Securing the TikToker vote Moscow’s authorities plan to use TikTok to promote Kremlin-backed candidates during the 2021 elections
Political strategists working for the Russian authorities are planning to use the video-sharing app TikTok for campaigning in Moscow ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections. The hope is that a presence on the popular app can be used to encourage apolitical young people to vote for Kremlin-backed candidates. The spin doctor that “sold” the Moscow authorities on the idea claims to have successfully used the app during this year’s regional elections, though most of the videos under the corresponding campaign hashtag have nothing to do with the vote.
Using TikTok to campaign for the 2021 State Duma elections was the brainchild of political spin doctor Dmitry Gusev, a founder of the Bakster Group agency, who has long worked with the Presidential Executive Office and the Moscow Mayor’s Office, a source close to the Putin administration told Meduza.
Today, Gusev is one of the key figures involved in Moscow City Hall’s informal election campaign headquarters, a source close to the internal political bloc at the Moscow Mayor’s office said. According to him, Gusev is responsible for the social media and, in part, the media orientation of the campaigns of Kremlin-backed candidates in the Russian capital.
A Meduza source close to the Putin administration explained that Gusev’s suggestion was approved since politicians are expected to have a presence on all social networking sites. That said, not all sites, TikTok included, are considered suitable for every single candidate.
In particular, TikTok is set to be used to promote the campaigns of Kremlin-backed candidates from United Russia, who are running for election to the State Duma in Moscow’s single-mandate constituencies. Their campaign slogans, which are still under development and have yet to be approved, will be turned into hashtags that TikTokers will be encouraged to use when they post their videos.
According to a Meduza source close to the Kremlin, Gusev “sold” the idea of using TikTok for campaigning in Moscow based on his campaign work with Dmitry Makhonin — the former acting governor of the Perm Krai who ended up winning the gubernatorial elections in the fall of 2020.
Dmitry Gusev himself told Meduza that the Bakster Group did indeed use TikTok as part of Makhonin’s campaign, but he declined to answer questions about his cooperation with the Moscow authorities, calling the discussion of current contracts “unethical.”
Makhonin’s TikTok campaign mainly involved an account called Razvivayem Prikamye (“We’re Developing Prikamye”), which uploaded videos under a corresponding hashtag #РазвиваемПрикамье. Accounts with the same name popped up on Facebook and Instagram, where they posted positive news stories about the regional authorities and their initiatives.
The Razvivayem Prikamye account’s first TikTok was a video challenge featuring an auto-tuned track that repeats the phrase “we’re developing Prikamye.” This audio was then picked up and used in about two dozen videos — but most of them had nothing to do with Makhonin’s election campaign (instead the backtrack was picked up for dog and cat videos, as well as for dances, skateboarding videos, and even a photo montage of cities in the Perm Krai).
Most of these videos have no more than a few thousand views and a handful of likes. At the time of this publication, the original TikTok had 45,000 views and 705 likes, and the Razvivayem Prikamye account had 661 subscribers. While there are quite a lot of videos that use the corresponding hashtag, most of them have nothing to do with the Perm Krai or its development. In total, videos under this hashtag were seen by 975,000 TikTok users.
Almost immediately after the elections, videos using this hashtag stopped cropping up, and the pages on Facebook and Instagram stopped posting before election day on September 13. Nevertheless, Dmitry Makhonin won the election with 75.7 percent of the vote.
According to a political strategist working with a Kremlin-linked autonomous non-profit called Dialogue, the video challenge had all the hallmarks paid content and, in all likelihood, the TikTok campaign hardly contributed to the number of votes Makhonin gained. “From the point of view of an electoral effect, the result is rather negative, but from the point of view of reporting to the customer, the indicator is probably not bad — one million views for the hashtag,” the source explained.
As Meduza previously reported, the Moscow authorities are seriously worried about the potential impact of Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” strategy during the 2021 race. During the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections, candidates supported by Navalny’s Smart Vote strategy won in 20 of the 45 single-mandate constituencies. Currently, the Putin administration considers eight of the capital’s 15 districts as potentially problematic during the 2021 vote. And this is precisely where TikTok is expected to help them claim victory.
“With the right approach, you could even use Tinder during elections — and this is often done in small campaigns, where it’s important to reach an audience within a two to three kilometer radius,” political consultant Ruslan Modin said in conversation with Meduza. “In this sense, TikTok is no exception — if used correctly, it could be a rather effective tool, especially since it has low-cost advertising and political or semi-political videos often get through moderation.”
That said, Modin underscores that he has yet to see a successful political campaign or initiative on TikTok. “As a political tool, it’s more suited to [spreading fake news] and presents the opportunity to get two to three million views by chance, [if you] hit the social network’s algorithm correctly,” he explained. “As a tool for systematic work or campaigning it’s still weak and poorly understood. Including because of its audience’s average age: 50 percent are teenagers who aren’t going to the polls.”
The Moscow Mayor’s Office has already made one very unsuccessful attempt to whip up the youth demographic: ahead of the capital’s 2019 mayoral election, rappers Timati and Guf recorded a collaborative music video called “Moscow.” Guf rapped about his love for the city, while Timati sang the praises of Moscow’s incumbent Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. The video gained 1.4 million dislikes on Youtube — a record-breaking number for the Russian-language version of the site at the time. Timati ended up deleting the video and Guf issued an apology, saying that he didn’t know about the political intent behind the project.
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart