TikTok Halts Russia Live Streams, Battles War Disinformation

Young people who made TikTok a top destination for dance-craze videos and makeup tutorials are now making it a news destination as they seek information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but now it’s revealed that some users are doctoring video game images of tanks rolling in and presenting it as footage from the war. Since the conflict erupted, hundreds of thousands of videos about the ongoing saga have been uploaded to TikTok. The war has put the social video platform in the uncharacteristic role of news moderator for material that is often unverified.

World events have suddenly forced TikTok, which ascended in the past five years, to “confront a large scale of misleading and distorted information that has long bedeviled more mature social networks and video sites, such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram,” The New York Times reports.

Many videos — such as those of Ukrainian resistance fighters live-streaming from their bunkers — are authentic, according to those who’ve made a study of it. But other material has been impossible to verify and seems designed as clickbait for those interested in invasion news.

In one egregious example, Pravda reported on the Russian siege of Snake Island, a tiny Black Sea outpost where 13 Ukrainian soldiers faced off against Russian naval forces. Pravda posted an audio clip of the soldiers essentially telling the Russians to get lost. The clip was subsequently circulated in TikTok videos, including some that featured a note stating all 13 Ukrainian soldiers were killed — misinformation that was widely picked up, including on cable news channels.

“Ukrainian officials later said in a Facebook post that the men were alive and had been taken prisoner, but the TikTok videos have not been corrected,” NYT notes.

“There are people who are, right now, seeing war for the first time on TikTok,” said independent TikTok researcher Abbie Richards. “People trust it. The result is that a lot of people are seeing false information about Ukraine and believing it.”

TikTok said in a statement that “we recognize the heightened risk and impact of misleading information during a time of crisis. We continue to increase our safety and security measures and are working aggressively to help ensure people can express themselves and share their experiences, while we also seek to mitigate the potential for harm.”

On March 6, TikTok updated the post, specifying: “In light of Russia’s new ‘fake news’ law, we have no choice but to suspend live-streaming and new content to our video service in Russia while we review the safety implications of this law.”

Meanwhile, ByteDance’s TikTok equivalent in China, Douyin, has closed 3,500 accounts and removed 12,100 comments deemed inappropriately provocative, according to The South China Morning Post.

“China has stuck to its position of refusing to call Russia’s military actions in Ukraine an ‘invasion’ or condemn Moscow, but its people are taking to social media to express their feelings about the war,” writes TechCrunch, noting that government agencies are reacting quickly to scrub off-message posts.