn’t about keeping up with a trend,” she said. “This is about information work.”
The events in question were not disclosed, but were soon made abundantly clear by the page’s first posts, all of which focused on ridiculing just one man: opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
It is thanks to Navalny that TikTok has gained a sudden new prominence in Russia’s corridors of power. When opposition protesters across the country took to the streets in mid-January to rally against Navalny’s imprisonment (ostensibly for parole violations, despite being comatose in Germany at the time), it was TikTok that they used to encourage others to join them. Memes mocking the police and politically-charged make-up tutorials soon became a show of resistance. By the end of February, the site had become the fourth most popular social media platform in Russia, overtaking Facebook.
It’s no surprise then that officials wanted their voice on the platform too. But that has so far taken the form of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blowing kisses, and, courtesy of a separate account from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, firefighters balancing their body weight on axes. They videos are clunky, badly-edited, and out-of-date. In fact, most of the time, they’re just embarrassing.
This is not a purely governmental problem. Plenty of brands and organisations have jumped on TikTok trends, but there are only a handful that don’t make your toes curl. Even Navalny’s own TikTok posts have the faint air of your millennial uncle trying to stay relevant.
What is surprising, however, is how the Russian government failed so laughably on TikTok when they wrote the playbook for much of the political social media wrangling we see today — particularly on Facebook and Twitter.
In 2021, Russia is far from being the only government to use troll farms, misinformation, or online astroturfing (where fake users and groups are manipulated to make it appear that something has widespread grassroots support) — India, the Philippines, and Poland, are among 30 countries employing these methods. But Russian officials were certainly among the first to embrace these tactics on a large, systematic, scale, pushing the power of social media into the global spotlight as a way of influencing public opinion.
They were particularly effective on the world stage. While other governments stuck to stuffy language and public announcements for their official social media channels, the Russian government carved out an internet personality of pithy Facebook comebacks and pointed sub-tweets. Entire newspaper articles were written about tweets from the Russian Embassy in London, who reacted to souring relationships amid the Skripal scandal with jokes about James Bond. Their acid sarcasm snagged Russian government accounts a big following and viral notoriety.
It would be too easy to call the Russian government out of touch, especially when these early experiments with social media were so pioneering. Woeful attempts at TikTok humour aside, what is stopping its information warriors from reaching a new audience?
It’s been argued that Gen Z are much less likely to fall for misinformation, but is this the whole truth? Not exactly. While younger and more digital-savvy users may dismiss disinformation as something shared by Facebook Boomers, TikTok has its own problem with fake news. In fact, certain conspiracy theories have a stronger following on the app than on any other platform (among the most notable are those who believe that deaf-blind activist Helen Keller did not exist.)
There’s also the question of online reach. One of the trends which has made the latest wave of opposition rallies so meaningful is the diversity of protesters they have attracted, many of whom are joining demonstrations for the very first time. While some are incensed by Navalny’s arrest, many more are unhappy with large-scale corruption, or the Kremlin’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. If the Russian government wants to pacify all of these protesters, then they must reach a whole range of online groups.
Again, this is arguably harder on TikTok than on other platforms. All social media sites suffer from the “echo chamber” effect, where users are less likely to see content from people with opposing views. But TikTok’s vertical front page, where users are presented with one video after another based on their algorithmic preferences takes this even further: the app has even admitted to creating its own “filter bubbles”. It is unlikely that pro-Kremlin material will appear on the homepage of an opposition-leaning TikToker — and to reach different groups of protesters, officials would not just have to infiltrate one echo chamber, but several.
But again, this has never posed a previous challenge to the Russian government’s information warriors, who go beyond using one official account. The benefit of having numerous accounts (fake or otherwise) is that there’s no limit to the number of different views you can espouse. Different investigations have found co-ordinated inauthentic online activity linked to the Russian government in groups across the political spectrum, from anti-vax groups to Black Lives Matter Facebook pages.
On a larger scale, Russian officials have also targeted multiple online groups by using different digital platforms. While the English-language service of Russia Today tends to skew to the right — highlighting pieces that champion free speech, “anti-wokeness”, military, and defence-led stories — other news channels controlled indirectly by the Kremlin (such as content company Redfish) has a heavy left-wing slant, focusing on issues such as police brutality, decolonisation, and anti-racism.
