TikTok has been central to the world’s understanding of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It was particularly valuable in the conflict’s early days when people were desperate for news and able to find real-time updates about military maneuvers and on-the-ground conditions through the platform. Russian state media took notice of this and has been using the app to push its own narrative. TikTok, though, did not appear eager to embrace its wartime role or the content moderation responsibilities that came with it. Eventually, after being pressured by Ukrainian and Western officials to take Moscow’s propaganda seriously, TikTok labeled around 50 accounts as Russian state-controlled media. That labeling process, though, appears to not have been comprehensive or effective at reducing engagements with Russian state media. Our analysis found 78 TikTok accounts, including 47 labeled by the platform, that are likely tied to Kremlin-funded outlets. As of March 22, those accounts had more than 14 million followers and had generated more than 319 million likes. Not all the accounts labeled by TikTok or in our own dataset are active, but it appears that each account could start posting again if they chose to do so.
Who Gets a Label, and Does It Matter?
In April 2022, TikTok said that it had labeled 49 Russian state-controlled media accounts. Our analysis found 47 of those labeled accounts along with 31 additional accounts that appear to be tied to state-backed outlets but are unlabeled. Our list includes three accounts that belong to either editors or hosts of Kremlin-funded programs, who use TikTok to share state media. Those accounts might not fall under TikTok’s labeling policy but have been labeled by other platforms. Many of the 78 accounts that we identified have not posted in 2023. More than half of the accounts labeled by TikTok stopped sharing content or spun up new, unlabeled accounts. We also found nine inactive and unlabeled accounts that are likely controlled by Russian state media, including accounts for RT France, RT Online Arabic, and RT Noticias. While some accounts are dormant, 44 remain active—22 of which are labeled as state media and 22 of which are not.
TikTok’s state-controlled label does not appear to reduce an account’s visibility. The 22 labeled and active accounts that we found have more than 6 million followers and have generated more than 114 million likes. These labeled Russian media accounts are among the most popular news outlets on the platform. For instance, RT en Español has more likes than Telemundo, Univision, BBC Mundo, and El País. RT’s account has more followers and likes than the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. By some measures, including the performance of top posts, labeled Russian state media accounts are reaching larger audiences on TikTok than other platforms. RIA Novosti’s top TikTok post so far in 2023 has more than 5.6 million views. On Twitter, its top post has fewer than 20,000 views. The ability of labeled Russian state-controlled TikTok accounts to get millions of views and outperform major independent outlets indicates that the platform has done little to restrict Kremlin-funded propaganda.
Active accounts that are likely tied to Russian state media but are unlabeled have also reached large audiences. The 22 accounts in that category have more than 1.7 million followers and 25 million likes. RT’s Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan operates the most followed unlabeled account. Though Simonyan’s account might not fall under TikTok’s labeling policy, she is one of Russia’s leading propagandists and her TikTok videos regularly reach millions of users. Our analysis also found 13 country-specific Sputnik accounts that are unlabeled. In some instances, Sputnik outlets created duplicate accounts after having one labeled as state media. For example, Sputnik Brazil has two accounts—one that is labeled and another that is unlabeled. Four other Sputnik outlets did the same thing. There are also four RT-branded accounts that are unlabeled and actively posting. RT Mexico is the most popular among them, with over 83,400 followers and 856,300 likes. These findings suggest that TikTok has not invested enough resources to spot state-backed accounts or to enforce its labeling policies around state-controlled media.
Why It Matters
TikTok claims to have more than 1.5 billion users around the world, and people are increasingly turning to the app for news—including to learn about developments in Ukraine. Based on our analysis, some users are engaging more with Russian state media than other, more reputable independent news outlets on the platform. RT en Español is one of the most dominant Spanish-language media organizations on the app, despite carrying a state-controlled media label. More TikTok users follow RT than the New York Times. And Russian accounts—both labeled and unlabeled—are reaching millions with the Kremlin’s war-time propaganda.
TikTok is under a heavy amount of regulatory pressure in the United States and across the broader West. If the Chinese-owned platform wants to convince the world that it isn’t a tool for autocrats, labeling and reducing the visibility of Russian propaganda is a very simple place to start.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.