‘Nobody’s afraid anymore’ How planned protests against the jailing of Alexey Navalny hijacked Russian TikTok, and what it means for expected turnout on Saturday
Almost a week ago, Alexey Navalny flew home to Russia, surrounded by a phalanx of journalists. Large crowds of cheering supporters awaited him at the airport, but his most important welcome party was a group of police officers who promptly arrested him after his plane landed. Since Monday, January 18, Navalny’s home has been an isolation cell at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison. Meanwhile, upcoming protests in support of Navalny, planned for tomorrow, January 23, have become one of the main trending topics on TikTok in Russia. Videos about Navalny have been viewed more than 200 million times, and Russia’s federal censor has ordered TikTok to remove “content calling for minors using the social network to participate in illegal mass protest events.” Meduza looks at how content creators are using the protests to gain followers, and whether TikTok can serve as an effective protest tool in Russia.
Early this week, Alexey Navalny released a video calling on supporters to stage protests across Russia on Saturday, January 23. He recorded the video on January 18 inside the police department where an impromptu arraignment hearing slapped him with 30 days of pretrial detention.
Soon thereafter, hashtags relating to Navalny’s arrest and the upcoming protests started trending on TikTok. The three most popular (translated into English: #FreedomForNavalny, #January 23, and #LongLiveNavalny) gathered more than 200 million views within days. Users who’d already indicated an interest in politics now saw their TikTok feeds explode with Navalny-related hashtags.
Most of the videos that attracted hundreds of thousands or even millions of likes and comments showed people encouraging others to join Saturday’s planned protests. TikTokers also shared advice about how to behave at street protests. Many of the videos featured the song “Labyrinth” by the Russian rapper Face. “Being against the government doesn’t mean being against your motherland,” says one lyric.
Several popular “influencers” posted almost identical videos criticizing Navalny. Some suspect the government put them up to it.
At the start of the week, several TikTok “influencers” (especially popular accounts), along with big-time users on other social networks, posted short videos criticizing Navalny. Some of these people have several hundred followers on TikTok or Instagram, while others have millions (Roman Gritsenko, an alumnus of the reality show “Dom-2,” for example, has 1.1 million TikTok followers). None of them had ever spoken out about politics before, and many used almost identical phrases in their videos, claiming that Navalny’s arrest could lead to a new wave of sanctions against Russia. Navalny would bear the responsibility for this, they said.
The influencers’ contact pages list two ad agencies: “Wow Media” and “Wildjam.” After the videos about Navalny started drawing journalists’ attention, Yaroslav Andreev, the head of Wildjam, announced that the agency would stop working with these creators. “It’s unfortunate that the bloggers are a part of something like this,” he said, claiming that his agency only does brand advertising for bloggers’ pages, not “propaganda and political advertising.”
This isn’t the first time Wildjam’s clients have been involved in scandals surrounding political content. Before Moscow’s 2018 mayoral election, for example, Nikolai Sobolev released a video praising the way Gorky Park had changed in recent years, and other creators followed with similar videos. They were accused of working for incumbent Mayor Sergey Sobyanin.
Meduza reached out to six content creators who posted videos critical of Navalny in January 2021, but none of them was willing to comment on the situation. One individual declined to respond to questions “just because.” Wow Media also rebuffed Meduza’s inquiries. Wildjam said its head, Yaroslav Andreev, was unavailable.
On Thursday, January 21, reports of TikTok creators being offered money in exchange for posts against Navalny began appearing on social media — influencers were allegedly being offered 150,000 rubles ($2,000) per video. Users cited Instagram influencer Anastasia Ostanina, who has more than 46,000 followers on Instagram but stopped using TikTok, as an example. Ostanina posted a screenshot of a message showing someone offering her money in exchange for posting a video of herself saying Navalny “isn’t a patriot.” She told her followers she had declined.
“For me, selling my personal position and principles for 150,000 is unacceptable. Politicized content and paid content for or against the government, in particular, is also unacceptable. And using bloggers and media personalities to advertise politicized content for money is the wrong strategy,” she told Meduza.
According to Ostanina, she spent a long time thinking about whether to share the exchange on social media, but after she posted the screenshot, she gained hundreds of followers and started getting supportive messages — although one other content creator asked for a link to the account that made the offer because “he needed money.” (Ostanina didn’t share it with him.)
The account that offered cash for the video against Navalny was quickly deleted. The person behind the account later contacted Meduza and described the scheme as a prank: “It was just a way to find out how quickly that kind of fake news spreads in Russia,” he said.
