TikTok is being accused of helping to glorify Russian mercenaries fighting in Ukraine by allowing videos of their exploits to be posted on its platform, in apparent contravention of its guidelines.
A study by NewsGuard, a New York-based group that rates the credibility of news and tracks misinformation, found hundreds of videos on TikTok depicting members of the Wagner Group, a Russian private army that has been fighting in Ukraine alongside the Russian military. The videos have collectively been viewed over one billion times.
One shows a Wagner mercenary setting an abandoned civilian car on fire. Another shows a mercenary posing in front of a burning building.
Some of the videos appear to show the death of former Wagner mercenary Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was reportedly executed after he switched sides to support Ukraine, the study found.
Other Wagner videos include what appears to be a clip of a 2017 execution that took place in Syria, in which a deserter from the Syrian army was killed with a sledgehammer. One such video has been viewed on TikTok more than one million times.
In its report, NewsGuard says video of the 2017 execution has been used repeatedly since Russia invaded Ukraine “as a symbol of Wagner’s ruthlessness and savagery in combat.”
TikTok’s algorithm seems to direct users in Canada to content featuring the Russian mercenary group. A search for Wagner on the platform immediately produces a video of an apparent Wagner mercenary in a bombed-out building dancing to a Russian song in battle fatigues and a balaclava. The video has received 1.1 million “likes.”
TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has removed many of the Wagner videos. But one was viewed at least 900,000 times before the social media platform took it down, according to NewsGuard.
TikTok’s community guidelines forbid content that “promotes, normalizes, or glorifies extreme violence.” The company also prohibits content that incites violence or hate against people because of their national origin.
“There is no place for hateful or violent content on our platform,” Danielle Morgan, a TikTok spokeswoman, said in a statement. She added that the company will “take action” on content found to violate its policies.
Videos that were still on the platform as of Tuesday show men who appear to be Wagner Group soldiers in battle fatigues driving across Ukraine in tanks emblazoned with the Russian “Z” symbol. They are shown carrying guns, rocket launchers and other weaponry. In many videos, they dance to songs with lyrics that glorify violence toward Ukrainians.
Some of the videos are posted with Russian hashtags. Videos posted under the English hashtags #wagnergroup and #pmcwagnergroup have been viewed over 60 million times.
The report says Wagner Group is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Russian oligarch and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that he founded the organization.
Many of the videos are set against rock or drum-and-bass soundtracks. Soldiers are shown wearing balaclavas and uniforms with the mercenary outfit’s skull insignia. Some give “V for victory” signs. One video shows the group recruiting prisoners at a Russian jail.
Alex Neve, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs and former secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said TikTok should not be allowing such videos to be disseminated.
“It is an outrageous dereliction of TikTok’s human rights responsibilities to circulate posts that directly or indirectly glorify the Wagner Group’s acts of horrific violence, including executions,” Mr. Neve said.
“The day may come when TikTok’s promotion of Wagner’s acts of violence ends up linked to recruitment of individuals who go on to commit further horrendous crimes. It needs to be shut down now, before that happens.”
NewsGuard found more than 500 music videos that do not depict violent acts, but seem to condone violence against Ukrainians while promoting the mercenaries.
“Russia is pursuing a two-front war: its military invasion of Ukraine and its disinformation warfare using the open internet platforms to spread false narratives justifying its invasion, and now to promote videos to recruit its mercenaries,” said Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard’s chief executive. “All the platforms need to do a better job warning their users about who’s feeding them the news in their products.”