What is clear looking at past victories, however, is that the Kremlin’s social media campaigning has been far more successful internationally than it has been at home.
That is because their most fruitful tactics are not about convincing or winning people over to a particular cause, but about questioning or obscuring the words of others, injecting certain narratives with a sense of creeping doubt.
When Russia was implicated in the crash of Malaysian Airways Flight in 2014, for example — accused of giving missiles to separatist rebels in Ukraine that eventually brought down the plane — Russian government news outlets began posting multiple alternative theories: that a Ukrainian fighter jet had been spotted in the area, that there was no missile launch at all, or if there was one, then it had come from Ukrainian troops. These stories were later proven to be false, but this was unimportant. Ultimately, Kremlin-backed platforms didn’t need to prove outright that one of those scenarios actually happened. It was enough to sew general mistrust and cynicism, and make people doubt that official investigators were unable or unwilling to see the whole picture. It doesn’t matter if their readers abroad don’t become Kremlin fanatics, only that they remain uncertain enough not to be won over by Russia’s rivals on the international stage.
Domestically, the Russian government is in a different position. It is not enough to simply sow online discontent, because ultimately, they are the ones in power
The task of sewing general mistrust was often made easier because the obfuscation targeted groups who were already marginalised or disconnected from mainstream narratives: anti-racism advocates, conspiracy theorists, the underemployed, and disillusioned. Quite simply, it is easy to reach out to those who are already unhappy and reiterate the world’s woes.
Domestically, however, the Russian government is in a different position. It is not enough to simply sow online discontent, because ultimately, they are the ones in power. Suddenly, a winning social media presence is no longer just about the comeback. They must be able to offer a vision of the future that will win over younger voters, and that is where their social media messaging falls short. Working to win support online outright is a very difficult and very different task, especially when facing a generation that is already sceptical of the government. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ TikTok account is a very literal example that it is far easier to attack than to create.
It’s more than likely that the Russian government will be using some of their tried and tested tactics on TikTok to ferment uncertainty among those who were already unsure about the opposition movement. TikTok’s video format, where most clips consist of at least one person talking into the camera, may make it harder to create fake accounts, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
There’s always the option of simply paying creators to support the cause. In one such example, before Navalny’s return to Russia, a number of influencers posted incredibly similar videos on Instagram claiming that the activist’s return to the country would trigger a new wave of Western sanctions.
On a more sophisticated level, deepfake technology is improving rapidly, and could come into play in the foreseeable future. But easier and more accessible get-arounds, like picture slideshows or stock video clips will probably prove to be much more useful tools. After all, all you need to get your message to millions is one badly-edited picture slideshow to be picked up and shared by the right person.
Of course, being in power does have other advantages. Russia’s next most likely move will simply be to limit the reach of unfriendly TikTok posts and, if that doesn’t work, suppress the app itself. TikTok users in particular are at the mercy of the app’s algorithms, and the company behind the platform, the Chinese-owned ByteDance, has no ethical qualms about shadow banning or limiting certain users or videos. They’ve previously admitted to suppressing videos by disabled, fat or LGBTQ+ creators under the guise of tackling cyberbullying.
Rustem Bogdanov, whose company provides TikTok marketing for brands and creators, claimed during a chat on Clubhouse that the app had already come to an agreement with Russian media watchdog Roskommnadzor. He told Telegram channel Netsifrovaya Ekonomika that the platform was filtering content and appeared to stop promoting anti-Kremlin content after it had racked up a certain number of views. While these stories haven’t been confirmed yet, shadow banning, rather than blocking outright, would be a very natural path for the Kremlin to take.
Most importantly, these tactics may be enough to keep a lid on the online sphere — at least during the most recent wave of protests, which have already begun to fizzle out. But both in the digital and the offline world, the Russian government has already strayed into a new era — where gaining a massive following means creating something unique and engaging with your followers, rather than shutting them down. In 2021, we are all content creators. They too must have something better to offer.