September 30, 2023


Unlimited Technology

TikTok’s global ambitions take another hit as Russia’s ‘fake news’ law forces suspension

Chinese-owned app TikTok, the country’s first social media platform with global influence, has suspended live streaming and new content in Russia to comply with a law that criminalises the spreading of what the Kremlin calls “fake information”.

The suspension of new uploads by users in Russia, which has a population of 144 million, is another setback for its global expansion plans after a permanent ban by New Delhi last year.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, the world’s most valuable unicorn, is not available in China as it was designed for the international market.

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As such, it has largely followed its Western peers by banning Russian state media from using the app in the European Union, and by adding state media labels to certain channels. The TikTok policy is in sharp contrast to its Chinese version Douyin, which is filled with information sourced from Russian state media, amplified by China’s own state media outlets.

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TikTok’s position is also not in line with the Chinese government, which has refused to call Russia’s military action in Ukraine an “invasion”, and officially opposes any sanctions against Moscow. On Monday, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi called Russia its “most important strategic partner”.

TikTok “is acting in the interest of its employees and users to protect them from draconian laws,” said Alex Capri, a research fellow at Hinrich Foundation and business lecturer at the National University of Singapore. However, “as a Chinese company, the question will arise regarding possible pressure from Beijing to fall in line with China’s geopolitical priorities and public position regarding Russia”, he added.

In 2021, TikTok downloads in Russia totalled 26.4 million, accounting for 3.6 per cent of total downloads globally, including those for its Chinese sibling Douyin, according to market tracker Sensor Tower.

While TikTok has played a key role in disseminating information about the war – with some even calling it the “TikTok War” – the platform remained silent for 10 days after Russia’s invasion. On March 5, TikTok issued a statement highlighting its “state-controlled media policy” and policy on “combating misinformation”.

This arranged photo taken October 3, 2020 shows a Russian teenager with a smartphone showing the TikTok logo. Photo: Shutterstock alt=This arranged photo taken October 3, 2020 shows a Russian teenager with a smartphone showing the TikTok logo. Photo: Shutterstock>

It would follow Twitter and Facebook to “apply labels to content from some state-controlled media accounts”, the TikTok statement said.

TikTok’s attempts to walk a tightrope when it comes to the war in Ukraine reflect the challenges it faces in navigating geopolitical confrontations, even though the app has positioned itself as an apolitical platform where users can share fun videos.

India, which used to be TikTok’s biggest market in terms of users, banned the app in the summer of 2020 after a deadly border clash with China, and made the ban permanent last year on national security grounds.

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TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew told Bloomberg last week that it was “challenging to build a global company” because “you need to be global and local at the same time”.

A week after Russia launched its military attack on Ukraine, the Kremlin passed a so-called “fake news” law that imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years on those spreading information that contradictrs the Russian government’s narrative on the war.

The legislation coincided with Russia’s blocking of Facebook and Twitter in Russia. Several Western digital giants, including Microsoft, Netflix and Epic Games, have also suspended sales in the country.

Before TikTok’s suspension in Russia, the app had seen a slight dip in its popularity. In the week starting February 24, when Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine, TikTok had 476,000 and 118,000 downloads in Russia and Ukraine respectively, down from 516,000 and 127,000 a week before, according to Sensor Tower.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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