Skip to main content
  • Share to or

The next political frontier Russian officials are beginning to experiment with TikTok, but the learning curve is steep

Source: Meduza
Rex / Vida Press

Three years ago, the Chinese company ByteDance released an online platform for sharing short videos. It was a familiar enough idea, but somehow the service — called TikTok — took off and now boasts more than half a billion users around the world. The rapidly growing audience first attracted advertisers before drawing an even more predatory species: politicians. In this story, Meduza looks at how the Russian authorities have caught TikTok’s scent and tried to use the network to make inroads with young people, often without success.

The Chinese service TikTok is gaining popularity fast in Russia, where the monthly user base jumped from 8 million in May 2019 to 18 million by January 2020, according to the network’s own data.

As TikTok’s audience has exploded, the service has started integrated advertisements. For example, last year the Russian food retailer “Magnit” and American multinational corporation “Pepsi” launched a joint dance challenge that reportedly attracted more than 100 million views using the hashtag “#танцуйвстилепепси” (#DancePepsiStyle). Later, the website “Avito” (a Russian portal similar to Craigslist) launched an advertising campaign on TikTok that gained more than 1 billion views. Despite allegations that these figures are wildly exaggerated, the grand claims about audience reach have started catching politicians’ attention. 

The service does not allow direct political promotions. “We are committed to maintaining a relaxed and positive atmosphere at TikTok, which is why we decided not to allow political advertising. Any paid advertisement must comply with the platform’s standards. In our opinion, political advertising by its very definition is inconsistent with the spirit of TikTok,” a representative for the service told Meduza. The network bans any promotions that support or attack any candidate, current political leader, or political party. TikTok also prohibits “propagandistic advertising, campaign ads, and advertisements that express a certain position about a social issue at the federal, state, or local levels.” The service doesn’t forbid users from posting political content, but it refuses to run any advertisements that address political issues.

It’s a video-sharing service originally developed by the Chinese firm ByteDance under the name “Douyin” in 2016. A year later, the service was repackaged for export as “TikTok” and made available on iOS and Android. Though the software is nearly identical, separate servers power Douyin and TikTok, as required by Chinese law.

TikTok has quickly developed into a generator and repository of fast-paced, mashup nonsense, where predominantly younger people turn for amusing content like montages synchronized to popular music.

TikTok’s advertising system directs users to trending videos that match their interests. The network’s selection algorithms remain a secret, though many users regularly tag their videos with hashtags they hope will fool the platform’s AI into promoting their content. 

TikTok’s interface is currently localized for 38 different languages. The combined user base for Douyin and TikTok is reportedly more than 500 million people, 300 million of whom are in China. Russian-speakers make up about 4 percent of the total audience. In 2017, the service grew especially rapidly after acquiring and integrating the lip-syncing platform “” 

As of late 2019, roughly 60 percent of TikTok’s user base was between the ages of 16 and 24. TikTok’s audience in Russia is even younger: 76 percent of the user base (about 13.6 million people) was between the ages of 13 and 24. In September 2019, ByteDance opened its first office in Russia.

The politicians are here

“As far as I know, a number of organizations advising current leaders and politicians are starting to work on this platform. It’s gotten to the point that they’re now in contact with its owners: some political consultants have already traveled to China to meet with TikTok’s top management to discuss promising formats for future collaborations,” says Ruslan Modin, a managing partner at the “Progress-Communications” Strategic Consulting Center. 

The best-known example of a major Russian politician featured on TikTok is a series of videos about different social issues involving Moscow regional Governor Andrey Vorobyov. The videos appeared on local TV personality Arina Rostovskaya’s TikTok account. One clip (embedded below) shows Rostovskaya watching footage of Vorobyov showering several elderly women with attention. After fawning over the spectacle, Rostovskaya then rises from her couch and wanders off to hug an older woman who is presumably her grandmother. In another video, Rostovskaya celebrates the governor for delivering flowers to a woman recovering from heart surgery at a Moscow hospital.

Alexey Kaklyugin, the general director of the TV network 360 (where Rostovskaya works), says the channel published these videos on its own initiative “in an attempt to familiarize a young audience with news from around the Moscow region,” arguing that Governor Vorobyov is merely one of the area’s top “newsmakers.” The videos never really caught on, however, attracting about 450,000 views in total.

Meduza also found two TikTok accounts devoted to promoting Russia’s Communist Party (KPRF): @kprfn and @kprfoffical. Both channels were created in early 2020. The party’s press office did not respond to questions about this activity on TikTok. The former account, @kprfn, has shared more than 90 videos featuring speeches by different KPRF members, but most of the content has attracted only a few hundred views. With 67,000 views, the channel’s most popular video is an excerpt from a speech by KPRF member Maxim Shevchenko where he criticizes the government’s federal subsidies to families with multiple children. The next most popular post, with more than 50,000 views, is footage from a speech by State Duma deputy Nikolai Kolomeitsev about state assistance paid to “the children of war.” Both channels have relatively few subscribers (about 6,000 combined).

There are also TikTok accounts for several Russian politicians, like LDPR’s Boris Chernyshov (@chernyshovone), which shares videos with irresistible content like workplace karaoke (embedded below). Chernyshev told Meduza that he didn’t create the TikTok channel, but he’s aware of its existence. 

“This social network is just unbelievably popular among our youths and it needs to be studied carefully. There need to be at least a few dissertations written about it. The younger generation goes on this social network ‘for a minute’ just to scroll through their feeds, and they’re still scrolling, hours later. It’s really very interesting in itself,” says Chernyshev, who admits that he, too, has occasionally “fallen under this network’s spell.” He says he also watches political content on TikTok and he plans to use the platform in the future for his own political aims. At the moment, however, he says he hasn't had time to experiment with this. After being contacted by Meduza, Chernyshev published a new video to @chernyshovone, saying that he’d asked his friends for the account’s password and was now rejoining his fans virtually. (In the video, he's wearing a medical protective mask.)

There are multiple TikTok accounts devoted to opposition politician Alexey Navalny, like @navalnynews and @navalnyaleksey, but they only post excerpts from Navalny’s videos on YouTube. On Twitter, Navalny himself has indicated that he doesn’t take TikTok very seriously.

One of Russia’s most active political figures on TikTok turns out to be the writer and singer Aksinya Guryanova (@aksiniag13), a member of Russia’s Social Reforms Party and a self-avowed right-wing admirer of Marine Le Pen. In 2018, Guryanova ran for governor in the Kemerovo region. She’s posted more than 200 videos on TikTok and the hashtag #аксиньягурьянова (#AksinyaGuryanova) has attracted more than 4.4 million views. Some of her most popular videos feature her sitting in her car, criticizing Vladimir Putin’s statements about nationalism and pride in Russian weapons

TikTok appears to be Guryanova’s main public platform — she’s virtually invisible on all other social media, except Facebook. For example, her official YouTube channel has a little more than a dozen videos and she hasn’t tweeted since 2013.

“Our politicians underestimate TikTok. A lot of them have a look, they see entertainment content, and from there they draw the wrong conclusions about this network. The app only shows me the content I find interesting because TikTok analyzes your preferences while you’re using it and offers tailored recommendations,” Guryanova told Meduza

She says TikTok has a wide reach and an interesting audience. “It’s a mistake to assume that it’s just teenagers here. The people on TikTok aren’t any less engaged than on other social networks. They’re interested in politics and they comment on political videos. Also, with TikTok, you’re not just writing obtuse political treatises; you get the chance to show that you’re an ordinary person. You can smile as your favorite tune plays or even joke around. We like to think that a politician is made of stone without any emotions. But we’re all just people, after all! I now consider TikTok to be one of the most effective social networks for communicating with an audience. I’m impressed that they don’t have any political advertising. They don’t need it. Speak your piece, do what you’re gonna do, and record your videos. Those who need to will hear you,” says Guryanova.

Among Russia’s government agencies, only the Rostov region’s Health Ministry has shown much interest in TikTok, so far. In late February, the office announced a state procurement contract for the services of “creating an account on the social network TikTok” to host a video blog devoted to the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS. The contract states that the TikTok account’s main purpose is to educate target groups as well as the local population about how to protect against infection, the real possibility of contracting HIV, and Hepatitis B and C coinfection, as well as reduce the stigma associated with HIV and the discrimination HIV-positive people face in society. 

“I think there will be a trend by 2021 for new political leaders and new political forces to go beyond the boundaries of traditional methods for campaigning and spreading information. For example, there’s the ‘Leaders of Russia: Politics’ competition — meaning, there’s a demand for new politicians and there are a lot of young people who want to venture into public affairs,” says Alexander Malkevich, the chairman of the Russian Civic Chamber’s Commission for the Development of Information Society, Media, and Mass Communications. “I think we’ll be able to assess TikTok’s political potential after the next State Duma elections if any of the candidates dare to bet on it. I believe that now’s the perfect time for breakthroughs, experimentation, failures, and insane price tags from SMM [Social Media Marketing] professionals who will draw beautiful graphs with pretty numbers about reach on TikTok before ‘milking’ their clients.”

Consultant Ruslan Modin says TikTok’s value isn’t oversold, but he stresses that politicians trying to utilize the service face several constraints. “For starters, most politicians don’t really budget for this audience, which is mainly teens over the age of 14. Of course, in a few years, these people will be voters, ages 18 to 20, but even this demographic isn’t a target audience for most of our clients. To put it mildly, they’re usually looking for people older than 40. Second, there’s the issue of regional penetration. According to some data, most TikTok users in Russia are people in the country’s southern regions and North Caucasus. For regional politicians developing their careers in these republics, I think now’s the perfect time to get on TikTok and explore the possible formats for establishing a presence there,” says Modin.

Campaigning and propaganda

Though few Russian politicians have official TikTok accounts, a closer examination of the network’s Russian sphere reveals that there’s still plenty of politicized content. TikTok videos tagged #политика (#politics) and #путин (#Putin) have attracted more than 92.6 million and 491.3 million views, respectively. Many Russian users’ videos feature serious discussions of the country’s political situation and future. You can even find criticisms of the Putin administration’s economic policies expressed in dance. The most popular political videos use humor when broaching politics, telling jokes about “phantom voters” at the polls or riffing on amusing statements by politicians (like this video, which has more than 4 million views, showing a young man celebrating Putin’s remarks from April 2013, when the president recited a popular saying: “You can’t drink all the vodka, but you ought to try”). 

Hashtags associated with Russia’s now-postponed constitutional amendments draw smaller crowds: 22 million views for #конституция (#constitution) and 2.2 million views for #конституциярф (#ConstitutionRF). Scrolling through the few substantive videos on TikTok about the amendments, you get the impression that Russia’s nationwide plebiscite (which could prolong Vladimir Putin’s presidency to 2036 and restructure the country’s entire political system) doesn’t matter much to the platform’s users. 

Family life has proved to be particularly popular with Russians on TikTok. Videos tagged #материнскийкапитал (#MaternitySubsidies) have attracted 11.9 million views. TikTok users in Russia share a lot of videos about maternity, some perfectly innocent and sincere and others with a clear campaign message, like proposals to amend the constitution to ban abortion. It’s impossible to say unequivocally that this content is being promoted artificially, but the accounts posting some of these videos look very much like bots, with just a few uploads, always about the same subject. One of the accounts Meduza found is even named @bot_naoborot.tema_abort.

According to TikTok, as of January 2020, the network’s audience in Russia was watching 20 billion videos a month. Judging by the statistics displayed for Russian politicians’ accounts and political hashtags, political content grabs no more than 1 percent of all Russian TikTok traffic. Just a handful of videos draw millions of views, while content with political overtones attracts only a few hundred thousand views when all the right circumstances converge.

“There isn’t much political content on TikTok because politicians still haven’t developed a taste for this audience-engagement channel. I think they’ll certainly show up eventually because that’s what always happens with all delivery channels: new media, social networks, messengers. Teenagers and young people break everything in, and then the adults show up and try to wrap their fingers around it,” says Alexander Malkevich. “Of course, TikTok is quite a challenge right now because the audience there is very young and they just want to have fun. In part, the platform even positions itself as a politics-free zone and not everyone understands yet how they’re supposed to get traction with anything political. That said, maybe specialists will teach politicians to be the cheerful and entertaining figures the youth demand. Again, though, not everybody is cut out for this — for dancing and clowning around. But whoever pulls it off is going to win over this audience.”

Artificial intelligence with manual control

In addition to the artificial intelligence TikTok uses to recommend videos, the network also employs moderators who verify that videos comply with the company’s terms of service and block anything that doesn’t. 

TikTok’s terms of service and community guidelines do not mention anything that applies specifically to political content. The network’s rules are pretty standard, prohibiting the intimidation or harassment of other users and banning the propagation of sexually explicit material, violence, or discrimination based on race, gender, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, or age.

But one of the political strategists who spoke to Meduza, who is himself an active TikTok user, says the network deliberately suppresses traffic to political content. “I’ve never seen political videos in the ‘recommended’ category and it shows in these videos’ view counts. If a user has both political and entertainment videos, the former content always gets far fewer views,” another active TikTok user told Meduza.

Citing its own source, the Telegram channel Baza previously reported that TikTok has a “strict stop-list” in the North Caucasus when it comes to anything that might be interpreted as separatism. “For example, a video tagged ‘The Caucasus is power!’ or ‘Akhmat is power!’ recorded by some bearded young man rarely gets more than 100 or 300 views. They don’t necessarily ban a video like that — it just won’t go anywhere,” says Baza, which also reported that “you can’t joke about Vladimir Putin, and politics isn’t welcome, generally speaking.”

Ruslan Modin says TikTok administrators really do devote significant attention to filtering political content. “The network faces a high risk of publications linked to separatism and ethnic or religious hatred flooding in. I think this is because the user base is very diverse with people from totally different regions who are also very young, many of whom aren’t yet adults. People creating content for adolescents sometimes cross the line. We have yet to have any problems with distributing political content on TikTok, but I predict that pushing through political stuff won’t be easy in the future,” says Modin. 

Meanwhile, Aksinya Guryanova says she hasn’t encountered any deliberate attempts to lower her traffic on TikTok. “When a creator thinks the video is interesting but few people are watching, that means it’s more interesting to the creator than other people. Be simpler and you’ll draw in people,” she argues.

Spokespeople for TikTok say users can share videos about anything that interests them, except content that violates the network’s community guidelines, like hate speech. 

At the same time, the company has internal rules for filtering videos that it tries to conceal from the public. In particular, in order to attract new users, TikTok moderators have been instructed to suppress videos from users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform, according to internal documents obtained by The Intercept. Moderators are also reportedly under orders to censor videos that could wound China’s “national pride.” TikTok says these filtration rules were “an early blunt attempt at preventing bullying” and “are no longer in place.”

The corporate record of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, isn’t exactly spotless. The firm has been accused of actively assisting in China’s repressions against the Uyghur minority ethnic group and censoring any content related to the Uyghurs.

In Russia, regulators and law-enforcement agencies haven’t yet given much attention to TikTok, though the network already sent representatives in mid-2019 to meet with Roskomnadzor officials to discuss “protecting the privacy of minors.” 

What about politics on other social networks?

On major social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, sharing political content has become “complicated” in recent years, thanks largely to scandals tied to foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Russia was accused of trying to influence American voters in part through political ads displayed to several million accounts on Facebook and other networks. U.S. officials have accused the “Internet Research Agency” (reportedly created by Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who allegedly enjoys close ties to Vladimir Putin) of creating the network of false accounts that bought the ads. Additionally, journalists learned that the company Cambridge Analytica (which provided services to Donald Trump’s election campaign) received access to the personal data of 87 million Facebook accounts and used this information for political purposes. The revelations forced Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg into the national spotlight, resulting in multiple testimonies before the U.S. Congress.

The fallout from the 2016 election compelled American social networks to tighten restrictions on the dissemination of political content, though no service has yet developed a particularly clear or transparent approach to moderation. For example, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced in November 2019 that the network is ceasing all political advertising globally, but the company still has to moderate user content and remove certain accounts that spread political information. Last December, Twitter revealed that it deleted almost 6,000 accounts from Saudi Arabia that it says were created to support the government’s “information operation” to promote its geopolitical interests globally. Unlike Twitter, Facebook hasn’t abandoned all political advertising and instead continuously updates its rules on promoting such content, while simultaneously purging the platform regularly of accounts flagged by moderators for manipulating political information.

Social networks are also trying to introduce new technologies to filter content on their platforms. For example, Twitter has promised “a crusade” against deepfake videos and other deceptive content. The issue took on new urgency in 2019 after altered footage of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi circulated online. (The video was edited to make Pelosi seem intoxicated during a speech.) Former Vice President Joe Biden has accused Mark Zuckerberg of “getting paid a lot of money” to run “Russia’s ads” against him.

The situation is no less contentious on Russian social networks. According to VKontakte’s terms of service, for example, political advertising is prohibited, except for election campaigning (and even here there are certain restrictions). “Sometimes we try to convey publicly significant information from our clients and we set up targeting on VKontakte, but they tell us: ‘We can’t run this. It’s political advertising.’ And no amount of explaining that this is genuinely important information does any good. All this limits our activity, of course,” says Ruslan Modin. 

Meanwhile, Russian users who independently share political content on VKontakte — especially in support of oppositionist, anti-Kremlin ideas — sometimes encounter the long arm of the law. Thanks to an enormously broad interpretation of criminal codes against extremism and hate speech, Russia saw a whole wave of felony prosecutions between 2015 and 2018 against Internet users who posted political content (primarily on VKontakte). The number of hate speech crimes has fallen since the summer of 2018, when Vladimir Putin announced his intention to mitigate the punishments for online speech, but Russia still prosecutes Internet users for sharing political content.

Zhirinovsky could set it on fire

In the United States, 26-year-old trucker Joshua Collins is relying largely on his Instagram, Twitter, Discord, and TikTok popularity to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. His TikTok videos are fairly simple: he’s either dancing, making faces, or explaining something as political slogans appear on the screen. In many posts, he films himself reacting to other users’ videos.

Ruslan Movin says one of the problems politicians face on TikTok is the absence of any universal formats for delivering political signals that would both benefit the service and appeal to politicians in terms of efficiency. “Maybe this will help some new brand of politicians or young bloggers who are making their careers on an agenda that’s somehow exciting or protest-focused, but I don’t see much reason for politicians who cater to conservative adults to get on TikTok,” Movin argues. 

Alexander Malkevich says Russian athletes and celebrities with political ambitions will look more natural on Tiktok. “Of course, they have a better shot at gaining a loyal audience on this platform, primarily because of their broad popularity among young people,” he explains. Malkevich thinks Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the colorful, long-time head of LDPR, might also find a following on the service. “He looks good on any platform and he could set TikTok on fire.”

Story by Vasily Zolotaryev with assistance from Maria Kolomychenko

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

  • Share to or