Russia has demanded that TikTok change how it shows military content on its platform, as it cracks down on social media in a bid to control information being shared around its war with Ukraine.
Such a move would affect how video footage from the Ukraine war appears on its platform and hinder open-source investigators monitoring the invasion.
The state regulator, Roskomnadzor, shared in its official Telegram channel an announcement justifying the ban on recommending any military or political content for minors, saying it had identified content “on the subject of a special military operation in Ukraine” and “related political content, purposefully offered to a children’s audience” with a “pronounced anti-Russian character.”
The announcement did not elaborate on what “related political content” covered, nor what was specific to these videos that implied they could have been targeted at children.
While there is a version of the app for under 13s, most children use the same version of TikTok as adults, meaning that the only way the platform would likely be able to respond to Roskomnadzor’s demands would be to change how these videos appear for everyone.
TikTok has become an essential platform for following the Russian invasion, with creators across Ukraine and beyond livestreaming the war and the buildup of Russian troops. Videos on the frontlines and in cities have proven vital for open-source investigators tracking the war. It’s also been a tool for spreading disinformation by both sides.
Russia has been cracking down on anything it considers to be online dissent. Facebook is now partially blocked in Russia after being accused of spreading misinformation. The regulator has also told Google to restrict access to any Google Ads which inform audiences about how many Russian soldiers have been injured or killed. TikTok may also be at risk if it does not comply with the regulator’s requests.
TikTok has also been accused of not acting quickly enough to curb misleading videos. VICE World News has spoken to Ukrainian TikTokers as well as foreigners attempting to fact-check posts who have been banned from posting or doing livestreams on the platform. This is something they claim has been prompted by pro-Russian users wrongly reporting them in-app in a bid to suppress their voices.
TikTok told VICE World News: “Our Community Guidelines apply equally to everyone and all content on TikTok. We do not moderate or remove content based on political sensitivities and nothing in our moderation practices would seek to discriminate against any creator or community on our platform.”
TikTok lifted a live ban on one creator, Lindsey Alexander, @disinfo_gal, after VICE World News raised the account to their attention. A former CIA Russia expert, she was shocked to have been banned while she was updating her audience on the war. “The chat in my life was tame, mostly questions and polite comments. Then my lives were permanently banned,” she said.
In response to Roskomnadzor’s demands, TikTok said: “We continue to closely monitor the situation, with increased resources to respond to emerging trends and remove violative content, including harmful misinformation and promotion of violence.”
TikTok does not appear to have bowed to Russia’s demands, though there has been previous evidence of the app acquiescing to their demands. Just three days before the invasion, the app was forced to reverse a ban on state owned RIA Novosti after an intervention from Roskomnadzor.
TikTok took down a video of a Ukrainian regional leader calling for evacuation that the account had posted, which was then restored.
TikTok was one of the first tech companies to comply with Russia’s so-called landing law which demands that platforms have physical offices in Russia and register with Roskomnadzor. Experts say this is likely to make companies more vulnerable to censorship.