(Bloomberg) — Mikhail Petrov’s TikTok posts started going viral this year when he tapped into growing discontent in Russia with bite-sized explanations of the country’s budding protest movement.
His popularity exploded to over 250,000 followers and TikTok invited Petrov, a political science student at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, to join a talent development program. Then the sound started disappearing from some of his videos.
TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance Ltd., is among the global social media companies coming under increasing pressure to remove anti-government posts in Russia as President Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissent. It has even won praise from Russian officials who say it’s more willing than some other companies to remove content.
The Kremlin approached Chinese authorities about anti-government content on TikTok earlier this year, according to an official familiar with Russia’s social media policy who asked not to be identified because the information is not public. The amount of critical content has declined as TikTok uses bans to weed out undesirable posts, the person said.
“Russian regulators have been public that they’ve increased content removal requests since January, and takedowns have correspondingly increased industry-wide,” a TikTok spokesperson said. “We have made no changes to our policies.”
The Kremlin and Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Petrov, 22, said in one case where he gave context for when U.S. President Joe Biden agreed with a reporter that Putin is a “killer,” his video was muted for violating community standards. Others simply vanished from his feed, and he was expelled from the talent development program for “expressing his opinion,” according to the transcript of a chat with a TikTok employee.
The spokesperson declined to comment on Petrov’s case.
“I’ve been self-censoring myself,” Petrov said. “I took down some of my videos just because I was afraid something can happen to me.”
The Kremlin sees the targeted bans as effective because popular TikTok users understood they’d lose income if they posted anti-Putin material, according to the Russian official.
Svetlana Sokova, who has over 58,000 followers on TikTok, said her page was deleted after one of her videos was featured on state television following protests in support of Kremlin foe Alexey Navalny on Jan. 23. She has since created a new account, but says numerous posts have been banned or otherwise restricted by the service.
TikTok, along with Google, Telegram and Twitter, was hit with fines earlier this year for material promoting the unsanctioned Navalny demonstrations.
Following the penalties, TikTok’s management agreed to cooperate with requests to monitor content and delete “illegal content ,” according to a statement from Vasily Piskarev, the head of the Russian parliamentary commission on foreign interference.
The social media crackdown is part of a broader push to quell dissent in Russia. On Thursday, Navalny’s allies disbanded his nationwide network of nearly 40 campaign offices, with a court set to meet in May in a closed trial on whether the country’s biggest opposition network is an “extremist” group.
The Kremlin was slow to grasp the reach of online platforms — unlike Navalny who has earned millions of social media followers despite a television blackout — and has had trouble connecting with a generation that’s only ever known Putin as a leader. Young Russians are less likely to rely on state media for information, and polls show they’re the most likely to support protests movements.
Russia is now pioneering a “landmark” approach to censorship that relies on both pressuring platforms to police their own content and an innovative use of technology to ensure they comply, according to Roya Ensafi, the founder of the Censored Planet lab at the University of Michigan.
Access to Twitter was slowed until mid-May for failing to remove content Russia’s internet watchdog says is illegal, while Google is facing an antitrust investigation over YouTube.
Russia “shows how national censorship policies can be implemented in many other countries,” Ensafi said.
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