TikTok Has Blocked Russians From Covering Protests. Creators Feel Abandoned.

TikTok users in Russia can no longer create new posts or view content from outside Russia. Creators who were livestreaming anti-war protests say they feel cut off from the world.
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Photo: Getty / Stock Image

TikTok creators in Russia have called out the platform for banning them from making new posts or livestreams.

Creators told VICE World News that TikTok’s decision to suspend new posts from users in Russia while it assessed Russia’s new “fake news” law had cut them off from the world, and funds they had accrued via the app.

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All of the estimated 36 million TikTok users in Russia are now limited to seeing old videos created by other Russian users. They are served empty pages when they try to access the URLs of foreign creators.

A TikTok creator based in St. Petersburg with hundreds of thousands of followers told VICE World News over Instagram they’d been livestreaming local protests against the war in Ukraine. They had no idea that Sunday’s livestream would be the last one, just before TikTok made its announcement.

“And that means that I lost the opportunity to broadcast my ideas, to share the real picture,” said the creator, whose identity we are not publishing for safety reasons. “I also see it as a very sad fact that limits our ability to connect with each other while being in different countries. Of course I realise TikTok does it not to censor but for perhaps a different reason – but the result is that we have fewer ways to connect with people around the world.”

Although they are also on Instagram and YouTube, their biggest audience by far is on TikTok – a common story for many of the world’s biggest content creators, who have found unprecedented success with TikTok’s unique recommendation algorithm and easy-to-make short-form video. Audiences are rarely transferable between platforms, demanding that users often create bespoke content across several social media sites in an attempt to accrue balanced audiences. 

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Users in this scenario usually get the majority of their paid sponsorship work and/or content monetisation from TikTok as a result. 

“We recently started to have the Creator Fund in December last year; that was not bad in terms of comparing it to the average Russian salary,” the St. Petersburg-based TikTok creator said. “It was nice to see TikTok actually supporting creators from Russia.” 

But now, they can’t post new content to monetise – nor can they accept new brand partnerships – on top of the fact that they now cannot withdraw from Paypal or Patreon either due to sanctions. “Most brand deals I had in the past were from posting on TikTok but not on my other social media. So it’s quite sad to realise this fact, to be honest.”

Last week, VICE World News reported that the Russian state communications regulator had attempted to limit military and political content on TikTok, which the app seemed to have not acquiesced to. But the “fake news” law has prompted several media platforms as well as news organisations to limit or remove coverage.  

In a blogpost about the war in Ukraine, TikTok focused its statements on piloting a state-controlled media policy, combatting misinformation and donating $1 million in humanitarian aid. Access to creator funds as well as access to content outside of users’ own geographic areas was not mentioned. 

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Creators who specialise in other platforms are also feeling the financial pressure; his friend who is a YouTuber “most likely won’t receive the only income she has this month.” Another YouTuber, NFKRZ, yesterday uploaded a video in which he explained that Google’s decision to stop advertising in Russia has meant that YouTubers with predominantly Russian audiences can no longer receive ad revenue. NFKRZ says: “It’s a bit different for me because my audience is mainly Westerners. But due to the sanctions and my banks getting sanctioned I can’t really get paid anyway.”

Some creators, however, are surviving because they are navigating the internet with a VPN. Another creator with around several hundred thousand followers based in St. Petersburg has spent the last few weeks highlighting disinformation and anti-war protests coming from the country. This creator told VICE World News over Telegram that their VPN is allowing them to continue posting despite TikTok’s geotargeted platform changes; they also managed to get their TikTok tied to a foreign bank account before the war began. 

Unable to transfer its funds to a Russian account, they hope to be able to use cryptocurrency to receive money some time soon. If not, “We won’t have a means for living and soon we are going to starve. Other bloggers I know are in a panic, depressed. Others switch to YouTube and concentrate on that. But yeah, everyone is in a pretty bad mental state now we can’t share anything, neither can we earn anything or ask our friends from abroad for help.”

While creators across all platforms will be trying to figure out how they can keep making content, it is TikTok that has taken centre stage this month, with some labelling it “the TikTok war.” It has simultaneously been criticised for not doing enough to curb widespread disinformation as well as marvelled at for how the voices of Ukrainans fleeing war and defending their cities has been amplified through the app. 

Sasha Ozornin, a 24-year-old Russian creator who lives in Italy, has been using TikTok throughout the invasion to debunk Russian disinformation. “My heart breaks for them,” she said, describing the creators she has seen use TikTok to broadcast the Russian protests. “They were so brave. They have an international reach and audience - basically they put their livelihoods on the line, and now they’re the ones who will be affected by this.

“If Russians don’t have access to TIkTok, this is only going to enable Putin more. His propaganda will be far more effective. TikTok is arguably the best way to open Russian people’s eyes that their media is lying to them. There’s this one creator who has skyrocketed in popularity from Ukraine, she basically posts all the footage of the bombs and shelling. If Russians don’t see that kind of footage, it’s going to allow Putin to get away with so much more than he’s already getting away with.”