Thursday, February 22

Pro-war memes, Z symbols and blue and yellow flags: Russian influencers at war | Social media

Dasha smirks at the camera and says in a baby voice: “Hi, I missed you all.” It is 11 March, a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, and the blond 19-year-old Moscow-based influencer with 126,000 Instagram followers is posting to her stories. “I wasn’t on social media for over a week and I want to talk about my news and the news of the world,” she says.

After taking a weekend trip to a friend’s dacha in the countryside, Dasha posts videos of her friends laughing, making pancakes or playing party games. The atmosphere is warm, the alcohol flowing. The next tile shows Dasha looking solemnly at her phone. “I was constantly watching the news to understand what was going on in the world and one thought wouldn’t escape my mind …” she writes. Next tile: “Maybe I should leave Russia?” in bold red letters. In smaller black text underneath, she elaborates: “At least for a little bit of time, until the situation calms down and we have a better understanding.” There is a question box for followers to answer: “What do you think about this?”

Russian influencer Dasha, alongside red hearts and the Russian flag
Moscow-based Dasha asked her 126,000 Instagram ­followers if she should leave the country ‘until the situation calms down’

Does Dasha’s concern about “world news” extend to criticism of Putin’s war in Ukraine? Not exactly. Later, she clarifies for her followers that what prompted her to consider leaving Russia is the potential hit to her income now that the Russian government is blocking access to Instagram. She also worries that the military situation might mean someone called Denis, whom I take to be her boyfriend, could be conscripted into the army.

On her TikTok page she appears to briefly participate in a trend associated with nationalist messaging. In a video featuring the Soviet folk song Katyusha, Dasha writes: “I hope my position is clear” and adds the Russian flag and heart emojis. She later deletes the video.

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Russia is home to a thriving community of influencers and content creators, who live a life of luxury compared with the average citizen. Among the most popular is Dina Saeva, 22, who has more than 7.6m followers on Instagram and 24.5m on TikTok, where she posts short dance routines to viral songs and sports an ever-changing fashion aesthetic (including dressing as a goth, an e-girl and a Kylie Jenner-esque “Insta baddie”). Like many of her peers, she references designer clothes, travel and her latest ad campaigns. Dina’s friend Rahim Abramov became the country’s highest-paid TikTok creator in 2020. He made his name with comedy skits on Instagram, often with his grandmother, but now his reel features music, fancy cars, custom clothing and sponsored posts. Blogger Nastya Ivleeva, who also grew her platform by posting relatable, humorous videos, is a bit less flashy, though still incredibly wealthy thanks to 18.7m followers on her main Instagram profile, 8m on her “personal” one and 4.4m on YouTube. She hosts popular talkshows there, presents on TV, vlogs about her life and does arty campaigns with brands such as Prada.

Screen showing Telegram post by a Russian influencer, alongide crying emojis
Dina Saeva, 22, has 24.5m followers on TikTok and 7.6m on Instagram – but only 170,000 have moved to Telegram, where many influencers have gone since the social media ban in March

Until Russia invaded Ukraine, it seemed nothing could get in the way of these young people’s fame. There is a huge audience for their content: 63.7% of Russians aged 16-64 use Instagram, and 46.6% are on TikTok. But as the war spills over into online spaces, the influencer landscape seems to be losing its gloss. For the last month or so, I have been following dozens of these social media accounts to get a deeper insight into the minds of young Russians. I wanted to find out about the influencers’ feelings on the war, the limits to their freedom of speech and how they are reacting to a deluge of sanctions and social media restrictions. How is the pervasive atmosphere of fear, denial and discontent affecting them and their young fanbase?

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Russia first restricted access to Instagram on 14 March. The government decision followed a confusing week in which it appeared that Meta, the social network’s parent company, was relaxing its hate-speech policies to allow posts condoning violence in response to the invasion of Ukraine. It then clarified that this applied only to posts made in Ukraine. A week earlier, TikTok had suspended livestreaming and the uploading of new content to its service in Russia while it reviewed the safety implications of the country’s new “fake news” law. The legislation can result in up to 15 years in jail for those spreading “false information” about the “special military operation”, as Russia calls the war; or calling for sanctions. Later in March, Russia banned Instagram and Facebook altogether, citing its extremism laws and describing the platforms as “carrying out extremist activities”, cutting off 80m users.

Instagram post by a Russian influencer showing grey screens, alongside TikTok creator Rahim Abramov
Russia’s highest-paid TikTok creator, Rahim Abramov, 24, features music, fancy cars and clothes. He took a break from posting after war broke out

When war was officially announced, views among influencers were divided. Instagram food blogger and socialite Veronika Belotserkovskaya became one of the first to be charged for her Instagram posts, which investigators said “contained knowingly false information about the use of the Russian armed forces”. On her feed, she posted vibrant pictures showing the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, and openly mocked propaganda based on Russia’s pro-war Z symbol.

