Scores of social media influencers flooded Russian TikTok over the weekend in a coordinated effort to urge young people against attending rallies in support of jailed politician Alexey Navalny.
In the lead up to protests in over 100 cities on Saturday, influencers with up to four million subscribers on the video sharing platform told their followers they could end up in jail for taking part in the demonstrations.
“I don’t think anyone wants to end up in jail so guys, take care of yourselves and your health and think about the consequences,” warned @_Vira__ in a video posted to her more than four million followers on TikTok.
In another post, user xlazhii reminded his 188,000 followers that Navalny’s own children go to university outside of Russia. “So why should Russia’s youth be coming out for that, what is the point?”
Both users have since deleted the clips.
Many of the influencers revealed a coordinated and sometimes clumsy attempt to harness TikTok’s immense popularity in Russia against the opposition figure. A number of influencers and marketing managers said that anonymous social media accounts were soliciting paid, anti-Navalny videos.
Boris Kantorovich, deputy commercial director at the influencer marketing firm Author’s Media in Moscow, wrote about a coordinated effort by TikTokers who tried to dissuade people from attending the protests. Kantorovich attached screenshots for an advertising call posted on popular marketing forums on January 24 and noted that “all of them repeat the same message.” The call outlined a script which can be heard in the dozens of videos posted across TikTok the same day. The ad promised users with over 20,000 subscribers about $25 for each post.
Russian authorities took a number of measures online to limit attendance. The state censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, forced social networks like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok to remove event pages and posts about the protests.
While posts were largely meant to target younger Russians, a group where Navalny enjoys his highest approval numbers, it’s not clear how much of a dent the paid videos made against the flood of support for the opposition leader.
Tens of thousands of Russians protested over the weekend from Moscow to remote regions like Yakutsk, where Navalny supporters rallied in minus-60 Fahrenheit weather. The mass gatherings followed Navalny’s return to Russia on January 17, when he was arrested on arrival for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from 2014. The leader had been undergoing treatment in Berlin since last August after he was exposed to the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent. Western officials have described his poisoning as an assassination attempt by the Russian state, a charge denied by the Kremlin.
Over 3,800 people were arrested in Saturday’s protests, according to OVD-Info, an activist group that monitors political arrests.
Following media reports about the paid posts, dozens of pro-Navalny TikTokers rallied around the politician, instructing their followers to unsubscribe from accounts which had posted warnings about the protests.
“Do you know how much you cost? 2,000 rubles, yea…You can find out who all these paid-for bloggers are by checking out this hashtag,” said user @ideniza, pointing to #norevolution to her 88,500 followers.
TikTok, which has over 20 million subscribers in Russia, had been largely left untouched by authorities, in sharp contrast to other online spaces which are both heavily censored and subject to paid, pro-government campaigns. Authorities have been slow to adapt to the new platform, which launched in Russia in 2018 and has become a safe haven for activists and outspoken young people.
That began to change in August last year when a criminal case was opened against an underage TikTok user in Chita in Siberia for “offending the feelings of believers.” The teenager had posted a video of himself lighting a cigarette with a church candle.