The Russian invasion of Ukraine has backed TikTok into a corner, split between its position as a global social media platform and its Chinese ownership.
TikTok’s executives spent the early days of the invasion noticeably quiet, omitting the words Ukraine and Russia in public statements and referring to the invasion as a “situation.” As other companies, such as Facebook and Google, highlighted efforts to help Ukrainians shield their accounts from Russian surveillance and cyberattacks, TikTok has publicized no such program.
On Thursday, TikTok started to catch up to its American social media rivals. It told The Washington Post exclusively that it was developing a policy on how it deals with state-controlled media on its platform and, following questions about its choice of words during the conflict, sent a statement including the words “war in Ukraine.”
The changes came after Ukrainian officials pressed the company to take a heavier hand in policing Russian propaganda on its platform. In a tense email exchange earlier this week, Ukrainian officials, including Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, compared Russian state media efforts to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
American companies have largely scrambled to align with Ukraine’s war effort, withdrawing their products from Russia, curtailing the country’s state-run media and ending investments in Russian businesses. But with its parent company, ByteDance, based in China, a country that eschews free speech and has a long-standing friendship with Russia, TikTok is navigating competing demands for its allegiance.
The video-sharing app has long portrayed itself as an apolitical entity to its users, a place for entertainment, not politics. Now, the Russian war is testing TikTok and forcing it out of its politically neutral stance.
“China is trying to play both sides on this. They’re trying to stay neutral,” said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former chief security officer at Facebook.
Along with Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, TikTok has been flooded with a confusing mishmash of propaganda, images repurposed from previous conflicts and real footage of actual events in Ukraine over the past week. Under pressure from Ukrainian, American and European Union officials, all of the companies have blocked Russian state media in Europe and taken down some misleading and false posts about the war.
TikTok’s response has diverged from its counterparts in key ways. Other companies have used labels for years to identify state-controlled media accounts. But TikTok just announced Thursday that it is “working to roll out a pilot” of its policy and to provide labels on some accounts. The company started work on the policy last year, consulting with more than 50 experts. But in response to the war, the company will soon start applying labels to accounts and content belonging to state-controlled media in Russia.
Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said that the Facebook parent company’s apps are being used in Russia “to organize, to protest” against the war and as a source of independent information. TikTok leaders have largely remained silent, even refusing to testify at a congressional hearing on social media on Tuesday.
TikTok emphasizes that it is partnering with independent fact-checkers and has increased resources dedicated to rooting out problematic content since the start of the conflict.
“We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and remove harmful misinformation and other violations of our Community Guidelines,” TikTok spokeswoman Jamie Favazza said in a statement.
Inside the company, a commitment to avoiding political affiliations remains. Final decisions about product issues, even those related to North America, are signed off on by executives in Asia, said a current employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters. The company’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, is based in Singapore, Favazza said.
TikTok attempts to remove any advertising it deems political, including ads mentioning the war – with the exception of those put up by nonprofits providing humanitarian assistance, the person said. TikTok has given detailed guidance to its employees about how to handle the Ukraine war and state media, according to internal company guidance reviewed by The Post. It told employees to reject fundraising campaigns for people displaced in Ukraine.
“Their Western executives have very little power to effect policy or to make public statements,” Stamos said.
TikTok is a much newer platform than its American rivals. While Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were addressing Russian propaganda in the fallout of the 2016 election, TikTok’s predecessor, Musical.ly, was known as a niche lip-syncing app.
The company has also tried hard to stay out of the debates over censorship and misinformation that have formed a central challenge for the biggest social media platforms over the past few years. But that position has proved futile, with the company increasingly drawn into the conversation as it grows and becomes a more important stage for global culture.
In 2019, just as TikTok was growing rapidly in the United States, it came under fire for censoring mass protests happening in Hong Kong. While searches for the territory on other social media apps showed images of protesters battling the China-backed government, TikTok was showing benign content like music and food videos.
U.S. politicians and regulators began asking tougher questions about TikTok’s links to the Chinese government. In 2020, the app was almost shut down in the United States by then-President Donald Trump over fears that the data ByteDance may be collecting on U.S. users was a national security concern.
The company promised U.S. data wasn’t being ported to China and went to court to stall the government’s actions against it. In 2021, President Biden revoked the ban, but the administration is working on new rules that would expand government oversight of foreign-owned apps.
The company has also maintained a strict ban on political advertising, but a Mozilla report in 2021 showed that some influencers on the platform had financial ties to U.S. political organizations and were endorsing them without disclosures.
Throughout the invasion’s first week, full-scale propaganda has proliferated on social media, some of it coming from official Russian state media trying to falsely claim the invasion is simply a military operation. Videos of explosions in urban landscapes falsely purporting to be shot in Ukraine racked up millions of views and comments.
Much of the content on TikTok consists of short, highly edited clips that are often re-shared without attributing the original source, which makes it a more complicated platform to moderate, said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “TikTok does not see itself as having the same responsibility to the user because so much of its content is already a remix,” she said. “They don’t typically come out and make statements.”
Much of the content on TikTok is also pushed to users by the company’s algorithm, which learns what people like and serves them more of it automatically. That increases its responsibility during a time of conflict, when misinformation and propaganda can influence opinions on a dangerous situation that is changing daily. “TikTok shows people content they did not ask to see all day,” Stamos said. “The fact that they do that really well is why they’re extremely popular. But it means they’re probably much more responsible for the content than they would be otherwise because they’re the ones serving it up.”
Members of Congress are bringing renewed scrutiny to TikTok amid the war in Ukraine. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Wash., the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, accused the company of operating with “disregard for U.S. national security concerns” after TikTok declined to appear at a hearing focused on social media accountability. Her comments reflect long-running Republican skepticism of the company’s ties to Beijing.
Last Friday, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., sent a letter to major social media companies, including TikTok, asking them to do more to block Russian propaganda and support Ukrainians. “My staff has been in contact with TikTok regarding steps that they’re taking to guard against Russian information operations on their platform,” Warner said in a statement to The Post. “I appreciate the steps that they’ve taken to date, such as blocking certain state-run accounts in the European Union, but I will continue to urge them – and all tech companies – to do more.”
Justin Sherman, a fellow on the Atlantic Council’s cyber statecraft initiative, said TikTok’s decisions about how it handles the war are critical because it’s a “huge source of information, including for Ukrainians.”
“No platform is neutral,” Sherman said. “When you have the Russian government launching a blatantly illegal war to take over Ukraine, spreading propaganda about why they’re doing it, there is literally no justification for pretending to be a neutral actor.”