Truth or Fake

The pro-Russian propaganda hiding in your TikTok feed

Watch out for misleading or manipulative videos hiding out in your TikTok feed.
Watch out for misleading or manipulative videos hiding out in your TikTok feed. © Observers

Just like on any social media platform, there’s a lot of disinformation to be found on TikTok. But whereas Facebook and Twitter have flagged some accounts as potentially biased or untrustworthy, TikTok allows these videos to pop up in people’s feeds. This week, Truth or Fake takes a look at a video about Syria doing the rounds on TikTok. 

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The video shows a woman standing amidst rubble, crying. Alarms wail in the background and as the camera moves, it shows people picking their way through the debris. You can see the remains of bombed buildings behind her. She screams at the camera, "Mr Trump, please! Please stop this!" Text added to the video says that she is asking Donald Trump to stop President Joe Biden from "hurting innocent people". 

This video got more than 500,000 likes on TikTok. But taking a closer look shows the video has nothing to do with its caption. It was taken in July 2019, before Joe Biden was even a candidate up for election, much less the US president. 

This type of information has caught the eye of Sophia Kathryn (her full name has been changed to safeguard her identity), a Columbia University student in New York. She has been particularly interested in a TikTok account called Soapbox. 

Soapbox posts anti-US, misleading content that often doesn’t tell the whole story or tells flat-out lies. It's a part of the Maffick group, which includes other media such as "In the Now" and "Wast-Ed". Company records say that 51% of Maffick is owned by Ruptly, a subsidiary of RT, a major Russian state-funded broadcaster, according to CNN. Maffick's director is Anissa Nouai, a former RT journalist. 

The video of the Syrian woman in the rubble is no exception: her name is Rania Kisar, she’s an NGO worker in Syria, and she posted that video herself back in 2019, asking Trump to intervene to stop the Syrian government dropping bombs on its own country. She doesn’t mention Joe Biden in the video, and it was filmed 18 months before he became president of the United States.  

On Facebook and Twitter, Soapbox is flagged as a Russian state-controlled media outlet. TikTok, however, posts no such warning on the account. Soapbox, however, still denies its Russian ties, maintaining that it is independent. Maffick filed a complaint against Facebook for the label in July 2020.