Disinformation on TikTok: Latvian police open criminal probes, while the police in Estonia ask to delete
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Latvian State Security Service has started seven criminal investigations for supporting Moscow on TikTok or using the platform to spread ethnic hatred. Who are the voices from the Baltics that mirror Kremlin narratives there? And why is Lithuania and Estonia taking it easier?
Konstantin Rudakov is a sailor by trade and a TikToker in his free time. In his own words, he uses the platform to deconstruct “various myths”. For example, is that Latvia is an independent country. Or that European mercenaries are fighting the war in Ukraine. It’s not a lie—news about the existence of the International Legion of Ukraine is not a secret. But in the context of the Kremlin propaganda, they become a part of the story of how Moscow is fighting NATO in a war that it itself started.
We do not know which video prompted Latvian State Security Service (VDD) to contact Rudakov (this is not first brush with law enforcement—in 2021 Rudakov was convicted of cigarette smuggling in Ireland). Agents called first when he was at sea and then the second time when he was at home. “I went down [to the backyard]. There were two polite men. Asked all the same questions that you are asking now. Why do I do this and what is my motivation,” Rudakovs told Re:Baltica. When asked whether this experience made him think more carefully about what he says on TikTok, Rudakovs responds that he always does: “I grew up in a neighbourhood where you were held accountable for what you said.”
He says that the questioning didn’t lead to any real consequences, but since the beginning of the war the VDD has started seven criminal investigations for supporting Russia’s war or for incitement of hatred on TikTok. In a written response to Re:Baltica, the VDD states that every day they come across hundreds of comments expressing support to Russia on social media, but the decision to start investigation is based on “individual’s motivation, how systematically and how often it is done, and what are the consequences”.
There are no such similar criminal cases in Estonia and Lithuania regarding content posted on TikTok.
In Estonia, police had identified four problematic accounts which were calling to deport the Baltic government, asked Russia’s president to help to kill the Estonian Prime Minister, praised Russia’s actions in Ukraine and insulted Ukrainians, as well as demeaned Estonians. However, Estonian police classifies it as “misdemeanors” and the only punishment is to delete the videos in front of the police officers.
In Lithuania, police do not specify whether there have been any cases of disinformation or hate speech detected on TikTok or other platforms. Police representative Ramūnas Matonis explained that the cases of disinformation are very difficult to prove. Report about each incident has to be sent for evaluation to the Inspectorate of Journalists’ Ethics and only when police get confirmation that it can be evaluated as disinformation, it can act upon it.
A security guard, a construction worker, a manicurist and others
Due to the fact that it is not possible to analyse TikTok content in an automated way (meaning easily obtaining information on what accounts are most popular in which regions), we asked our social media followers to send in links to accounts that spread political content and/or promote Kremlin’s narratives. As a result, we created two lists of the TOP7 most followed accounts on TikTok in Latvian and in Russian, as well as looked into the ways in which disinformation is spread on the platform in Lithuania and Estonia.
Disinformation researcher Mārtiņš Hiršs explains that people on social media are driven by three things: money, influence and popularity, or conviction. Often the motivating factors overlap. “Imagine if your name reaches 10-100 thousand people. That makes many people feel good,” Hiršs says.
A kindergarten security guard, a construction worker, a manicurist, an industrial engineer and well known disinformation spreaders —on TikTok, political events in Latvia are assessed by a diverse group, Re:Baltica’s analysis shows.
Making money on TikTok with straightforwardly political content is hard. One needs to spend several hours on a livestream during which the viewers can buy presents for the owner of the account.
Product promotion is a better shot at success.
This is what Iļja Černogorods does, selling air fresheners for cars or his course on creating content online. He can afford it, because his account in Russian has four million likes. In professionally produced videos, he regularly criticises the government, amplifying the claims that in many cases have been proven to be false by fact checkers.
Even though Černogorods likes to present himself as a successful entrepreneur, Re:Baltica found no evidence for it. The last annual report of his company in Latvia shows losses and a tax debt of 800 euros. In a TikTok video Černogorods says that he has registered a company in Estonia because “there they treat you differently. At the tax authority agency, they speak Russian.” Re:Baltica didn’t find a company registered to his name in Estonia. Why so? It remains unclear—Černogorods didn’t give any substantive answers to our questions.
