Humor and news. How Russian propaganda leaks into Ukrainian TikTok

We have investigated the non-political segment of TikTok to understand whether Russian influences are penetrating through the entertainment content of this network. The weakest link is humor.

TikTok shows Ukrainians videos of Russian stand-up comedians, and often it's "Zadornov-style" humor, mocking the West.

Читати українською

The popularity of short, vertical videos is accelerating. Now, TikTok features not only strange dances, but also bloggers, war videos, and political news. This year, TikTok boasts 12 million active adult Ukrainian users. This summer, 25% of Ukrainians stated they used it for news consumption.

However, there's a nuance. In Russia, TikTok is "protected" from foreign interference—Russian users since March 2022 have lost the ability to view videos from outside the Russian Federation. TikTok implemented this at the Kremlin's behest. This strict localization was confirmed by Norwegian journalists, who in April 2022 compared TikTok feeds in Belgorod and Kharkiv: the former displayed jokes and entertainment, while the latter showed war and the consequences of Russian shelling.

In Ukraine, however, TikTok does not subject videos to such moderation. In fact, the platform often lacks reliable protection against Russian content.

We noted that most Russian content appears in humorous videos from professional comedians or those aspiring to be.

Russian Jokes about Russia for Ukrainians

We downloaded 150,000 videos with "neutral" and humorous hashtags and Ukrainian localization. We decided to search by hashtags because they not only provide convenient topic-specific search but also act as keywords, helping TikTok better understand the video content and accordingly recommend it to the target audience.

We intentionally chose hashtags in both Ukrainian and Russian, as Ukrainian TikTok is not limited to content in the Ukrainian language. And Russian content should be restricted for Ukrainians by the platform itself.

We hoped to explore what videos Ukrainians are making, but instead, we saw how the platform offers Russian humor to Ukrainians. Highly politicized Russian humor.

For instance, a search from a Ukrainian account using the hashtag #весело (fun) can yield videos with a Ukrainian dog as well as from the Russian Comedy Club (known for its racist, sexist, and often propagandist videos).

The best defense against Russian videos is obvious. If you're looking for jokes, search for them in Ukrainian (also avoid hashtags that sound the same in Russian and Ukrainian, like #весело).

And try not to watch any (even non-political) videos with Russian humor. Because every viewed video, let's say from someone like Galustyan, increases the likelihood that he will reappear in your feed. And this time, jokes might be not about spiders, but with a racist skit on geopolitics.

Interested in Ukraine? Get Russian propaganda!

But it's not just the humorous hashtags that lead Ukrainians to Russian content. Our collected data confirmed that Russian videos often infiltrated Ukrainian search results through hashtags like #украина or #ukraine.

Among the unexpected findings were several videos from the Russian propagandist "RIA Novosti", which TikTok marks as a channel controlled by the Russian state, yet still recommends it to Ukrainians. By the way, neither Facebook nor YouTube tolerate such 100% selective propagandist content and restrict it. The accounts of Russian state media are also blocked there.

Until 2023, Twitter (now X) set a creative example in the fight against Russian propaganda. Russian state-controlled media were under a shadow ban, meaning they couldn't be found, even when deliberately searched for by name. Especially, one would not see their tweet in the search results for a hashtag. Only a direct link allowed finding and subscribing to the channel.

However, on TikTok, Russian propagandists not only have their official pages, but also freely appear in feeds of Ukrainian users who are interested in "similar" content.

Most likely, this blatant anti-Ukrainian propaganda ends up in the feeds of those who want to watch it. But it shouldn't be there for Ukrainian users at all. Thus, TikTok remains the only window through which the Russian propaganda machine can work on the Ukrainian audience without special tricks.

Скріншот з ТікТоку РІА Новості Скріншот з ТікТоку РІА Новості Скріншот з ТікТоку РІА Новості Скріншот з ТікТоку РІА Новості

It's not just limited to official Russian propaganda. On screenshots below are just a few striking examples of other Russian TikTok content, which often included the Ukrainian flag or even the hashtag #україна (Ukraine) in the description.

There's a bracelet weaving with the Russian tricolor; a girl in a kokoshnik (tagged with #нетвойне, "no war"); symbols of the invasion "Z"; videos with a Ukrainian prisoner of war and Putin himself. In other words, the entire propagandist's toolkit.

Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку Типовий скріншот з російського ТікТоку

Under the hashtag #украина (Ukraine), one finds prophecies by Vanga predicting Russia's victory, Russian schoolchildren either extolling the virtues of the Russian army or advocating for peace while blaming Zelensky or NATO, and common accusations that Ukrainians engage in deceit and propaganda. There are also videos from groups like Kadyrov's forces or the Wagner Group discussing front-line situations, however, less frequent. This particular hashtag presents a dual nature of content. It showcases motivational dances from Ukrainian soldiers, juxtaposed with Russian fabrications that mimic these soldiers.

Russian content, as observed, seeps into a diverse array of topics and search queries, a pattern clear in the network of hashtags below.

Searching for Russian Hashtags

Our approach involved selecting over 200 hashtags, none of which were inherently tied to politics, news, or war. The search extended beyond humor-related tags like #joke, and #fun, encompassing tags related to Ukraine (#🇺🇦, #ukraine) and various “technical” TikTok tags. These tags, often used by platform users — though their effectiveness is debatable — are part of a long-standing tradition. Users frequently add tags like #rec or #tiktoktop to a broad range of videos.

Our search strategy was non-specific; we didn't target any particular account. Instead, we explored the breadth of content the platform suggests to a hypothetical, non-existent Ukrainian user for each selected hashtag.

All downloaded videos were categorized by hashtags. The most popular hashtags were transformed into a network, where each node equals one hashtag. A connection between two hashtags was established if they appeared together in the description of the same video. In the visualization below, similar "niche" hashtags are placed adjacent to each other.

This way, we created a provisional map of Ukrainian TikTok. However, the data we managed to gather is incomplete, so the map is quite approximate.

Fortune tellers take the lead. This is hardly surprising. There were 102 hashtags intended to help find videos related to predictions and fortune-telling.

Oracles, fortune-tellers, molfars, magicians, and witches - today, only have thousands of online media publications but also actively promote their services in short video format.

And among the "specialized" hashtags, such as #розкладдляукраїни (a layout from "laying out cards for fortune-telling"), one can also see a way to express one's political stance. And to a love spread, add a hashtag with the classic Ukrainian characterization of the President of the Russian Federation.

Then there's a cluster with book-related TikTok content. We counted around 60 book-related hashtags from 160 content creators recommended by TikTok, as they added "neutral" tags like #рекомендації🇺🇦 or #приколиукраїнською to book tags.

This includes personal TikToks like Pavel Vyshbaba's, a cat living at the library, and dozens of Ukrainian book bloggers who post video reviews of their readings or celebrate the freezing of contracts of foreign authors with Russian publishers.

And, of course, videos with hashtags about weapons, war, and victory are in a separate group.

In fact, the theme of war permeates the entire Ukrainian TikTok. From military humor to the Ukrainian flag on nails by a manicure artist. Thus, the main component of the network is the clustering of a massive amount of hashtags.

And in that cluster, it's easy to overlook traces of the "Russian world."

#крымнаш🇷🇺 (crimea is ours), #сво (special military operation), and #русскиебогатыри (russian heros) are just a few examples of how Russian Ukrainophobic content infiltrates Ukrainian TikTok.

And, as we saw with Russian jokes or Russian news, such content seeps into almost all topics, "dissolving" in our network.

TikTok - Not Quite Telegram

Despite all our findings (and the platform's Chinese origins), TikTok has one advantage: content moderation.

On TikTok's website, there's even a separate page where they describe principles for combating misinformation, albeit very generally and abstractly. Videos identified as harmful by algorithms can be hidden from the "For You" recommendations, and if confirmed by the moderation team, they can be completely removed from the platform.

This results from TikTok's evolution from an entertainment platform for teen dances and flash mobs to one that aggregates and continuously challenges a vast amount of war-related video content since the start of the full-scale invasion.

Today, TikTok is constantly refining its algorithms for detecting false and harmful information. For instance, introducing procedures to verify video authenticity against databases, and countering fakes created using old videos with new audio tracks.

There is evidence that TikTok officially adopts a pro-Ukrainian stance. From an interview with a Ukrainian-speaking platform moderator, we know that the "Z" symbol, Russian fakes about staged events in Bucha, or claims about Ukrainian Nazis are considered serious violations of the platform's rules. However, this doesn't mean such content is absent or that the rules have removed the false designation of the "Azov" regiment as international terrorists.

It is important to remember that for moderating Ukrainian content (which as of fall 2022 could be merged into one moderated category with Russian content), TikTok employs hired Ukrainian-Russian speaking moderators, rather than collaborating with leading fact-checking organizations like StopFake or VoxCheck.

Example of a Job Posting for Ukrainian-Speaking TikTok Moderators
Example of a Job Posting for Ukrainian-Speaking TikTok Moderators

From time to time, we see reports about the large-scale removal of bot networks. For instance, the deletion of 1,700 Russian bots spreading Russian narratives in European countries at the beginning of 2023.

Or sometimes, even in the Ukrainian segment, we can observe the aftermath of purging fraudulent accounts. These accounts, through the distribution of clickbait and manipulative videos, attempt to redirect Ukrainians to private Telegram channels. In these channels, manipulators can freely operate without any constraints of adhering to moderation rules.

A typical network of similar fraudulent accounts. The inability to find profiles up to number 20 suggests that it likely became "victim" of TikTok's moderation.
A typical network of similar fraudulent accounts. The inability to find profiles up to number 20 suggests that it likely became "victim" of TikTok's moderation.

However, even with such moderation, much content remains in a gray area. Here, we encounter both manipulative Ukrainian videos about corruption or mobilization, and a plethora of Russian content, often carrying anti-Ukrainian messages.

Even when it doesn't directly violate the platform's rules, it subtly reinforces official Russian propaganda with a "peace at all costs" stance or narratives about brotherly nations and deceitful Americans. This is often done in a humorous tone, even by Russian comedians well-known to Ukrainians.

TikTok vs. Researchers

One area where TikTok falls short compared to Telegram is the lack of an official API, and with it, a straightforward and efficient method for extracting data from the platform for further analysis. To identify disinformation campaigns, researchers either have to write custom scraping programs – which TikTok actively combats by increasing captcha challenges (tasks to verify you're not a robot collecting data from the platform) – or resort to paid services that sell TikTok data and might have certain functional limitations or provide incomplete information.

The other side of the coin is the recommendation algorithms. We don't know exactly how TikTok selects videos for each user, how it identifies similar videos, the extent to which it considers text descriptions and hashtags, or the role of user and content creator geolocation. TikTok's recommendation algorithms (and those of most other algorithm-based social networks) remain a black box, allowing us to study only the result, not the causes of the recommendations. Therefore, to make assumptions about how TikTok "protects" Russians from foreign content, we have to create artificial profiles with Russian IP addresses, as done by Norwegian journalists. To see if the platform offers Russian propagandist videos to Ukrainian users, we have to conduct tens of thousands of search queries from Ukraine (the path we took in this study).

Considering the increasingly significant role of social networks in information dissemination, the black box of algorithms, combined with the lack of data access, could easily become another powerful weapon in the information war.

Interns from Texty.org.ua Darya Agafonova, Vladyslav Bilyk, Kateryna Vdovtsova, Volodymyr Demkiv, and Kateryna Shapochkina also worked on the project

Since TikTok does not share data, we had to use the service tikapi.io from 23.08.2023 to 15.09.2023 with the specified Ukrainian localization.

We downloaded 146,681 videos from 66,927 unique content authors, each featuring at least one hashtag from our list.

In total, we obtained 125,753 unique hashtags. We removed those that appeared in less than five videos and ended up with 17,448 of the most used hashtags. We used these to build the network.

If hashtags appeared at least twice in the same video, we established a connection between them. This resulted in 562,977 connections.

We neatly organized everything using the OpenOrd algorithm in Gephi.

Researched Hashtags

#гумор - (Humor)

  • #кумедневідео - (Funny Video)
  • #гуморист - (Comedian)
  • #гуморукраїна - (Humor Ukraine)
  • #гуморукраїнською - (Humor in Ukrainian)
  • #прикол - (Joke)
  • #укрмеми - (Ukrainian Memes)
  • #укржарти - (Ukrainian Jokes)
  • #мемиукраїнською - (Memes in Ukrainian)
  • #меми - (Memes)
  • #українськімеми - (Ukrainian Memes)
  • #українськийгумор - (Ukrainian Humor)
  • #жарт - (Joke)
  • #жарти - (Jokes)
  • #жартиукраїнською - (Jokes in Ukrainian)
  • #трохипозитиву - (A Bit of Positivity)
  • #смішнівідео - (Funny Videos)
  • #смішнодосліз - (Laugh Till Tears)
  • #смішно - (Funny)
  • #смішне - (Funny Thing)
  • #сміхігріх - (Laughter and Sin)
  • #сміхтайгоді - (Laughter Is Sometimes Appropriate)
  • #сміхота - (Laughter)
  • #сміх - (Laughter)
  • #пріколиукраїнською - (Jokes in Ukrainian)
  • #пріколи - (Jokes)
  • #прікол - (Joke)
  • #посміхнися - (Smile)
  • #позитив - (Positive)
  • #юмор - (Humor)
  • #funny - (Funny)
  • #ржака - (Belly Laugh)
  • #жиза - (Life)
  • #смех - (Laughter)
  • #приколы - (Jokes)
  • #мем - (Meme)
  • #😂 - (Laughing Emoji)
  • #приколи - (Jokes)
  • #смешно - (Funny)
  • #приколиукраїнською - (Jokes in Ukrainian)
  • #смішневідео - (Funny Videos)
  • #рофл - (ROFL - Rolling On the Floor Laughing)
  • #мемы - (Memes)
  • #пранк - (Prank)
  • #смішно😂 - (Funny 😂)
  • #meme - (Meme)
  • #сміхота😂😂 - (Laughter 😂😂)
  • #анекдот - (Anecdote)
  • #комедія - (Comedy)
  • #смішневідео🤣🤣🤣 - (Funny Video 🤣🤣🤣)
  • #смешноевидео - (Funny Video)
  • #ржакатоп - (Top Laughter)
  • #дужесмішно - (Very Funny)
  • #хаха - (Haha)
  • #гуморпоукраїнськи - (Humor in Ukrainian)
  • #смехдослез - (Laughter to Tears)
  • #дужесмішневідео - (Very Funny Video)
  • #комедия - (Comedy)
  • #лол - (LOL - Laughing Out Loud)
  • #смешное - (Funny)
  • #🤣 - (Laughing Face Emoji)
  • #memes - (Memes)
  • #шутки - (Jokes)
  • #😂😂😂 - (Laughing Emojis)
  • #ржунемогу - (Can't Stop Laughing)
  • #смешныевидео - (Funny Videos)
  • #шутка - (Joke)
  • #ржач - (Cracking Up)
  • #🤣🤣🤣 - (Laughing Face Emojis)
  • #хахаха - (Hahaha)
  • #смешнодослез - (Funny to Tears)
  • #приколыдослёз - (Jokes to Tears)
  • #comedy - (Comedy)
  • #весело - (Fun)
  • #ржачно - (Hilariously)
  • #анекдоты - (Anecdotes)
  • #funnyvideos - (Funny Videos)
  • #оченьсмешно - (Very Funny)
  • #funnyvideo - (Funny Video)
  • #laugh - (Laugh)
  • #fun - (Fun)
  • #стендап - (Stand-up)
  • #humor - (Humor)
  • #ржакадослез - (Laughing to Tears)
  • #ржака😂 - (Belly Laugh 😂)
  • #жартиукраїнською🇺🇦 - (Jokes in Ukrainian 🇺🇦)
  • #відеоприколи - (Video Jokes)
  • #гуморукраїнаською - (Humor Ukraine in Ukrainian)
  • #сімейніприколи - (Family Jokes)
  • #приколитікток - (TikTok Jokes)
  • #приколіст - (Jokester)
  • #стендапукраїнською - (Stand-up in Ukrainian)

Hashtags related to Ukraine:

  • #всебудеукраїна - (Everything Will Be Ukraine)
  • #україна - (Ukraine)
  • #славаукраїні - (Glory to Ukraine)
  • #🇺🇦 - (Ukraine Flag Emoji)
  • #українськийконтент - (Ukrainian Content)
  • #українці - (Ukrainians)
  • #дляукраїнця - (For a Ukrainian)
  • #дляукраїнців - (For Ukrainians)
  • #контентукраїнською - (Content in Ukrainian)
  • #🇺🇦україна - (Ukraine 🇺🇦)
  • #українське - (Ukrainian)
  • #українка - (Ukrainian Woman)
  • #українець - (Ukrainian Man)
  • #українатікток - (Ukraine TikTok)
  • #славанації - (Glory to the Nation)
  • #українськийтікток - (Ukrainian TikTok)
  • #україномовнийтікток - (Ukrainian-language TikTok)
  • #укрконтент - (Ukrainian Content)
  • #україномовнийконтент - (Ukrainian-language Content)

