In Russia, Putin is bearing the brunt of the power of TikTok and its potential as a political tool.
TikTok, the video streaming social media giant popular for its catchy trends, has also become the new language of dissent and protest across the world. What’s happening in Russia is the latest proof of TikTok’s power as a potent tool of storytelling for the masses. President Vladimir Putin has been in power in the Kremlin since 1999. He is in the middle of his fourth presidential term. Hence, a generation of kids has seen Putin in power. This generation is different from the ones that came before them. They have grown up in a world of Instagram and TikTok, as global citizens. Their value system is different from their parents and grandparents. It doesn’t come as a surprise that they won’t take silencing of dissent in their country laying back. Millennials and Gen Z in Russia is taking up to TikTok to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny, and in their wake giving President Putin revolution nightmares.
The Noise in Putin’s World: Navalny
Alexei Anatolievich Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, lawyer, and anti-corruption activist is Putin’s biggest adversary today. He rose to fame due to his blog, YouTube channel, and anti-government demonstrations. Navalny rode high on the promise of anti-corruption reforms in the country and he has tried to run for various positions including the President. Navalny has had multiple criminal cases against him and has been poisoned multiple times. During one such incident, he had to be rushed to Germany for treatment. However, on probation when he went out of the country, Navalny was fated to get jail time again. He could have stayed away, but Navalny came back to Russia in a show of courage to his fellow countrymen, trying to send out the message that he is not afraid of Putin.
A Russian court sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in prison while Navalny kept laughing in his glass cage. He drew a heart on the glass for his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, an economist and his constant partner. Navalny is one of the most revered and popular oppositions to Putin. His arrest has set about a series of events that have shaken Putin’s longstanding regime.
The Aftermath of Arrest
As soon as Navalny was detained, his team was able to mobilize thousands of people from all across the country. Hours after his sentencing, videos showing students and teenagers tearing up Putin’s portraits and replacing them with Navalny’s starting doing rounds on the internet. Some of these videos with hashtags ‘Free Navalny’ and ‘Jan.23’ have gained more than 500 million combined views.
Navalny’s team launched a campaign called ‘Love is Stronger than Fear’ on February 14 or Valentine’s Day. “We’re calling on all residents of the big Russian cities to do one some simple thing on February 14, 8 pm,” Navalny’s team wrote. “Go outside and turn on the flash on your phone, lift it up and stand there for a few minutes.” Hundreds of people answered the call and came outside in the cold in solidarity with Navalny and his wife. Women in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Sunday formed human chains to support them as well. “Only love can win over evil,” 25-year-old Valeriya Stepanova said. The protests following Navalny’s arrest have seen 10,000 detained in Russia till now.
TikTok as the Weapon of Dissenters
Navalny and his team have used social media very judiciously. Arguably the trigger for what could be the second Revolution mirroring the 1917 happenings in Russia, Navalny used TikTok to upload videos of his poisoning investigation. “Navalny’s offering instruments, protests for examples, where other opposition members can show up and unite for common goals,” says 23-year-old, St. Petersburg-based Nikolai.
TikTok has given regular teenagers the power to easily generate viral content and spread information about any cause. But Putin and his team don’t know how to respond to this. This is clear by his response to a viral video, which shows an investigation into Putin’s alleged palace. The Russian President dismissed the video as boring and a mere montage. This video was widely consumed by youngsters and has manifested into multiple TikTok videos, linking the palace to Putin again and again.
Watch: Russia’s Teenagers took to TikTok to show support for Alexei Navalny
TikTok and Grassroot Mobilisation – Putin’s Biggest Worry
Putin may not know how to respond to the Russian TikTok revolution but he doesn’t need to learn that if he simply can shut the platform inside Russia. After the first wave of protests, Russian media censorship agency Roskomnadzor is asking the most popular social media platforms to remove protest-related content. Last month, the Russian government warned Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and others about hefty fines if they fail to comply with the government order.
Social Media sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have already become massive political tools used by politicians and citizens alike. The difference between such platforms and TikTok is that it doesn’t allow political advertisements. Hence, it’s all on the content creator’s potential to create viral content.
TikTok has amplified the awareness of police brutality incidents and was used widely during Black Lives Matter protests. It was used in both US and UK elections. Similarly, TikTok was used to raise awareness about Australian bushfires. TikTok gives space to a diverse set of people who come from different places and speak different languages. It’s a free service, hence essentially can use it.
But, TikTok wasn’t meant to be used as a political tool. Its content doesn’t appear chronologically and there are no time stamps attached to the videos making it impossible to find out the time period of events. Until recently, the video-sharing platform had vague guidelines which asked users to be sensitive to their local governments.
So, it remains to be seen how far the platform or the governments let this app and its contents go?