Kyiv Says Russian Operatives Dominating on TikTok in Ukraine

(Bloomberg) -- Ukraine warned the Kremlin is expanding its use of TikTok to question the legitimacy of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s presidency and undermine the nation’s morale as Russia presses its advantage in cyberspace as well as on the battlefield.

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Russia’s legions of influencers and bots are behind a series of viral TikTok videos that zero in on May 20 — the date that Zelenskiy’s first term would have ended if the country’s election cycle hadn’t been disrupted because of martial law, according to Andriy Kovalenko, a senior official focused on Russia’s wartime dissemination of false information.

“Russia is dominating us on TikTok due to the scale” of its operation, Kovalenko, who leads a department under the National Security and Defense Council, said in an interview in Kyiv. “The Russians have begun working systematically on TikTok and are utilizing this platform successfully.”

As Russia leverages its advantage in ammunition and manpower to exploit Ukraine’s dwindling stocks of weaponry, it has also increasingly embraced TikTok as part of its parallel information war. The social media app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. is part of an arsenal that includes other platforms such as Telegram and X, formerly known as Twitter.

TikTok has increased safety and security measures in Ukraine since the start of the war and removes harmful misinformation, according to a TikTok spokesperson. Globally, 97% of misinformation content is removed before it is flagged to the platform, the spokesperson said.

Ukraine’s criticism comes as ByteDance is under increasing pressure from the US and European Union due to concern over data security and misinformation.

US President Joe Biden signed a law last month that requires ByteDance to divest the service or face a ban out of concern that China’s government could use the app for propaganda or spying on US residents.

In the EU, regulators have also scrutinized the app. TikTok has said it’ll launch a local language feature in all 27 member states of the bloc to curb misinformation ahead of elections this year.

The US government and the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, are among institutions that already ban the app from official devices. Yet politicians including Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz operate accounts on the platform in an attempt to reach a younger audience that gravitates to the service, which boasts over a billion users.

President Xi Jinping embarked on a European tour this week, with a first stop in Paris, where French President Emmanuel Macron sought to pressure the Chinese leader to use its leverage over the Kremlin to help end Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. Xi and Vladimir Putin have made common cause in challenging the US-led global order, with Beijing accusing Washington of seeking to stifle its development.

Russian actors are skilled at manipulating TikTok, according to Kovalenko. They create fake accounts with Ukrainian SIM cards or manipulate geographic-location technology to appear to be in Ukraine, and can game TikTok’s algorithms to reach a wider base of users, he said.

“There aren’t many Ukrainian bloggers on TikTok and those who are doing it aren’t inflating hits,” he said. “We need to adjust our approach and consider focusing on this social network as well.”

TikTok found several covert influence operations that targeted the war in Ukraine attempting to artificially amplify both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian narratives, it said in its fourth-quarter report on efforts to enforce community guidelines. It removed 2 million videos in Ukraine during the period, according to the report.

Kovalenko, with over 543,000 TikTok followers, uses his account to distribute short videos that underscore Ukraine’s views on the war. He said a ban is not in the works.

Instead, Ukraine wants TikTok and other social media service providers to open full-scale offices in Kyiv to help fight disinformation more effectively, according to Kovalenko.

TikTok blocked 24 pro-Russian channels after Ukraine complained to its representatives in the EU, he said.

--With assistance from Jake Rudnitsky.

(Updates with TikTok comments in fifth paragraph.)

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