In interviews with Re:Baltica the TikTokers claim that they’re trying to show the problems in Latvia with a little bit of humour. However, often it looks like an attempt to protect oneself from a criminal probe since the laws and law enforcement’s attitude towards freedom of speech has hardened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“My content is humorous, I joke, I am fun,” a woman who in the TikTok world is known as Psycho Olya claims to voice message to Re:Baltica. Her profile contains several videos with Russia’s symbols, Vladimir Putin, soldiers being given medals, all with a patriotic soundtrack in the background. Another video features TikTok accounts with the Russian flag and the caption: “Europe and the whole world has risen. We are against delivering arms to Ukraine.” Psycho Olya’s account has a million likes.
Olya’s profession and real name are unknown to us—she refused to give an extended interview to Re:Baltica, as she does not trust the media and is afraid to lose the job.
“We were spit upon. We were humiliated. We were shown once again that here we are second class,” concludes Jevgēņija Šafraneka, a former freelancer of Russian editorial office at the Latvian public broadcaster. Šafraneka says this in a TikTok video that she made after the municipality of Riga removed flowers from the Victory Monument with a tractor after the controversial May 9 celebrations, an event that caused outrage in the Russian population. In another video she expresses her discontent as to why the Latvian state will provide rehabilitation to injured Ukrainian soldiers while “my best friend’s child with a disability has been waiting for rehabilitation for three years. Three f*****g years!” In another video, she points out that in Russia, Navalny was sentenced “not as an opposition journalist, but for financial machinations. In Latvia this wouldn’t be possible at all. The existence of someone like Navalny wouldn’t be possible at all. They would close it very fast.”
When she receives a call from Re:Baltica, Šafraneka is receptive and categorically denies that she supports the Kremlin: “It is wrong to think that everyone who defended the monument, are automatically kremlins.” She says she was born in Latvia and felt offended that at the beginning of the war high-ranking officials said that “our Russians are not Russians from Russia, but afterwards it was like, oh, let’s change the rhetoric.” She says she uses TikTok to inform people on what is happening in the country.
Hiršs points out that the problem is not in content being critical, but with cases where the information is one-sided: “Latvia—as any country—has its pluses and minuses. Latvia is not black and white.” In his words, when the opinion that everything is purely bad is extensively spread, distrust in state institutions appears, and that creates even more space for Kremlin’s propaganda to enter the conversation.
Even though in almost every TikTok account we analysed there were stories from Kremlin’s propaganda, people themselves claim they are not spreading it intentionally. “For the influencers, Kremlin’s propaganda makes great content—sensational, emotional, shocking. It works well on social media because the Kremlin has given thought to how to sell these stories,” Hiršs concludes.
For Svetlana Šimane, who advertises manicure services on her Instagram, TikTok profile is a mix of various things. A joy for her watermelon harvest in one video, cursing politicians for large salaries increase in another, with bits and pieces of Kremlin’s propaganda in between. She posts a Russian army representative stating that Kyiv is planning provocation – to use nuclear weapons and then blame Russia. And Latvian government just cannot get anything right.
Šimane’s account has accumulated almost a million likes. When Re:Baltica calls her, she is dismissive, says her TikTok account has humorous content and she intends to change it substantially in the near future. In a video posted on TikTok the following day she sings a different tune: “F**k, these journalists, who are they? Who are these people who stick their nose into our accounts?”
Šimane is worried that Re:Baltica could shut down her account. This is not true because content can be deleted or an account can be closed only by the platform itself. According to the TikTokers, this is a regular occurrence. TikTokers speak of content regulation as a fight against the bad government that censures its opponents, but it’s a myth. Piotr Żaczko, the Communication Manager at TikTok CE, explained to Re:Baltica that the platform deletes videos that are not in line with its content policies. They can also be removed at state institutions requests, but in the case of Latvia that hasn’t happened. From the Baltic states, content has twice been removed in Estonia at the request of state services.
