Russian Government Claims TikTok Deleted Young People’s Protest Prep Videos at Its Behest

Russian Government Claims TikTok Deleted Young People’s Protest Prep Videos at Its Behest
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)
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The same week recently poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was taken into police custody in Moscow, Russia’s youth and adults began preparing for unsanctioned protests that will take place across the country on Saturday, January 23. Some of this preparation has been aided by the video-sharing platform TikTok, with the hashtag #23января (“January 23”) amassing more than 150 million views on the platform, prompting the Russian state communications watchdog to issue TikTok a takedown request earlier this week.

Users under the popular hashtag—who appear to be teens and young adults—have been filming and creating snippets of advice and tongue-in-cheek videos on the app with a dissident undertone.

One viral TikTok video shows a young TikToker exuberantly explaining to her viewers how to say Russian phrases in English with an American accent. “I left my passport at my hotel”, “You are violating my human rights!” and “I’m gonna call my lawyer,” she says, placing specific emphasis on pronouncing “gonna” as “gana” in the Cyrillic transliteration added to the screen. (The video has been viewed more than 600,000 times on TikTok.) Another video displays brightly colored, typed bits of advice for those planning to take part in the protests, including, “better leave your phone at home” and “wear comfortable shoes, so you can run away.”

According to Russian state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor (RKN), TikTok has complied with some of the takedown requests. RKN has stated that TikTok deleted 38 percent of the protest-related posts the watchdog claimed were illegal. TikTok has not replied to Gizmodo’s inquiries for confirmation.

RKN additionally claimed that Instagram deleted 17 percent and YouTube deleted 50 percent of posts it deemed illegal. Regarding the Instagram posts, a Facebook company spokesperson told Gizmodo, “We’ve received requests from the local regulator to restrict access to certain content that calls for protest. Since this content doesn’t violate our Community Standards, it remains on our platform.” Facebook is not clear on how RKN came up with the number 17 percent. Speaking of the YouTube videos, Google told Gizmodo that there has been no change with the way they deal with legal notices from RKN and cited their transparency report, which has not yet addressed any new takedown requests since June 2020. Google does not know the source of the 50 percent figure either. Gizmodo has reached out to RKN for clarification on how they reached their figures.

There is some dissonance in advice, across the videos, and conflicting opinions about whether claiming to be an American could shield you from the notorious wrath of police, which have been known to violently and viciously disperse opposition rallies and protests. In June 2019, the California Independence Movement’s Louis Marinelli was detained at a march in Moscow, and quickly released, perhaps serving as inspiration for a viral video’s creator. “I have an Estonian passport,” said 17-year-old Dima, identified here by his first name for safety concerns. He plans to attend the Moscow protest. “So if police attempt to arrest me for some reason (such as smoking in a public place) I start talking English and showing them my Estonian passport. It always works,” he believes.

The mass protest action is predicted to take place in cities across Russia, from Moscow and the arctic city of Murmansk, to Vladivostok in the country’s Far East. “We urge everyone to go to the meeting. Against thieves and murderers. Against corruption and injustice. For your own future,” reads a statement on Navalny’s website.

The Russian government has been attempting to crack down on social media companies for hosting information about the planned protests that aim to highlight dissatisfaction with the current political regime under Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

“We ask you to immediately take comprehensive measures to prevent the dissemination of such illegal information on the TikTok platform,” Russian state watchdog Roskomnadzor (RKN) wrote on Wednesday. RKN’s statements claimed that this was for the protection of children and challenged “materials with calls for the social network’s underage users to participate in an illegal mass protest event,” but did not specify which event.

Russia’s first deputy interior minister, Alexander Gorovoi, declared Thursday, “We have every legal ground to hold administratively liable everyone who makes such calls in person, on the internet, or via written messages before the event actually happens.”

