Russia is using Chinese app Tiktok to shape opinion through orchestrated disinformation as it continues to push through its invasion of Ukraine.
From cat memes to puppies, the app has become Russia’s new propaganda front to stir up anti-Ukrainian sentiment.
State-controlled media outlets look to divide Western audiences. The head of Russia’s state-run RT television is in no doubt. If fellow citizens oppose President Vladimir Putin’s action in Ukraine then they are no longer Russians.
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the English language international news network, is never one to mince her words and is used to making cutting remarks on Twitter in defense of Putin who she refers to simply as “leader”.
“If you are ashamed of being Russian now, don’t worry, you are not Russian,” was her summation of the anti-war movement at home.
Alphabet Inc’s Google has banned downloads of Russian state-owned media outlet RT’s mobile app on Ukrainian territory at the request of the government in Kyiv.
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Googlehas barred RT and other channels from receiving money for ads on their websites, apps and YouTube videos, similar to a move by Facebook after the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia had used a similar tactic in 2014 when flooded the internet with fake accounts pushing disinformation about its takeover of Crimea.
Eight years later, experts say Russia is mounting a far more sophisticated effort as it invades Ukraine.
In the cat video, a husky puppy identified by a digitally inserted US flag swipes at the tail of a tabby identified by a Russian flag. The cat responds with a ferocious jab that sends the hapless dog scurrying.
The clip, which has been viewed 775,000 times in two weeks, is the work of an account named Funrussianprezident that boasts 310,000 followers. Almost all of its videos feature pro-Russian content.
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“It could just be a patriotic Russian fighting the good fight as they see it, or it could easily be something directly affiliated with the state,” said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher and expert on Eastern Europe at the Wilson Center in Washington. “Russia has been perfecting these tactics.”
Several thousand Russians demonstrated against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the police reaction was the usual one when it comes to Kremlin critics: hundreds of arrests.
So the anti-war movement has moved online, where it is beginning to make itself heard and to garner support, some of it high-profile.
Ukrainian flags adorn profile pictures and teary-eyed emojis are scattered liberally among the online statements. The hashtag #NoToTheWar was trending on Twitter on Saturday.
Since early Thursday, when the invasion of Ukraine began, various Russian celebrities, and bloggers have expressed their horror and helplessness, pleading for an immediate end to the war.
The popular video blogger and documentary filmmaker Yuri Dud saw one of his online posts get a million “likes”.
“I write these words for a reason. When my children grow up and discover this moment in history… and ask me ‘Dad, what did you do?’, I want to have written proof that I did not choose this regime and did not support its imperialist rage,” he wrote.
Addressing the celebrities and “thousands and thousands” of anonymous Russians denouncing the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked them and asked them to stop those who “lie to the whole world”.
Putin has described Zelensky and his government as “terrorists” and “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”, urging the country’s military to topple him.
(With inputs from agencies)