Estonia’s Russian friends
Since the beginning of the war, the political group Koos (Together) has been gaining popularity on Estonian social networks. It is run by two men—Aivo Peterson and Oleg Ivanov (who has been mentioned as a “person of interest” in an annual report of the Estonian Security Service). Along with the Facebook groups and Telegram chats that they run, in August Koos created a TikTok account and have posted on it almost every day since. In other countries 46.1K likes (from February 2023) might not seem much, but in the context of TikTok in Estonia, it is a lot.
Koos gained attention with their announcement that Estonia and Russia should retain good relations. They also invited people to help clean the Russian embassy when it was covered in protest signs against the war. The message of Koos is that they are fighting Russophobia and stand for peace—reiterating the same narrative that the Russian propaganda uses. Slogans like “We are for peace”, “Let’s clean up this mess” (in regards to the removal of protest signs from the Russian embassy in Tallinn) and “End sanctions against Russia” are used repeatedly. Spreading lies is not beyond them: for example, the group has claimed that Estonia plans to draft children to fight in the war.
Key members of the group are running in the upcoming parliamentary elections in March, but have failed to form a political party (a cause that they asked people to donate money for). Consequently, about 25 members of the group joined the Eesti Vasakpartei (Estonian Left Party) list, but the latest opinion polls show that they do not have enough support to get elected.
Depends on the language
From the seven most popular disinformation accounts in Estonia that we identified by manual search and thanks to recommendations from our readers, only two were in Russian. Regarding content, the main difference was their focus on the way that the government lies to people and makes their lives worse on purpose.
Janar Koddo runs one of the most popular accounts in Estonian. Koddo, a personality that the Estonian public hardly knows, has more than a million likes for his videos. On the surface, his account seems light-hearted and fun, but it contains a mix of anti-vax sentiments and hate towards “the system”. “It’s all good entertainment on daily topics,” Koddo said when asked about his activity on the platform.
The format he uses is the same as plenty of similar accounts—standing in front of a camera and filming himself talking about something topical. Funnily enough, the trend of filming oneself in a car (which might or might not be moving), while popular among disinformation spreaders in Latvia, has not caught up with influencers in Estonia.
Still on Facebook
Comparing the social media networks commonly used in Lithuania, platforms such as Facebook still play a bigger role in spreading disinformation than TikTok accounts, which are limited in their number and popularity in advancing similar aims and promoting Kremlin propaganda to the Lithuanian public.
The account spreading Kremlin propaganda and targeting selected Lithuanian politicians (mostly individuals known for their liberal views) that has gained most traction has been the unidentified user BlackCatNews with 426.1K likes.
Next in line is Saulius Gintautas, a well-known political and public figure from the Rokiškis municipality, who has several accounts to spread Russian propaganda and anti-western sentiment. The account he runs in Russian (306.7K likes) is more popular than the three that we found in Lithuanian (with 19.1K likes).
Other well-known pro-Russian figures in Lithuania, such as Vaidas Lekstutis and Laurynas Ragelskis, also have TikTok accounts. Although they don’t have a large following on the platform, they are active on all social media platforms and have their own websites—bukimevieningi.lt and ldiena.lt.
Information warfare expert Nerijus Maliukevičius says that organisations monitoring and researching disinformation don’t pay much attention to TikTok because, comparatively, the platform is not as popular as other social media are.
“On the other hand, there are no convenient tools to analyse TikTok apart from “pure” human resources directly observing the [information] traffic (..) The discussion becomes more complicated when we realise that TikTok is a social network from an authoritarian country, that is, China,” Maliukevičius adds. “I think the biggest threat is the one posed to those immersed in TikTok algorithms—young people and the Russian-speaking public. However, attention should be paid to monitoring and, ultimately, regulating this tool if it is aggressively used to spread disinformation.”
Authors: Inga Spriņģe (Re:Baltica), Aistė Meidutė (Delfi.lt), Kaili Malts (Delfi.ee)
Editor: Sanita Jemberga (Re:Baltica)
Graphs and technical support: Madara Eihe
Translated into English by Ieva Raudsepa
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