In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin criminalized anything it considered “false information” about state entities or the war in Ukraine. In response, on March 6, TikTok suspended livestreaming and new content on the app for Russia-based users. But a new report reveals that certain Russia-based accounts continue to upload videos to the platform, which in turn serves them to Russian users. Call it “shadow-promotion.”
That’s the term used by Salvatore Romano, head of research at the Mozilla-funded digital rights nonprofit Tracking Exposed, which released the report today. Unlike shadow-banning, where creators post content that a platform’s algorithms or content moderation suppress, TikTok’s shadow-promotion keeps videos off of the creators’ accounts, but promotes those videos to the For You Pages (FYPs) of other users. “This is something we’ve never seen,” Romano says. In some cases, certain verified accounts dodged the ban altogether, with new content appearing both under their accounts and in other users’ feeds.
The researchers conducted their study between May and July 2022, using VPNs to access TikTok from Russian IP addresses to get a sense of what the platform might feel like to a Russia-based user. If a user were to follow an international account—the researchers used the BBC as an example—they would not be able to see any videos on the account’s page, but new content posted would still show up on their FYP. The pages of Russian entities, like state-owned Sputnik News, continue to show videos from before the ban, with new content only appearing on FYPs.
“TikTok will say, ‘We removed this number of accounts, we blocked this amount of videos,’ and so on,” says Romano. “But if we don't have an independent way to assess not just the content, but also the algorithmic promotion of the content on the platform, we will never be able to assess if content moderation is actually in place or not,” says Romano.
He suspects that TikTok may have begun allowing certain accounts to create new content in order to hang on to Russian users, many of whom would likely stop using the platform without fresh videos filling their feeds.
“In order to not completely lose the market, they are probably trying to put back some features and some content without clearly going against the Russian law on fake news,” he says. Many of the verified accounts that seem to have evaded the ban altogether were focused on entertainment, including Yandex Music, Beautybomb.rus, and Kinopoisk, a film database.
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Unlike Google, which was fined $370 million in July by Russia for failing to remove content from YouTube that the government considers “false,” Romano says, TikTok has faced much less pressure from Moscow.
“Most other international platforms keep their policies constant across the world, like Facebook and YouTube, which is still not removing anti-Putin content,” says Salvatore.
TikTok’s country-by-country approach could have serious implications in the future, says Marc Faddoul, codirector of Tracking Exposed.
“If we imagined this in the context of, say, the invasion of Taiwan, and think of what content could potentially be shared or promoted or demoted by TikTok in such a context, and the type of pressure it might receive from the Chinese government, I think it really highlights the importance of having proper control mechanisms and checks and balances,” he says.
WIRED reached out to TikTok with specific questions about why the platform chose to create exceptions to its policy on Russia, how it selected the accounts that were allowed to continue creating and posting content, and whether the company had been in contact with the Russian government about these policies. TikTok spokesperson Jamie Favazza told WIRED that the company’s “policies for our service in Russia have not changed, and we continue working to enforce them for the safety of our employees and community.”
However, without transparency on how its algorithm works, and how it applies those policies, researchers warn that it's impossible to know whether TikTok is living up to its public commitments.
“The more we base platforms on algorithms, the more we need algorithmic accountability,” says Romano. “And unfortunately, algorithm accountability is not easy and is not something that platforms are willing to do.”
CORRECTION 8/10/22 11:15AM ET: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect what content appeared on account pages.