Is TikTok’s free-speech honeymoon over in Russia?
The video-sharing platform has been a safe haven for activists and outspoken young people, but now that is changing
Since its 2018 launch in Russia, TikTok has established itself as one of the country’s least censored online spaces. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and VK are heavily monitored by the authorities, with a number of users being handed lengthy prison terms for posts deemed “extremist” or “offensive.” But, as a relatively new and unfamiliar platform, the video sharing app has largely been left alone by the authorities.
That all began to change in late August, with a video posted from the city of Chita in Siberia. Soundtracked by Billie Eilish’s hit “Bad Guy,” it showed a teenage boy inside a gilded Orthodox church. Looking over his shoulders and crossing himself, he leaned over and lit a cigarette on a church candle. “This will be the crime of the year,” said an off-camera voice.
The video was widely shared and a criminal case opened, accusing the boy of “offending the feelings of believers” — a charge carrying a sentence of up to three years in prison. After he published three online apologies, the local branch of the church appealed to authorities to drop the case.
Later that month came a second court action, in which a TikTok user was fined $250 for encouraging her followers to attend a protest in the city of Yekaterinburg.
“People being imprisoned for their speech online is hardly news for us. It happens a lot on other platforms,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, founder of the Moscow-based Digital Rights Centre. “In this sense, there is no hope for TikTok. Most likely, it will start to comply and censor everything that Russian-owned platforms already do.”
While TikTok’s free-speech honeymoon may now be over, thousands of videos are still being uploaded and viewed by young Russians every day. As such, it opens a rare window to what this demographic is thinking and talking about.
Much like Twitter or YouTube, TikTok, which has 20 million users in Russia, publishes its trending topics. Lately, protests in Belarus and the poisoning of Russia’s main opposition figure Alexey Navalny have dominated the conversation. TikTok also counts the number of views for trending topics: constitutional reform in Russia has 107 million, while a hashtag in support of a recently incarcerated governor in eastern Russia has a staggering 274 million.
This is especially remarkable considering that TikTok has an aggressive content moderation team, who in the first half of this year removed more than 104 million videos from the platform globally. Last month, reports surfaced of how TikTok specifically censors hashtags related to LGBTQ issues in countries including Jordan, Turkey and Russia.
The results of the company’s content moderation strategy can be seen in its second-ever transparency report, published on September 22. Between January 1 and June 30, moderators removed more than 700 pieces of content, in response to requests filed by national governments. Russia took the top spot, responsible for nearly 300 requests.
In recent months, TikTok, which is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, has come in for considerable regulatory scrutiny in the EU and U.S. over its collection of user data. Before a September court decision temporarily blocked the move, President Donald Trump also attempted to ban U.S. online stores from hosting the application.
But that hasn’t stopped young Russians posting.
Kiril Fedorov, a 27-year-old LGBTQ activist from Saint Petersburg, believes the chances of facing prosecution under Russia’s “gay propaganda” law are slimmer on TikTok than any other platform.
“Right now TikTok is saved by its reputation as something apolitical and unserious,” he said. “But there’s really a lot of political content there, a lot about human rights, feminism, LGBT and so on.”
Federov, who has 90,000 likes on his account, and other Russians get around the platform’s censorship tools by writing posts and hashtags using Cyrillic instead of the European alphabet, or a mix of both.
By Russian standards, Federov’s videos are extreme, including explicit jokes about gay sex and drag impersonations of prominent state officials. In one of his most popular clips, he plays out a scenario in which he runs into an ex-boyfriend in a Gulag camp after being jailed for LGBT activism.
Mainstream opposition figures have also jumped on the TikTok bandwagon, albeit begrudgingly. Alexey Navalny created an account this summer. Counterintuitively, he documented the process on YouTube, posting a video in which he said, “I’m not even sure why I’m doing this.”
Denis Kaigorodov, a 20-year-old TikToker from Tambov, central Russia, is part of an account named @fear_patriots, along with a group of local amateur comedians.
His top-performing post so far was made in June. In it, he called for voters to come out against a controversial amendment to Russia’s constitution that would allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office for life. Although thousands of young Russians flocked to the platform ahead of the polls, the amendment passed with 78% of the vote, prompting widespread allegations of electoral fraud.
Since then, Kaigorodov, who has 240,000 likes on his account, has made a series of comic videos mocking the result. In them, he accuses officials of stuffing ballots and states that members of the electorate cast repeated fraudulent votes.
“Political jokes do really well with audiences,” he explained. “People start to think you possess some kind of special courage if you’re making a joke like that in Russia.”
This reporting was supported by the Russian Language News Exchange.
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