Misha Komkov, the administrator of the Vkontakte group “TikToppers,” which has 180,000 followers and publishes news about TikTokers’ lives, told Meduza that paid political advertising on TikTok is a very real phenomenon. “Otherwise, [TikToker creators] wouldn’t be able to make a living. The money you can make from a political ad is several times the amount you can make from other ads.”
Most TikTokers make fun of Putin while admiring Navalny. Some say TikTok provides the nudge they need to get involved in protests.
The hashtags related to Navalny and the January 23 protests can be used to find more than just opposition content; some creators use the hashtags to promote their own accounts. Others use the hashtags to speak out against the protests, or just to make jokes about the situation (especially Navalny’s investigation of “Putin’s palace”).
A college student in Moscow named Valeria told Meduza that she and a friend were just joking around when they posted a video about the protest for her 3,000 followers. She says she didn’t expect it to become popular, but it’s now drawn in hundreds of thousands of views — more than 100 times the traffic her videos usually get.
“I’m actually kind of stressed out by the number of views, because I don’t think the government takes kindly to criticism, and I’m not sure if I’m safe,” Valeria told Meduza. She most likely won’t be attending Saturday’s protest because of safety concerns.
Another popular TikTok video concerning Navalny was shared by a high school student named Victoria, showing her removing Putin’s portrait from the whiteboard at her school and then replacing it with Navalny’s picture (see below). The video was later removed; Victoria told Meduza that the post caused problems for her (though she declined to elaborate). “After the situation at my school, I’m afraid to open my mouth again,” she said, noting that the school’s principal “doesn’t agree” with students about politics.
Young TikTokers aren’t the only ones facing intimidation. Helga Pirogova, a city council member from Novosibirsk, posted a video on TikTok claiming that “every city in the country” will be protesting on January 23. The local Commission on Parliamentary Ethics subsequently summoned her “for encouraging participation in protest rallies.” Anatoly Lokot, the mayor of Novosibirsk and a member of Russia’s Communist Party, personally filed a complaint against her, as well.
Pirogova told Meduza that this kind of complaint looks “like turning on your comrade in the USSR or something — it’s absurd and meaningless.” Despite the complaint, she plans to “walk all through the city center” on January 23.
Many of the TikTok users who spoke to Meduza say they plan to participate in Saturday’s protests. A 16-year-old Moscow law student named Nastya says she’s been following Navalny since 2017. “I’m really excited about his efforts, to be honest. I get a lot of hate for it, but I admire him and what he and his team are doing. What’s happening to him now is awful; it’s just appalling,” Nastya told Meduza.
On TikTok, she posted a video calling on people to go to the protests on January 23. The video got 24,000 likes — far more than anything else she’s ever shared on the platform. “I’ve always been interested in both politics and the law in general. I want to make sure those things are part of my life. But when I see them wiping their feet all over my country’s laws, I can’t stay silent. I’m a citizen of the Russian Federation, and I don’t want to live in a country where the laws don’t matter,” she said. “Besides TikTok, where can you share your opinion freely?”
Mira is 19 years old. Like Nastya, she started making videos about politics before it became popular. She’s posted videos about the protests in Belarus and about Russia’s recent constitutional amendments. On January 23, she plans to join the protests, but her attitude toward Navalny is complex: “There are a lot of things I don’t agree with him on, but what’s happening to him right now is outrageous. This kind of barbaric violation of human rights is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if it’s Navalny or a random person off the street.”
Like many other TikTok users, Nikolai Shekhirev’s “For You” page started to fill earlier this week with videos about the planned protests. At first, Shekhirev thought it must be related to some kind of meme, but after reading the comments on some videos, he realized that people were seriously planning to go out and demonstrate. “I guess I just realized that nobody’s afraid anymore,” he told Meduza.
Despite never having posted about politics before, Shekhirev ended up recording his own video about the protests. Like most of the TikTokers who spoke to Meduza, Shekhirev says his feelings about Navalny are “neutral.” “But I support him for his bravery, and his courage is admirable. Thanks to him, there a lot of TikToks now where people aren’t afraid to express their political opinion, even knowing that they might get negative reactions at school, at their college, or even at home,” Shekhirev said.
Navalny doesn’t have a local campaign office in Nizhnevartovsk, where Shekhirev lives, so there’s no protest being organized there. But Shekhirev says he nevertheless plans on “taking a walk” through the city center, and he hopes TikTok can help him find like-minded people. “One person will run into others, and there will be more of us,” he said, adding that he’s already found some people this way, and they’re planning on going “for a walk” together on January 23.