Others, including Ivleeva, posted a black square on their feeds with the caption “No to war” or called for peace. TV presenter Ivan Urgant also posted a black square to his 10m Instagram followers, with the caption: “Fear and pain, no to war.” That night, his late-night show on the major state-owned Channel 1 was taken off-air and hasn’t returned. Urgant flew to Israel with his family, later explaining it was “a holiday”. Other influencers carried on posting as before, only briefly mentioning “the situation”. A few, such as Abramov, took a break from posting, only to start again weeks later. Still others openly supported Russia in the war, expressing patriotic sentiments in lengthy captions. Some of the most loyal came from outside the country, with Dubai-based Russian influencers such as Sonia Plotnikova writing: “We will deal with all hardships! ❤ Russia is the strongest country ❤ This whole situation will bring us all together! We have become even bigger patriots.”

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A black square on the Instagram post of a Russian influencer
The night Ivan Urgant posted this black square and caption to his 10m Instagram followers, his Channel 1 TV show was taken off-air

Although restrictions on western social media platforms have undoubtedly reduced their reach, Russians who know how can still access influencer content by using virtual private network (VPN) services, which create a secure encrypted connection that hides the browser’s location. And the platforms are still being used by pro-Kremlin domestic users to spread misinformation and propaganda. TikTok has been named one of the worst, thanks to its vast user base and minimal filtering of content. The proliferation of accounts in which young people speak to the camera, seemingly parroting pro-Kremlin statements, has led some to wonder if they are being paid to do so. With many identical videos, often word for word, almost like bots, they make for dystopian viewing. These younger influencers, it seems, have become a tool in Putin’s propaganda war, to quash unrest and political discontent.

Ukrainian TikToker says Russia is paying influencers to spread propaganda – video

A Vice News investigation revealed something of the workings of this coordinated campaign. A secret channel on the messaging app Telegram reportedly directs influencers on what to say, how to capture videos, which hashtags to use and even what time of day to post content. In one case, content creators were reportedly instructed to use an audio track featuring Putin calling for all ethnic groups in Russia to unite at this time of conflict. The same phrases crop up regularly, such as: “The freeing operation in Ukraine is necessary” and “Children deserve a peaceful sky above them.” A few of these videos have since been deleted.

On TikTok, videos under hashtags such as #RussianLivesMatter have hundreds of millions of views. The folk song Katyusha makes regular appearances, with videos of users juxtaposed with images of Putin, Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov or even Jesus, captioned: “Who will help the Russians?” or holding their Russian passports to the camera, with the caption: “I hope my position is clear.” Other posts use the “mirror” TikTok filter: on one side, the user stands under the word “Russia”; on the other, under “Donbas”, the coal-rich region on the border of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian sentiment is high. The background track is Brother for Brother; influencers beat their chests with their fists, lip-syncing: “We don’t leave our own.”

Still from a TikTok video of a Russian influencer juxtaposed with President Putin, alongside Russian flags
On TikTok, videos appear of users juxtaposed with images of Putin

As recently as April, young people could be seen holding signs or showing text on their phones with “Russophobia”, “Donbas”, “Hate Speech”, “Cancelling”, “Luhansk”, “Sanctions”, “Info Wars”, “Nationalism” and “Russian Lives Matter”. The videos, and TikTok dances in which young people use their hands to form a Z sign, are tagged under #RLM.

Images of young Russian people on TikTok holding signs saying ‘Russophobia’ or ‘Russian Lives Matter’
Young TikTok users make their feelings clear

Yevgeny Kuklychev, a senior fact-check editor at Newsweek magazine, who tracks Russian-language misinformation, has seen similar online behaviour in response to internal protests before, specifically in February 2021 after the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was imprisoned. This coordinated campaign extended to Instagram, Facebook and the Russian social network VKontakte. “Last year was the first time we saw that among TikTokers and Telegram channels and influencers,” Kuklychev says, adding that details on their operation were leaked by users who declined to take part. “They shared the online job offers; either someone reached out to them, or they found an ad that offered people small payments – a few dollars per video. Back then the talking points were to denigrate Navalny and his supporters, and the overall message was that people were tired of talking about protests.”

A Russian influencer on TikTok makes the Z sign with her fingers
An influencer on TikTok makes the Z sign with her fingers

Kuklychev says a disordered dispersal of online information has been the predominant strategy used by the state to quell dissent. The idea is to put so much information out there that people are confused into apathy and inaction. Another strategy – “digital astroturfing” – refers to generating pro-Kremlin messaging or events that can be amplified online. One example was the Putin rally For a World Without Nazism, held on 18 March. Viral content was made of protesters, Putin’s speeches and other musical performances. “You’re also seeing the Z sign and schoolchildren being led outside to make that shape – which means organised flash mobs. It’s essentially rallying students or state workers to pseudo organic gatherings,” Kuklychev explains.

The Russian flag with smiling heart emojis alongside
In a trend that has been associated with nationalist messaging, TikTok videos feature the Russian flag and heart emojis

Though this type of content has outraged those who see it as propaganda, users supportive of the government line will continue to interact with it and share it, no matter how obvious the staging. The aim is to polarise Russia even more – and it’s working.

Masha (not her real name), 25, a teacher from Moscow, says the climate online has made her more conscious of how she behaves: “I archived all my photos on Instagram so no one can place me anywhere. I’ve tried to make my accounts as impersonal as possible.” She says she’s lucky to be surrounded by family and friends who are against the war, but being exposed to so much pro-war propaganda has made her realise she is living in a bubble. “Looking at some of the TikTok videos, I was honestly taken aback: I’ve never come across posts like this in my feeds.”

She has been particularly frustrated by influencers escaping Russia and showing their “patriotism” from abroad. “Suddenly it turns out everyone knows someone who has a visa or the necessary documentation to just leave at any moment. It feels incredibly disheartening – maybe I won’t get the chance to travel any more, and it’s rubbing salt in the wound seeing other people do it.”

Katya (not her real name), 22 and from St Petersburg, senses the information war is stoking paranoia and anger among the wider population, and tearing people apart. “I have a friend who was never into politics, but recently I opened her Instagram page and saw a post where she says that, now, Russians should be more unified than ever,” she says. Shocked by hashtags at the end of the post saying “We are for peace” and “We don’t abandon our own”, Katya sent it to a mutual friend: “He was, like, this is 100% sponsored, because there are other posts like this one.” While not surprised that influencers and celebrities are engaging in pro-Putin propaganda, Katya didn’t expect to see people she knows doing the same: “One woman published a post where her husband shaved the letter Z on the back of his head. And she put a very patriotic caption underneath.”

During the final hours before the Instagram ban, Russian influencers’ reactions flooded my timeline. The loud and charismatic video blogger Karina Lazaryantz laughed about the platform’s closure, posting a last-minute comedy sketch. She pointed out that her university degree might finally come in useful, if she has to get a new job. Fashion blogger Karina Nigay livestreamed her tears while declaring: “Instagram is my life.” Singer and TV presenter Olga Buzova recorded a video in which she, too, cried about losing her audience. Most posted links to their Telegram channels and VKontakte profiles in a bid to transfer their fans. That said, “business as usual” has become a far harder image to sell as international companies cut ties with Russia, brand deals with Prada, Hugo Boss and even Domino’s Pizza disappear, and the reality of sanctions sinks in.

Russian DJ and influencer Karina Istomina holds a sign saying, ‘TikTok has blocked people from posting videos.’
DJ and influencer Karina Istomina, who has 400,000 Instagram followers

In the early days of the war, some influencers – such as Gusein Gasanov, the YouTube star best known for his comedy and “random acts of charity” videos in which he rewards ordinary people for good deeds – were posting guidance on how to use VPNs or what services were “best” on Telegram, in a desperate attempt to keep things as they were. Though clearly gutted to lose their platforms, not a single content creator I came across blamed the government for cutting access to Instagram; perhaps they were too scared to speak out.

“It’s depressing. I started my Instagram account 11 years ago and it’s 50% of my income,” says Karina Istomina, a popular DJ and influencer based in Moscow, with more than 400,000 followers. She has been on the cover of Marie Claire Russia, appeared in advertorials for Swarovski crystals and Calvin Klein, and hosts a web series on mental health. Her page is also filled with photos of herself and long captions of self-help advice. Recently these have focused on the concept of “radical acceptance”, but she has also written about burnout and sobriety. “Of course, there are people dying right now and other problems are far more outrageous, but it feels like I have lost my job. I hope we will find a way to monetise our content again after some time,” she says.

‘Guys, there are so many of us here! We are the first from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Let’s not get lost, and while you still have the chance, come over here and subscribe’: a Russian influencer whose TikTok and Instagram accounts have been blocked urges followers to join them on Telegram
Influencers whose TikTok and Instagram accounts have been blocked urge followers to join them on Telegram

Nearly a month into the ban, how are Russian influencers coping with the new social media rules? “Some people are in psychotic hysteria and screaming that everything is falling apart; some are just trying to adapt to a new world. My daily routine is the same as it was,” Istomina says. Friends abroad keep texting to ask if there is any food in the shops. “Yes! We have food, sugar, other supplies! But everything has risen in price.”

