Video-sharing network TikTok can hardly be expected to promote democracy since its owner, ByteDance, is a Chinese state-owned enterprise. Even though the platform only burst onto the social media scene in the fall of 2016, the media has cited it for multiple instances of censorship and a potential threat to national security in the West. In Russia, however, TikTok becomes a pro-democratic tool for the younger generation. Out of the reported 29.5 million platform users in 2021, young people ages 13 to 24 comprise 76% of all Russian TikTok users. Recent polls indicate this demographic is also increasingly critical of the Putin regime. They consume their news primarily through social media platforms, allowing them to circumvent Russian propaganda that dominates the country's TV broadcasting networks. And their distrust of traditional news sources is also on the rise.
Although these polls cover only youth within voting age, aged 18-24, it is likely that teens, aged 13-17, share the same, if not a greater distrust of traditional media. Even though these teens cannot yet vote or even protest without parental consent, their political opinions demand to be heard. The imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, now on hunger strike, triggered protests in Russia which were amplified by the voices of Russian youth on TikTok.
The first major protest occurred earlier this year on January 23 and widely covered on TikTok with the tag #23января (January 23), which garnered more than 660M views highlighting police brutality that occurred during the protest. One such post contradicted a TV report that the police were distributing cookies during the Moscow protest with images of the beatings that were 'distributed' instead. The post mocks the TV propaganda and gives its viewers one more reason not to trust government-sponsored news.
Distrust of the government is a common theme among Russian TikTok users. Today, more than 40 thousand videos are using the slogan: "to be against the government does not mean to be against the motherland," to which actions such as swapping out Putin's portrait for Navalny's on school walls may be credited. And it is not only about distrusting the government and trusting the opposition; there is also a distrust of Russian citizenship.
Some TikTokers cut their identity documents or pretended to do so, while others have thrown them out. Furthermore, TikTok protest carries no risk of illegality and cannot be treated as actual renunciation of citizenship since any destroyed papers are potentially copies or forgeries. However, they are nonetheless symbolic gestures of TikTokers distancing themselves from the Russian state, a state that not only fails to protect its citizens but punishes them if they dare to speak out.
Putin's Palace, the popular Navalny documentary film, influenced Russian TikTokers considerably. The vast majority of Russian youth, aged 18-24, heard at least something about it and believed its validity or at least its potential accuracy. Apart from giving its viewers more ammunition for protest, Putin's Palace gave rise to TikTok chatter and amplification. For instance, the documentary’s assertions that Putin’s palace in southern Russia houses spaces for an ice rink, casino, and aqua disco, gathered more than 150M views utilizing the tag аквадискотека (aqua disco party). The slogan often accompanies the tagged posts, "there has been an aqua disco party for a quarter-century in the Palace," which has not only become a meme but an implication that Putin's regime has always been corrupt and exploits its power for personal gains of a few.
Putin's regime responded to the TikTok posts with its usual censorship and propaganda tools. However, what is unusual is how ineffective it was. The government censor, Roskomnadzor, claimed TikTok deleted 38% of protesting posts. These numbers indicate not only that its efforts are successful less than half of the time, but they are also dubious. TikTok neither confirmed nor denied the 38% figure, but Roskomnadzor also claimed that YouTube deleted 50% of videos the censor deemed illegal. Google openly refuted this number, saying, “there have not been any new takedown requests since June 2020.”
On the propaganda side, the pro-Putin position is prevalent on the platform as tags #запутина (for Putin), and #противнавального (against Navalny) gathered 265.4M and 137.9M views respectively. However, unlike anti-Putin tags, there are significantly less unique views. Most of the comments are public use photos from the Internet and text captions, which raises doubts their videos were posted by actual people rather than bots. Still, even pro-Putin messages from actual people do not necessarily reflect their position, as many TikTokers were reportedly paid to advertise anti-Navalny messages.
As for the pro-Putin content, the videos attempt to promote what Russian propaganda is known for fear and misinformation. For instance, some posts intimidated the protestors with possible criminal cases that will affect their future, while others even claimed that the parliament adopted a law allowing police to open fire to kill protestors (no such law exists). Nevertheless, according to Foreign Affairs journalist Katie Marie Davies, Putin's regime is doomed to fail in TikTok; there are many reasons why, but the primary reason goes beyond the platform. Simply put, Putin is failing to create a vision of the future that wins over today's youth. His propaganda lives in the past, whereas the president has been unable to offer young people anything other than an outdated and reactionary worldview.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Russian TikTok will continue as a pro-democratic forum in the long term. Nothing prevents the TikTok administration from silently censoring or suppressing pro-democratic Russians. It may be happening already happening, according to unconfirmed information. And yet, this story shows something that can't be censored: a generational rift between Russian youth and Putin's government. A rift that will likely become more apparent in the years to come, giving hope that Russian voices will someday be free.
Veronika Velch is a Senior Fellow for National Security at the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. She is also an Advocacy Director at The Office of Juleanna Glover. She is a communications expert with extensive experience in international human rights work and political campaigns. Born in Ukraine, where she earned a Ph.D. in International Relations, Veronika has broad knowledge of Ukrainian and Russian politics. At the Office of Juleanna Glover, she focuses on tech clients, national security, and privacy issues and directs the company's human rights work. Before she moved to the U.S., Veronika led communications efforts for an organization created to advance fair election practices in Ukraine. She is co-founder of a Ukrainian national initiative, "Follow the Money," that advocates for political finance reform.
Veronika has an M.A in Advocacy in the Global Environment from The George Washington University and is the recipient of the Mark and Debbie Kennedy Frontiers of Freedom Award for international human rights advocacy. She is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian.