Russian Disinformation Campaign on TikTok Revealed: Impact on Western Support for Ukraine

In a startling revelation, the BBC has uncovered a Russian propaganda campaign on TikTok that involves thousands of fake accounts spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine. This campaign aims to undermine Western support for Ukraine and has reached millions of viewers through TikTok videos. The false claims spread through these videos include allegations of senior Ukrainian officials and their relatives buying luxury cars or villas abroad after Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

These fake TikTok videos have had real-world consequences. For instance, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov was dismissed last September, and his daughter Anastasiya Shteinhauz believes that the videos played a role in his dismissal. She received surprising calls and links to TikTok videos alleging that she had purchased a villa in Madrid and a villa on the French Riviera. However, she does not own any property outside Ukraine. This disinformation campaign has targeted other Ukrainian officials as well.

The scale of this Russia-based network on TikTok is vast, with fake accounts posing as real users from Germany, France, Poland, Israel, and Ukraine. They use stolen profile pictures, including those of celebrities like Scarlett Johansson, Emma Watson, and Colin Farrell, to make these fake accounts look more authentic. To evade detection and manipulate the platform’s system, the fake accounts typically post just one video each. The videos are often released on the same day and feature identical or very similar scripts.

BBC Verify’s investigation unveiled consistent evidence indicating a possible Russian origin of this network. Linguistic mistakes typical of Russian speakers, including the use of Russian phrases not used in other languages, were found in many videos. Additionally, several videos contained links to a website previously exposed as part of a Russian-linked network impersonating legitimate Western news websites.

These fake TikTok videos primarily target Ukrainian officials, including Defence Minister Reznikov and President Volodymyr Zelensky. The videos portray them as obsessed with money and indifferent toward ordinary Ukrainians and the war effort. While they avoid direct allegations of wrongdoing, the videos imply that politicians have purchased luxury items during a time of war, claims that are always proven false upon investigation.

The impact of this disinformation campaign is significant. Ms Shteinhauz believes that the steady stream of innuendo in the videos played a role in her father’s dismissal. She states that when false allegations are received multiple times from different parts of the world, it starts to have an effect. In September, Mr Reznikov lost his job amid an anti-corruption drive and scandals involving inflated prices for army goods and equipment. Although he was not personally accused of corruption, the accusations against his subordinates led to his resignation.

The aim of this disinformation campaign is to undermine trust in Ukraine’s leadership and make the country less resilient. By highlighting alleged corruption in Ukraine’s war effort, the campaign intends to erode support, especially from European countries, for Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia. The focus on corruption is strategic, as it seeks to undermine continued support for the Ukrainian war effort.

When the BBC reported its findings to TikTok, the platform acknowledged the issue and stated that it relentlessly pursues those seeking to influence their community through deceptive behaviors. They have taken down a covert influence operation originating from Russia and are continuing their investigations. However, despite TikTok’s efforts to shut down the network, the app has recommended dozens more videos from the same network since BBC Verify’s report.

The impact of this disinformation campaign on Western support for Ukraine should not be underestimated. It highlights the importance of critical media literacy and the need to verify information from multiple reliable sources. It is crucial to remain vigilant and cautious when consuming content on social media platforms like TikTok to avoid falling victim to deceptive narratives and propaganda. By understanding the tactics used in such campaigns, individuals can be better equipped to combat the spread of disinformation and protect the integrity of public discourse.