Over the years, TikTok’s moderation policies have drawn negative media attention. In 2019, the Guardian reported that, in leaked documents, the company had banned all criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as country-specific censorship, such as a Turkey-based ban on criticism of President Erdoğan. TikTok has since responded to such reports (and subsequent reports, and a U.S. national security probe) with apparently looser guidelines, reactive transparency statements, and a pledge to disband its China-based moderation team.

But TikTok’s international policies are still unclear. As of January 8, 2020, TikTok’s community guidelines stated, “Our global guidelines are the basis of the moderation policies TikTok’s regional and country teams localize and implement in accordance with local laws and norms.” Later that year, TikTok admitted to shadowbanning LGBTQ+ issue-related hashtags in Russian, citing the terms being “partially restricted due to relevant local laws.” Russia is known for censoring LGBTQ+ online groups under the dubious “gay propaganda” law. The latest guidelines require more guesswork, reading that it might filter activities that are “illegal in the majority of the region or world, even if the activities or goods in question are legal in the jurisdiction of posting.”

Meanwhile, the TikTok posts continue, with the backing tracks for several of the videos being witchhouse and rap by artists which, over the past few years, have been popular among younger generations more critical of the Putin regime and exude anti-regime sentiment.

“It’s a funny video, I’ve seen it a lot lately,” said 20-year-old Maria Smolyanskaya, referring to the video appearing to teach kids how to speak with a U.S. accent. “Now this information is all over TikTok. I see it on my FYP all the time, but every TikTok is different. Some people say to take a passport, and there is some advice [saying] not to do it.” Many of the videos seem like they are targeted towards first-time protestors. “I think TikTok doesn’t help me exactly because I already have experience with protests and I monitor the information myself, but it surely helps people who have never been to a protest and don’t know where to get all the information,” she added.

While Smolyanskaya is an adult, the TikTok videos and other online content have indeed reached several minors, such as Dima, just as the Kremlin has insinuated. TikTok is both accessible and important to children.

“It’s about half and half on TikTok between people who are for Navalny and people who are for Putin,” thinks TikTok user 11-year-old Masha, identified here by her first name only for her safety. “Lots of people are talking about the protests and some people are saying Putin has ordered the police to shoot everyone.” However, it is highly unlikely any children so young will be permitted to attend this protest.

Navalny returned to Moscow on the night of January 17, five months after he was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent—a type of the notorious novichok substance—allegedly smeared on his blue underwear. The near-fatal incident saw him airlifted to Germany for treatment last August.

Upon Navalny’s return he was quickly detained and on January 18 sent to Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison, saying, dramatically, in a video as he left, “You do not need to be afraid; the only thing to fear is your own fear.”

Despite his incarceration, Navalny’s incredibly social-media savvy team rapidly called for mass coordinated protests around the Russian Federation on Saturday 23. The apparent ‘death switch’ that was his arrest also saw his team releasing a nearly two-hour-long video expose on one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s exorbitant resorts on the Black Sea coast, featuring a scene where Navalny’s team of investigators sneaks an inflatable speed boat along the coast in order to launch a drone for unprecedented footage of the compound. Having garnered more than 60 million views, the video details the interior structure of the nearly $1.4 billion palace and alleges long standing government corruption.

Ahead of the January 23 protest, members of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation (FBK) have also been detained and have been facing legal repercussions since January 21, according to RFE/RL affiliate Current Time.

Matrosskaya Tishina prison is now ironically itself being termed “Navalny’s Palace” online.

RKN is notorious for attempts at cracking down on Russian social media and communication platforms, but Andrei Soldatov, who co-authored Russian internet surveillance expose “The Red Web” alongside Irina Borogan, does not think it will work this time. “I don’t think RKN would be really successful,” he said. “They know how to do things when they have time on their side, but obviously now it’s different.”

Views under the TikTok hashtag #23января are growing by millions by the hour.

Additional reporting by Marina Galperina.

Aliide Naylor is the author of The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front (I.B. Tauris, 2020).