Telegram is by far the most popular app for Russian influencers looking for a new home. It can be used as a messenger app and to create channels where people can post videos, photos, voice notes and polls. Overall, the platform is a lot less visual, making it harder to sell a lifestyle or an aesthetic than on Instagram. Dina Saeva’s 170,000 Telegram followers pale in comparison with the millions of followers on her other accounts. Even Buzova, one of Russia’s biggest media personalities, hasn’t been able to hit 1m on her Telegram channel, despite posting constantly, and temporarily deleting her Instagram account with more than 23m followers.

‘I’ve been on VKontakte since I was in school! And I will be there always’: an Instagram post encourages young fans to join the Russian social network.‘I’ve been on VKontakte since I was in school! And I will be there always’: an Instagram post encourages young fans to join the Russian social network.
An Instagram post encourages young fans to join the Russian social network

Yet Russian influencers are doing all they can to monetise themselves, pushing song promos, ads for homegrown fashion brands, promoting non-fungible tokens and other people’s channels; some are even posting “get rich quick” schemes on new, less regulated platforms. Saeva is hosting cash competitions on Telegram to grow her audience, while others, such as Lazaryantz, have turned to posting about western pop-culture news, memes and personal videos. No one who wants a future as a mainstream influencer in Russia is explicitly talking about the war, unless it’s to discuss which international brands are leaving or which countries are banning Russian nationals.

Given their relative mobility, it’s perhaps no surprise that some influencers have decided to skip the headache of internal social media restrictions and leave Russia altogether. Even Buzova, who since the war has repeatedly played her 2017 song My People Are Always With Me over her Instagram stories, went for a long holiday with her mother in Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates. She posted videos of herself at the beach, enjoying camel rides and eating at expensive restaurants to “entertain her followers during a difficult time”. She is back now and has resumed normal output.

Initial rumours of martial law, closed borders and military conscription sent hundreds of thousands of people with anti-war views off to catch any available flights out of the country. The Kremlin denounced those who left as traitors. Among them were content creators whose material wouldn’t work in a changing Russia, including Grigoriy Mastrider, who has a talkshow discussing literature, philosophy and art on his YouTube channel, which has 200,000 subscribers. Naturally, these themes veer into politics, and he has been unable to hide his criticism of Putin and the government.

“This is not a ‘special operation’ but a real war, in which many people are dying for no reason,” he says in one of his videos. “This war was started by a person we didn’t elect, but it’s a situation we will all have to deal with as a consequence.” From a hotel room in Turkey, Mastrider told his audience some creators are pivoting to target an international base by switching to English or having an English-language mirror account. “Yes, I do have plans to work on English-speaking content, but my main focus will still be on my Russian audience, I won’t abandon my country,” he reassured viewers.

Where could the Russian government go next in tightening its grip on social media? Kuklychev thinks there may be more restrictions to come. “We’ve seen the clampdown has been gradual and the tightening of the screws incremental, which has eventually led to a complete lack of freedom. It’s a boiling frog effect.” The government has so far given the “extremist” label only to western social media platforms, not to individuals who use them. But who is to say this won’t change?

Russian influencer Karina Istomina’s posts include one that reads: ‘Many people wrote to me that it is such a brave act that I have decided to stay in my native country. But I wouldn’t want to leave for a place where no one is waiting for me, where I do not have any documents, where my bank accounts aren’t accessible and where I’m not allowed to work. Most likely in a month, I would get a job washing dishes – that is my bright future. What a nightmare.’
Karina Istomina, 28, a DJ and influencer who has 400,000 Instagram followers, hopes ‘we will find a way to monetise our content again’

That would be the worst-case scenario for social media users such as Masha, who hopes loopholes to access social media channels and news outlets via VPN won’t get taken away within Russia, especially as international platforms provide an alternative stream of information about the war in Ukraine and play a major role in keeping alive any form of Russian anti-war movement. Like many young Russians, Masha feels shut off from the rest of the world but is afraid of what a more robust digital curtain could bring. Despite their usefulness for pro-Kremlin propaganda, the internal shutdowns of western social media platforms will undoubtedly affect how mainstream Russian society understands the country’s actions in Ukraine.

I ask Istomina why she didn’t leave Moscow. “I don’t have any documents, any international bank accounts, any relatives,” she says. “Nobody is waiting for me anywhere, and I don’t have enough money.” Plus, for her, leaving would be an act of “Russophobia”; she doesn’t want to leave the government, her family, friends or city behind. “I love Moscow. That’s why I stay, because I have support here. I’m not alone.” But she is worried. “I’m against people dying and don’t support bloodshed. I really want everything to be over as soon as possible.”

One thing has been clear for the past month: whatever social media restrictions are introduced, Russian influencers will find a way to work around them. Says Istomina: “This is a test of strength for all of us.”

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