Teona Tsintsadze

TikTok influencers are dancing, lip-syncing, and posing to promote Russia’s war in Ukraine

Despite TikTok’s ban on uploads in Russia, influencers are using it to spread pro-war propaganda. Others are debunking it

From the first moments of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, local TikTok users have played a pivotal role in documenting the war, offering the world a glimpse of what is happening on the front lines. TikTok has had so much influence on the war in Ukraine that President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on TikTokers to help end the war. A few weeks ago, the White House briefed top influencers about the war in Ukraine, in an effort to align their messages about the war with U.S. interests.

TikTok restricted its services in Russia in early March, citing Russia’s “anti-fake news” law, but many users are circumventing the restrictions all the same. And plenty of the platform’s one billion monthly users worldwide continue to comment and report on the war, while others are using the tool to spread related disinformation through commentary, dance challenges, and lip-syncing trends.

Here are some of the widespread trends that social media researchers have uncovered on TikTok:

1. In early March, U.S.-based media watchdog Media Matters published a report by researcher Abbie Richards identifying 180 TikTok users who had posted nearly-identical videos showing a person kneeling while holding an English-language sign that condemns “Russophobia” and invokes “info wars.” Captions typically include the hashtags #RussianLivesMatter or #RLM.

Richards notes that the video captions also include strikingly similar typographical errors, indicating that they are part of a highly coordinated effort. Some gave themselves away: In what could only have been an error, some of the video captions included Russian-language instructions, such as “You can publish, description: Russian Lives Matter #RLM.”

2. Media Matters also spotted Russian influencers on TikTok making hand gestures to form the letter “Z” while doing a viral TikTok dance. Z has become a symbol of support for Russia’s military. In a more bizarre trend, young women posed for selfies by making the Z letter with their hands, proclaiming that this is how “real women” take selfies.

3. A report by VICE showed how Russian TikTok influencers have been recruited by an anonymous Telegram channel to post videos with pro-Kremlin messaging about the invasion, in exchange for payment. Operators of the Telegram channel instructed the TikTokers, some of whom have over a million followers, to justify the attack on Ukraine by defending their own people against the government in Kyiv. This aligns with Putin’s false narrative that the Ukrainian government has systematically targeted Russian-speaking people in the ongoing conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government in the eastern Donbas region (Putin has even referred to this as a genocide).  TikTok influencer Yarra_M observed how people in dozens of these videos appear to be using the exact same script as one another, with some simply reading it from their phones.

4. Marieke Kuypers, a Dutch user who describes herself as an “unofficial TikTok fact-checker,” recently noticed TikTok users amplifying Putin’s rhetoric of justifying Ukraine’s invasion by pointing to NATO’s role in the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and its airstrikes in Kosovo in 1999. These actual events came in response to violence by Serbian forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, following years of conflict over Kosovo’s attempts to secede from Serbia. But in the videos, TikTokers act out a dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, where Ukraine refuses to stop bombing Yugoslavia in 1999 (although this never actually happened) and then in 2022 the roles are reversed, with Ukraine pleading to stop the shelling and Russia refusing to do so.

5. In the days leading up to the invasion, when Russia recognized the eastern territories of Donetsk and Luhansk (both located in the Donbas region) as independent republics, more than 1,000 Russian TikTokers started posting videos that used a mirror effect. Videos featured people fist-bumping their own reflections, pretending to be “two brothers,” Donbas and Russia, and lip-syncing to a Russian song, “Brother for Brother.” The hashtags read: “We don’t leave our own behind,” and “We’re together,” in line with the Kremlin’s misleading message that people in the Donbas need to be saved from the “Nazi” Ukrainian government and that Russia will come to their rescue. 

The videos were first spotted by reporters for the popular independent Russian news site TJournal, which is now blocked in Russia, among other media outlets featuring opinions that dissent from the Kremlin narrative. Soon other TikTokers started using the same trend and filter to mock influencers who had “sold” their videos for government propaganda.

Despite TikTok’s ban on uploads in Russia, influencers are using it to spread pro-war propaganda. Others are debunking it.

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