Credit: Screenshots from BBC News TikTok English and Russian.

TikTok might be a social media platform first known for viral dance videos, but over the years more news organisations have crept onto the platform to find a younger crowd for their news offering.

Trailblazers The Washington Post carved out their niche early on, but eventually many UK news organisations jumped on board, including ITV News, The Telegraph, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Daily Star, The Guardian, and The Independent.

Yet one organisation was notable by its absence: BBC News. The public broadcaster does have an entertainment account with some 1.2m followers, using clips from the Graham Norton Show or stand-up comedians like Michael McIntyre. But it did not use the platform for news, at least until the war in Ukraine broke out following Russia's invasion. BBC News launched two TikTok accounts last week, one in English and one in Russian.

Why did it take a war for BBC News to join TikTok? Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, BBC News digital director Naja Nielsen says is because the broadcaster did not want to spread itself too thin.

Instagram has proved to be a hot spot for growth in recent years, with 21m followers on its main account. That was only around 4m in 2018. These audiences are primarily young and female, and putting resources into that platform was paying off. Launching on TikTok made no sense without a clear strategy for the platform.

"We could have launched earlier, but to me, it was just important that we knew that it was well-resourced when we did it," explains Nielsen.

"So congratulations to those who moved fast, they're doing great work and I've taken inspiration from it. I think we’re going to do it our way now. It’s late, but it’s not too late."

Earlier, she had doubts that the platform would be effective for news content, as it seemed to be a place where entertainment content was sought after the most. That has changed as other media organisations and journalists (including their own) have ventured onto the platform.

TikTikoers in their midst

The reluctance of BBC News to join TikTok is not due to a shortage of reporters who are proven and successful on the platform.

Journalist and camerawoman Emma Bentley has nearly 50k TikTok followers, providing behind-the-scenes footage from her job. And the UK's best known journalist on TikTok, Sophia Smith Galer, now has more than 10m likes and 370k followers, and was working as a BBC journalist when she rose to viral fame, before joining VICE News in September 2021.

But for both Bentley and Smith Galer, TikTok was not an official part of their BBC work.

Upon the launch of the BBC TikTok accounts, Smith Galer wrote on Twitter that she had pitched (without success) to take BBC News onto TikTok whilst working at the organisation in the past.

"It was not because her ideas or others' were not good," Nielsen explains, adding that the priority was to make sure any new ventures would help the BBC reach audiences that were not already well-served by other platforms.

Nielsen was concerned that because of how TikTok algorithms serve up heavy doses of what audiences already have engaged with, they would have struggled to find the new audience to justify the investment.

The Ukrainian war proved to be a catalyst, or at least a moment that the BBC could not ignore. Realising the depth of mis- and disinformation that was appearing on that platform, they have worked at relative speed to create the two new accounts.

As it stands, this is a short-term service with long-term potential. It is common for accounts to open and close, so there is no telling yet whether these accounts will stick around.

"It would be a good prediction that we will be on TikTok for a while because it is an interesting platform that is used in the UK and elsewhere," Nielsen says.

"But the way stories are told on TikTok is also revolutionary in my book and they are going to influence how we make video in many other places."

What about the ban on Russian content?

TikTok has temporarily banned any live-streamed or new content being uploaded from Russia in response to a "fake news" law which means users could face up to 15 years in jail for spreading information about the war which Russia deems "false". Meanwhile Russian users cannot access any foreign media on the platform.

Despite that, you will see content from Russia appearing on the BBC TikTok accounts, for example this video of a protestor being detained in Russia. Nielsen declined to explain exactly how the BBC was managing to do this on safety grounds.

Where BBC sites and platforms have been blocked, it is encouraging people to use circumvention tools like the Psiphon app as a workaround. In 2019, it also made its website accessible on the dark web browser Tor to allow users to avoid government surveillance and censorship. The BBC is regularly reminding people of this option, and it is providing additional shortwave frequencies, which can be received in parts of Russia and Kyiv on 15735 kHz 1400–1600 GMT and 5875 kHz 2000-2200 GMT (Kyiv is GMT+2).     

It is worth remembering that BBC News publishes its journalism in 41 languages and has long operated in countries where there is not a free press. Neilsen says that both the Ukraine war and the coronavirus pandemic have highlighted the importance of journalism and the role of the BBC to provide impartial and trustworthy news to those who do not have a reliable alternative.

"We allow citizens and individuals to have access to news that matters and they can trust. Then it is up to them what they want to do with that information. In that way, the network nature of social media is interesting because it does allow information to travel in ways that classic media couldn’t do.

"On the other hand, there are some limitations in it. One of them is that the algorithms don't have the same purpose, they’re not always spreading information to those that need it the most."

Surge in Russian content

These moves come amid a large increase in audiences for BBC News.

In the last week of February, 200 million people turned to the BBC World Service’s digital news in languages other than English. Reach on social media in Russian tripled (with the biggest gains on Facebook) and in Ukrainian more than tripled.

In the same period, the audience for the BBC’s Russian language news website more than tripled its year-to-date weekly average, with a record reach of 10.7m people (compared to 3.1m). In English, bbc.com visitors in Russia were up 252 per cent to 423,000.

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Correction: a previous version of this story stated that Sophia Smith Galer has 10m followers on TikTok. That has been corrected to 10m views and 370k followers on TikTok

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