    About Ukraine:
  • #україномовнийконтент (Ukrainian Language Content)
  • #укртікток (Ukr TikTok)
  • #тіктокукраїнською (TikTok in Ukrainian)
  • #тіктокукраїна (TikTok Ukraine)
  • #украина (Ukraine)
  • #украина🇺🇦 (Ukraine 🇺🇦)
  • #💙💛 (💙💛 [Ukrainian flag colors])
  • #україна🇺🇦 (Ukraine 🇺🇦)
  • #славаукраїні🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦 (Glory to Ukraine 🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦)
  • #рекомендаціїукраїна (Recommendations Ukraine)
  • #ukraine🇺🇦 (Ukraine 🇺🇦)
  • #українськийтікток🇺🇦 (Ukrainian TikTok 🇺🇦)
  • #підтримуйукраїнське (Support Ukrainian)
  • #ukraine (Ukraine)
  • #українатоп (Ukraine Top)
  • #українапонадусе💙💛 (Ukraine Above All 💙💛)
  • #тіктокукраїна💙рек (TikTok Ukraine 💙 Rec)
  • #тіктокукраїна💙💛 (TikTok Ukraine 💙💛)
  • #українськамова (Ukrainian Language)
  • #укр (Ukr)
  • #ua (UA)
  • #українапонадусе (Ukraine Above All)
  • #всебудеукраїна🇺🇦💙💛 (Everything Will Be Ukraine 🇺🇦💙💛)
  • #українськіпісні (Ukrainian Songs)
  • #підпискавідукраїнців🇺🇦💙💛 (Subscription from Ukrainians 🇺🇦💙💛)
  • #українською (In Ukrainian)
  • #підтримайукраїнське (Support Ukrainian)
  • #ukrainian (Ukrainian)

“Technical” TikTok Hashtags:

  • #трендитіктоку (Trending on TikTok)
  • #трендитікток (Trending TikTok)
  • #тренди (Trends)
  • #хочуврекомендації (Want Recommendations)
  • #рекомендації (Recommendations)
  • #врек (In Rec)
  • #рек (Rec)
  • #тікток (TikTok)
  • #тіктокер (TikToker)
  • #тіктокукраїна (TikTok Ukraine)
  • #підписка (Subscription)
  • #вподобайка (Like)
  • #відео (Video)
  • #українськірекомендації (Ukrainian Recommendations)
  • #лайк (Like)
  • #тіктокпустиврек (TikTok into Rec)
  • #ттукраїнською (TT in Ukrainian)
  • #підпишись (Subscribe)
  • #підпискаукраїна (Subscription Ukraine)
  • #популярне (Popular)
  • #рекомендации (Recommendations)
  • #fyp (For You Page)
  • #capcut (CapCut)
  • #viral (Viral)
  • #реки (Recs)
  • #топ (Top)
  • #хочуврек (Want in Rec)
  • #топтікток (Top TikTok)
  • #втоп (In Top)
  • #тренд (Trend)
  • #хочуврекомендации (Want Recommendations)
  • #rek (Rec)
  • #recommendations (Recommendations)
  • #глобальнірекомендації (Global Recommendations)
  • #тренды (Trends)
  • #популярное (Popular)
  • #foryou (For You)
  • #folowers (Followers)
  • #топвидео (Top Video)
  • #топ4ик (Top Guy)
  • #tiktok (TikTok)
  • #стежити (Follow)
  • #тіктокпустиврекомендації (TikTok into Recommendations)
  • #подпишись (Subscribe)
  • #топчик (Top Guy)
  • #лучшее (The Best)
  • #хочувтоп (Want in Top)
  • #fyr (For Your Rec)
  • #foryoupage (For You Page)
  • #тикток (TikTok)
  • #2022 (2022)
  • #топтикток (Top TikTok)
  • #fypシ (FYP)
  • #rec (Rec)
  • #top (Top)
  • #trending (Trending)
  • #trend (Trend)
  • #рекомендации❤️ (Recommendations ❤️)
  • #like (Like)
  • #2023 (2023)
  • #❤️ (❤️)
  • #топчик🔥 (Top Guy 🔥)
  • #тіктоктопчик🇺🇦 (TikTok Top Guy 🇺🇦)
  • #підписка♥️ (Subscription ♥️)
  • #рекомендації🇺🇦 (Recommendations 🇺🇦)
  • #♥️ (♥️)
  • #т_о_п (T_O_P)
  • #підписки🥰 (Subscriptions 🥰)
  • #тіктокукраїна2022 (TikTok Ukraine 2022)

propaganda TikTok investigation dataviz_eng eng russian propaganda

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