“Policemen” are ripping off their badges on TikTok — just like in Belarus
Another recent trend on TikTok involves young men in uniform ripping off their police badges; analogous videos were posted during last year’s protests in Belarus. Some of them have been mistaken for actual police officers and praised for taking a political stand on social media.
But Meduza has confirmed that the young men in at least two of the videos are not real police officers.
One of them, Ruslan Agarkov, is a 19-year-old TikTok creator and college student from Krasnodar who makes videos of practical jokes for TikTok and Instagram. He told Meduza that he already had a police uniform because he’d bought it at a joke shop. The video of him ripping off his badge got more than 2.5 million views and 400,000 likes. Agarkov says this is his first “political video” — and he never expected it to become so popular.
“I don’t have anything to do with politics. All I did was make a video. I don’t really care about politics. People make videos to land on other people’s recommendations page, and that’s what I did. When I see that everything about the protests is getting views, I want to make more videos to get more views and reach more people. Although some people thought I work in the police,” Agarkov said.
Without explanation, Agarkov later deleted the video showing him in the police uniform. He says he will attend the January 23 protests together with some friends and even has a plan to record a new video while there. Dressed in their own police uniforms, his friends will grab his hands and take him away. “I’m going to keep filming the same kind of thing because the followers are still going up. I’m going to the protest not to protest, but to film some pranks. I’m not into politics, I’m a vlogger,” he told Meduza.
Twenty-three-year-old Vladislav Larichev is another TikToker who filmed himself in a police uniform. Six months ago, he was an actual cop in the city of Kuznetsk, outside Penza. He told Meduza that he quit the job because “the system forces you to act against your will,” and “the more you serve, the more you start to understand it’s not right for you.”
Larichev says he recorded himself ripping off his badge so people still serving as police officers would “think about what they’re doing.” “After watching my video, someone will remember his oath and think about his actions,” Larichev said. “I know there are a lot of good officers who are just afraid to lose their jobs.” Larichev says he supports Navalny, who, in his view, “opened the eyes of all of the people of Russia.”
After this article was published, journalists reported that Russia’s Interior Ministry intends to press misdemeanor charges against TikTok users who record themselves wearing police uniforms.
The bubble has burst
Late on Wednesday, January 20, acting on a request from the Attorney General, Russia’s federal censor (Roskomnadzor) formally demanded that TikTok remove “all content calling for minors using the social network to participate in illegal mass protest events.” (The same demands were sent to the Russian social network Vkontakte.)
The following day, the Attorney General’s office demanded that all websites with similar content be blocked, and Roskomnadzor threatened to fine social networks as much as 4 million rubles ($54,000) for “involving teenagers in illegal activities.” A Roskomnadzor representative told Interfax that calls for minors to participate in illegal protests were found on TikTok, Vkontakte, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. The agency called for company representatives to draw up protocols under Article 13.41 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation.
At the time of this writing, TikTok’s official representatives in Russia haven’t commented on the situation. Alexey Navalny’s campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, told Meduza that Roskomnadzor’s behavior comes as no surprise: “They can’t do anything but block.”
In December 2020, Meduza wrote about the Russian authorities’ plans to use TikTok for political campaigning. Volkov told Meduza that Navalny’s supporters have experimented with the app, as well, and some of his regional offices have released videos made specifically for TikTok. Navalny himself has an account and he currently has more than half a million followers.
In the past, Volkov says, the social network deliberately suppressed political content in its search results, but the flood of videos related to Navalny has now apparently overwhelmed those measures. “TikTok was created in China and is able to filter content well. If a political video starts gaining views there, then it immediately stops showing up in people’s feeds, in their recommendations, and stays in a small bubble. But now, obviously, the bubble has burst.”
Political strategist Ruslan Modin told Meduza that, theoretically, TikTok’s algorithms aggressively promote content that users will like. In his opinion, this is why a lot of people’s feeds are almost completely full of videos about Navalny and the protests. At the same time, he doubts all this activity will noticeably increase turnout at the protests. “TikTok gets people excited, but the overwhelming majority of people need to be led by the hand [to protests]. This is pretty difficult to do on TikTok, so mobilization itself still depends on other social media and messengers platforms.”
Volkov is also dubious about TikTok’s ability to cause change offline: “We don’t know whether a viral trend on TikTok can facilitate large turnout in the streets — nobody knows. This will be the first big experiment. It’s about to become clear if TikTok can be a platform for spreading political content about events in Russia. It will become clear in the next 48 hours.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale