The Creative New Way Putin Is Spreading Disinformation

TikTok is very attractive to those determined to spread misleading information about Russia and the war in Ukraine via social media.

The social media video giant is owned and operated by China, and many believe that is why TikTok, unlike other platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, is being a little softer on Russians spreading disinformation about the war.

But the issues with TikTok go deeper than that.

Christiaan Triebert works on the visual investigations team at The New York Times. He has spent nearly a decade learning how to spot fake videos and images online. Triebert said that misinformation is “rife in every conflict or situation,” but the unique differentiator this time around has been the rapid dissemination of false videos and images on TikTok.

“Misinformation on TikTok is a whole different beast than on Twitter,” said Triebert. “It’s almost striking sometimes how [quickly] videos make the rounds on TikTok.” 

Videos on TikTok can get millions of views in a matter of hours or days, but unlike Twitter, commenting on TikToks to dispute false claims or say it’s a fake video is more difficult because you can’t include images or videos proving your point, Triebert said. What’s more, initial posts go viral with faulty information and attract a lot of attention, but the subsequent posts debunking the original video are often, by comparison, significantly less eye-grabbing than a video of a missile hitting an apartment complex, he added. 

A new TikTok account can be shown falsehoods about the Ukraine war within minutes of signing up to the app, according to an investigation by anti-misinformation outlet NewsGuard.

The company, which monitors the trustworthiness of news outlets across the web, ran a pair of tests to assess how the video-sharing app treated information about the conflict. It found that a new account that did nothing but scroll the app’s algorithmically curated For You Page, watching videos about the war would be funneled towards false or misleading content within 40 minutes.

“Toward the end of the 45–minute experiment, analysts’ feeds were almost exclusively populated with both accurate and false content related to the war in Ukraine – with no distinction made between disinformation and reliable sources,” the research team wrote.

Among the false claims shown to the researchers was the myth that the US has bioweapon laboratories in Ukraine and the accusation that Putin was “photoshopped” onto footage of a press conference he gave in early March. Videos also claimed that fake footage was real and that real footage was fake: videos purportedly of the “Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down Russian jets were taken from a video game, while real videos from the war were decried as fake by pro-Russian accounts.

“Some of the myths in the videos TikTok’s algorithm fed to analysts have previously been identified as Kremlin propaganda,” the researchers said by the organization’s Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center.

About Bill Sheridan