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A Russian user looks inside TikTok’s propaganda-filled digital bubble

Authoritarian Tech is a weekly newsletter tracking how people in power are abusing technology and what it means for the rest of us. Also in this edition: Mexican court axes biometric mobile registration scheme; Russia’s quiet cyber war

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In early March, as Russia’s war in Ukraine intensified, the country’s state regulator blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Soon the last remaining global social media platform in the country, TikTok, decided to take action. On March 6, the company announced plans to “suspend livestreaming and new content to our video service in Russia,” citing the Kremlin’s law criminalizing “fake news” about the war in Ukraine.

The decision did not shut the platform down completely, but it effectively stopped the clock on March 6, and cut Russian users off from seeing any content that had been posted by accounts based outside of the country. Within a few days, Russian creators soon found themselves in a bubble dominated by pro-war content, with war propaganda videos becoming more and more popular. This is significant in Russia, where the platform is hugely popular — it had 29 million users as of 2021.

“Russians didn’t expect it to be such a big deal. We still had a Russian TikTok and it wasn’t such a huge loss that now we couldn’t see dances or cooking videos,” said Natalia, a 25-year-old videomaker from St. Petersburg whose TikTok channel, ironcurtainlyf, documents life in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. We are withholding Natalia’s last name for safety reasons.

Natalia has two phones: a Russian one and a British one. Although she is physically in Russia, she is able to make videos in English and post them using her British account and phone. She still uses her Russian account to check her timeline.

She described for me how her experience on Russian TikTok has changed since the war began. Before the ban, her “For You” page, which shows videos promoted by TikTok’s algorithm, showed “cats and makeup and just kind of normal stuff.” With the ban, things quickly changed. “Once that [was] cut off, immediately I started getting all this propaganda,” she told me.

TikTok’s decision seems to have created optimal conditions for pro-war voices on the platform, who were able to use its algorithm to continuously promote their content, without needing to compete with new videos. Independent research has shown that TikTok’s systems are uniquely well-built for algorithmic optimization, i.e. causing videos to go viral. A report by Tracking Exposed, an EU-based technical group that studies social media platforms’ algorithms, revealed that the platform rolled out its Russia content ban in a way that might actually benefit the Kremlin, by silencing anti-war and other alternative voices, while still allowing creators to boost their content. After the ban, the proportion of pro-war content circulating on the platform in Russia spiked — researchers found that 93.5% of war-related content used a pro-war hashtag.

The platform said it made the decision to protect its users from potential persecution. In official statements, TikTok cited concern that videos coming out of Russia would trigger state action against users based on the country’s “anti-fake news” law that makes spreading “false information” about the military punishable by up to 15 years in jail. But in a country where state propaganda permeates every layer of life — from kindergartens to show business —  TikTok’s decision only exacerbated the distorted picture of the war in Ukraine painted by the authorities.

Natalia’s videos have attracted over 31,000 followers. Among clips of her cat and snapshots of her daily life, she also posts bite-sized explainers about the effects of government repression and the ways in which Russians are protesting the war — like this one in which she describes the silent protest of Alexandra Skochilenko, who replaced pricetags in her local supermarkets with facts about the invasion, casualties and destruction that the war has inflicted on people and infrastructure.

One of her subscribers asked her in the comments: “How are you not afraid?” Her response was: “I think at some point you just get used to the feeling so much that it stops bothering you.” 

At first, the audience was suspicious of her, Natalia said, because she “appeared out of nowhere” and spoke good English. But soon enough she was getting questions from her subscribers, who reached out to check whether the things they were seeing about Russia on TV were true. Followers seem to appreciate her efforts to shed light on what’s happening, despite the serious risks.

“Am I afraid to get arrested? Yeah, absolutely. I am very paranoid about it. The other day, a courier came to my door, like with food delivery, but he was wearing a proper camel jacket. My heart sank for a second because I did think there was real police at my door,” Natalia told me.

The decision made by TikTok to limit its service rather than withdraw completely is “not unprecedented,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now. But she questioned the company’s true motives in making the change. 

“It doesn’t seem like their concern was for the users…it seems like they were more concerned with their own potential liability or reputation,” she said. “TikTok [claims] that they are independent, but…we have seen them implementing censorship of pro-opposition content, protests-related content in Russia, anti-government content. This seems to be more in line with them wanting to follow what [the] government in Russia is asking them to do.” This would stand to reason, especially given the fate of other major foreign platforms that Russian authorities have blocked altogether.

Despite tangible risks, Natalia is not planning to leave Russia or stop making political TikToks. 

“I think it’s really important for the West to see that people are trying to put up a fight here. People get arrested every single day and they still support Ukraine and they still support this idea that one day Russia will be this beautiful country that we all wanted to be for the past god knows how many years. And by cutting us off from all the cultural aspects, you know, like film festivals or music festivals or banning our books and our users in, in other countries, you are actually kind of helping the Russian propaganda to close this iron curtain even faster and make Russians believe that, yes, the West hates us.”

IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS By Erica Hellerstein

For months, the threat of cyberwarfare has loomed over Russia’s war in Ukraine. As we previously reported, cybersecurity experts were bracing for the possibility of wide-scale digital disruption from Russia’s legions of hackers in the days after the invasion. Since then, headlines about cyberwar have largely taken a back seat to news about the war on the ground. But a new study by Microsoft found that Russian hackers have been quietly conducting cyberattacks alongside the country’s military activities, routinely deploying digital disruptions after attacks on the ground. The research challenges previous assumptions about the role of cyberattacks in Russia’s war.

Mexico’s Supreme Court struck down a controversial law requiring all mobile phone users to register their personal information and biometric data, including fingerprints and eye scans, with a registry managed by the country’s telecommunications regulator. Supporters heralded the proposal, which passed in April 2021, as a crime-fighting tool that would help authorities crack down on extortions and kidnappings carried out over the phone. Critics said it raised significant privacy and human rights concerns in a country with a history of government surveillance of journalists and human rights activists. I spoke to some of the law’s opponents after it passed last year. You can read more about it here
Vietnam is poised to roll out new social media rules that will force platforms to take down content the government deems illegal within 24 hours of notification and immediately remove content found to “harm” national security. According to Reuters, the regulations “will cement Vietnam as one of the world’s most stringent regimes for social media firms and will strengthen the ruling Communist Party’s hand as it cracks down on “anti-state” activity.” Alongside human rights defenders, multiple journalists in Vietnam have been prosecuted for theirreporting on Facebook and YouTube.

WHAT WE’RE READING: MUSK MANIA

  • Last week’s newsletter came the day after news broke of Elon Musk’s $44 billion Twitter buyout. Since then, we have been wondering what changes will come to the platform with Musk at the helm, and how they could affect users around the world. For Coda, Ellery Roberts Biddle explored the global ramifications of Musk’s free speech absolutism in countries where online hate speech regularly translates into real-world violence. Writing for The Conversation, Anjana Susaria looked at the ways Musk’s vision of a rules-free Twitter could make disinformation worse. 
  • On the other hand, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen expressed cautious optimism about the Musk takeover, citing his commitment to transparency and eliminating bot activity on the platform.
  • Musk’s Twitter acquisition is a Gilded Age throwback, Shira Ovide argued in her technology newsletter for The New York Times. “The closest comparison to this might be the 19th-century newspaper barons like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and the fictional Charles Foster Kane, who used their papers to pursue their personal agendas, sensationalize world events and harass their enemies,” she wrote.

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