TikTok is suspending livestreaming and new content to its video service in response to Russia’s new “fake news” law, the company said on Sunday.
The law, which the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament approved on Friday, threatens prison time for anyone who publishes what the Kremlin deems to be false information about the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Those who are found guilty of disseminating false data about Russia’s armed forces would face up to 15 years in prison or a fine of 1.5 million rubles, or USD $14,000.
TikTok and several news organizations have decided to suspend operations in the country to maintain the safety of employees and users that might use the app to “provide a source of relief and human connection during a time of war when people are facing immense tragedy and isolation,” tweeted the social media company.
The Kremlin describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and a “peace-keeping mission,” so any descriptions to the contrary could be dangerous. This law, as well as Russia’s decision to block Facebook, demonstrates the government’s push to stifle any narrative that contradicts the Kremlin’s official statements or exposes the role of the country’s military in sparking a humanitarian crisis.
More broadly, the law represents Russia’s moves to tighten the screws on any opposition. The country has erupted in anti-war protests, with nearly 4,000 people being detained on Sunday across 53 cities. In Moscow alone, that number was 1,400.
TikTokers have been documenting the protests and other actions on the ground, such as how the economic sanctions are affecting everyday Russians. Any suspensions give nationals trying to speak out against their government one fewer conduit to the rest of the world.
This most recent crisis isn’t the first time the Russian people have used TikTok as a political battleground. A year ago, young people began taking to the app to create videos in support of free speech and to rally against the government’s treatment of anti-authoritarian, anti-Putin, anti-corruption politician and activist Alexei Navalny. Among other political conflicts, Navalny has faced multiple imprisonments, a poisoning and a conviction for violating a previous parole from Putin’s government.
To drum up support for Navalny, as well as express anger and dissatisfaction with the Russian government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and a weakened economy, the app became flooded with videos of teenagers cutting up their passports or throwing them away or creating how-tos for protesters.
In response to TikTok’s suspension, some TikTokers who have been posting such information have lamented the ability to reach new audiences and share their stories, but are resolved to use Instagram and YouTube to get information out, provided those platforms don’t shut down to Russian users, as well. They are also inviting watchers to join their Telegram channels.