Kremlin-funded media and their propaganda have been reaching millions via Chinese social media app TikTok, an analysis from the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) of U.S. think tank German Marshal Fund found. The ASD identified a network of 78 accounts on TikTok, linked to kremlin-funded outlets, which spread disinformation, pro-Russian propaganda, or make false and misleading claims about the invasion of Ukraine.
“The problem with social media accounts of Kremlin-affiliated media is that they are vehicles of disinformation. We know that what is circulating is false or manipulated content,” Dr. María Isabel Puerta, associate professor of Political Science and International Politics at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, told Diálogo on May 15. “People are victims of disinformation; they [retransmit] these manipulations unintentionally.”
The ASD report analyzed the activity and interaction of these 78 accounts. Of those, 44 accounts have been maintaining consistent activity in 2023 and only 22 are labeled by TikTok as Russian state-controlled media. These 22 accounts have more than 6 million followers.
Another aspect that ASD highlights is that the Russian site RT en Español is one of the organizations with the highest reach of interactions, despite the label indicating that the content could be fake news. The TikTok account, according to ASD, has more followers than other independent Spanish-language news networks.
“The ability of Russian-controlled and tagged TikTok accounts to garner millions of views and outperform major independent media outlets indicates that the platform does very little to restrict Kremlin-funded propaganda,” said ASD report author Joseph Bodnar. “According to our analysis, some users interact more with Russian state media than with other more reputable independent media on the platform.”
Active accounts that are not tagged, but are likely linked to Russian state media, generate content that reaches large audiences. The 22 accounts within this category have more than 1.7 million followers.
“We must avoid at all costs that social networks remain an instrument of political and social destabilization. In this sense, moderation is crucial,” Puerta said. “Moderation is an aspiration in these times of information fluidity. It’s necessary to educate the public about the media and the dangers of its use as a vehicle for disinformation.”
In its analysis, ASD found 13 unlabeled country-specific Sputnik accounts. In some cases, some of these accounts were duplicated after one was labeled as state media. This is a common occurrence on other social networks with specific Kremlin-controlled media outlets.
“RT en Español’s program Ahí les Va shows how desperate Russian propagandists are to be on major social networks,” Bodnar said via Twitter. “Ahí les Va has had a YouTube channel and has been deleted half a dozen times. They started a new one last month. Their Instagram account was tagged, and they started a new one.”
“Chinese interests are behind TikTok, however much they want to distance themselves from the regime. The Chinese scheme is interested in fomenting discord; just look at pro-state news agencies,” Puerta said. “Their strategy is to destabilize through persuasion, deepening antagonisms, and sowing distrust in liberal democracy.”
Other active accounts that are also reaching large audiences are those tied to Russian state-backed media, such as editors or hosts of Kremlin-funded programs, who use TikTok to share state news. While those accounts might not fall under TikTok labeling policy, other social media have labeled them, ASD indicated.
The findings suggest that TikTok has little interest in detecting and publicizing accounts containing false or distorted information, whether official or private. “If the Chinese-owned platform wants to convince the world that it is not a tool for autocrats, tagging and reducing the visibility of Russian propaganda is a very simple way to start,” Bodnar concluded.