In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has criminalized everything it deemed “false information” about state entities or the war in Ukraine. In response, TikTok suspended live streaming and new content on the app for Russia-based users on March 6. But a new report reveals that certain Russia-based accounts continue to upload videos to the platform, which in turn serves them to Russian users. Call it “shadow promotion.”
That’s the term used by Salvatore Romano, head of research at the Mozilla-funded digital rights nonprofit Tracking Exposed, which released the report today. Unlike shadow ban, where creators post content that suppresses a platform’s algorithms or content moderation, TikTok’s shadow promotion keeps videos out of creators’ accounts but promotes those videos on other users’ For You pages (FYPs). “We’ve never seen this before,” says Romano. In some cases, certain verified accounts dodged the ban altogether, with new content appearing under their accounts as well as in other users’ feeds.
The researchers conducted their study between May and July 2022 and used VPNs to access TikTok from Russian IP addresses to get a sense of what the platform might feel like for a Russia-based user. If a user followed an international account — the researchers used the BBC as an example — they wouldn’t be able to see videos on the account page, but old content, posted before the ban, would still appear on their FYP. However, if the user followed Russian entities such as the state-owned Sputnik News, they would receive new content on their FYP from that account, even if the page itself remained blank.
“TikTok will say, ‘We’ve deleted this number of accounts, we’ve blocked this number of videos,’ and so on,” says Romano. “But if we don’t have an independent way to assess not only the content, but also the algorithmic promotion of the content on the platform, we will never be able to judge whether content moderation is actually in place or not,” says Romano. .
He suspects that TikTok has started allowing these select accounts to create new content to trap Russian users, many of whom would likely stop using the platform without new videos filling their feeds.
“In order not to lose the market completely, they are probably trying to bring back some features and content without clearly violating the Russian law on fake news,” he says. Many of the verified accounts that seem to have circumvented the ban altogether were entertainment-oriented, including Yandex Music, Beautybomb.rus, and Kinopoisk, a movie database.
Unlike Google, which was fined $370 million by Russia in July for not removing content from YouTube that the government deems “false,” Romano says, TikTok has experienced much less pressure from Moscow.
“Most other international platforms keep their policies constant around the world, such as Facebook and YouTube, which are still not removing anti-Putin content,” Salvatore says.
TikTok’s country-to-country approach could have serious consequences in the future, says Marc Faddoul, co-director of Tracking Exposed.