Who’s Afraid of TikTok?
The interim ban by the Indian Supreme Court has led to the removal of the Chinese app from Google Play and Apple stores. But digital activists say the move might be reducing India to a “nanny state”.
Sangya Lakhanpal is like any other TikTok user. Every now and then, the 28-year-old opens the app, mostly to watch skin routines and DIY videos. “It’s fun,” the Mumbai-based influencer with a base of 165.1k TikTok followers, told VICE. “I’m an actor too, so I also rehearse my acting skills here. I try out different expressions and I get a lot of responses from my friends and followers. At one point, I got a little addicted to it too!” On her Instagram page, where she has 232k followers, she has a dedicated Highlights section full of #TikTok videos, in which she lip-syncs to some of the most popular Bollywood songs and comedy dialogues.
“People have careers on this app. It’s very easy to use, it’s free. You see a lot of people from all walks of life: every demographic is on it. There are evolving actors and well-known influencers too,” she said. “Once I joined, I realised its potential. I used to get offers from coordinators and agencies before I joined TikTok too. But when I started posting TikTok videos on other platforms, agencies immediately responded with, 'Hey, we didn’t know you could pull off this expression’, or 'We’re casting for this ad and we want to see this video'. It was like, those videos would connect with the right people at the right time.”
On April 3, the Madras High Court passed an interim order to ban the Chinese application that currently has over 120 million monthly active users in India, and around 500 million around the world. This order has been seen as an unprecedented and drastic move. On April 16, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology reportedly asked Google and Apple to pull down the app from its stores—an order that has been implemented now to prevent downloads (although reports suggest that downloading on third-party web stores is still a possibility). On the same day, the Madras High Court rejected the request by Bytedance Technology Pvt Ltd (the Indian operator and marketer of the app) to suspend the ban.
“I read about the possible ban with a friend and we were like, ‘oh really? It’s come to a ban?’ We just laughed,” said Lakhanpal.
In India, it’s become somewhat of a norm to respond to the usual conduct of the lawmakers towards digital spaces in either of the two ways: sheer anger and protest, or helpless laughter over the absurdity of it all. Exhibit A: a ban on porn sites last year (after the courts decided porn leads to rapes) has reportedly led to an increase in the consumption of porn. But in this case, many stakeholders feel it is more than a mere laughing matter, and actually a cause of concern.
The order has come after concerns over TikTok “encouraging pornography” or being “unbearable” and “suggestive”. Ever since the case started, TikTok revealed that it removed over six million videos “for violating community guidelines” (since July 2018), introduced age gates for new users “to prevent underage users from accessing the platform”, and launched a PSA that reminds “Indian users to behave responsibly during this election season”. In an official statement to VICE, TikTok said, “This is part of TikTok’s ongoing efforts to make its millions of users feel safe and comfortable within the community by empowering them with the right tools and resources,” adding that they have also launched a Safety Center to safeguard user accounts, along with enabling a ‘Digital Wellbeing’ feature, which helps users report, flag, block and delete comments.
“Platforms such as TikTok are enablers of free speech”
While the petition to ban TikTok has highlighted the aforementioned ill-effects, the core purpose of the app remains absent from conversations. “Platforms such as TikTok are enablers of free speech; the same applies to YouTube, WhatsApp and Facebook,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a New Delhi-based digital activist and founder of MediaNama. “The call to ban the download of the app disproportionately restricts speech of would-be users, which presumes that everything on the app or all of its users is negative, and censors their speech without any cause.”
VICE reached out to several TikTok users as well, including Lakhanpal, and most of them told us how the app has helped them find their voice. “Especially for someone like me, you know,” said Mumbai-based Aarish Ansari, implying that even within the sea of mostly song and dance videos, his posts as a pro-football freestyler get a great response too. “There is genuine talent in the space, and my experience has been amazing. So many people have the opportunity to put out their talents, especially from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, and even villages.”
TikTok is a part of a rather contentious internet space in India, which has mostly been misconstrued as negative. Its role as a positive tool has largely been ignored. “A lot of young people use digital technology to further social bonds. It would be more useful to look at how media impacts children and whether there are actual harms resulting from them,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, which has put out a statement against the call for a ban. “We should then address that through a curriculum and parental intervention, to make sure that children don’t grow up to be strangers to technology. A ban will set back a large portion of India’s population from being digital natives, which is necessary for them to be meaningful participants in the society when they become adults.”
Akshay Yadav, a 24-year-old influencer on TikTok, admits there’s a lot of inappropriate content out there that could use some amount of policing, but not at the cost of individual talent. “I notice how there are certain people who dress a certain way to get more followers. You know, a little cleavage here or there,” he said. “With all due respect to them, it really kills me that great content sometimes gets overshadowed by these kinds of videos! But even though I agree with a ban on this kind of content, I do think it’s not nice to ban it altogether. Being an influencer, this is my platform, my audience, my job. I have videos that reach 1-2 million people. If TikTok ceases to exist, all my hard work goes.”
In a democratic and secular country such as India, any form of censorship is a highly dangerous thing. “It’s a disproportionate act of censorship,” said Pahwa. “It’s not a legitimate restriction of free speech. If you look at the argument of porn in India, viewing porn is not illegal in the country. On some level, [the TikTok ban] is also moral policing, which, again, is not constitutional.”
“Singling out TikTok doesn’t address the larger problem”
The controversy has also made quite an impact on how influencers and frequent users view this space. “The whole controversy is around nudity and pornographic visuals," said 25-year-old Ansari. "They do exist, yes, and I feel that the users are responsible for that. There was recent news about a guy dying after shooting himself with a pistol for a TikTok video. But I strongly feel that that could have happened to anyone on any other app. Like, a month ago, the New Zealand shooter live-streamed his killing in a mosque. But you saw how people there didn’t ban Facebook. They changed the gun laws, instead. You need to look at bigger issues: how did he end up with a gun? But in India, they’re taking a shorter, easier route by banning. Banning has become a trend now.”
Pahwa added, “The platform has to do what best it can. On most platforms, there are billions of messages and videos that circulate on a daily basis. It is humanly impossible for them to police every piece of content. Even algorithmically, it will end up censoring more than saving.”
In fact, Ansari said that he creates content for five other apps, including Vivo, Like and VMate, all of which, he said, have the same kind of “questionable” content. In February, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had drafted a regulation to moderate content in user-generated content apps such as TikTok, Helo, Like and Vigo Video. “This is why banning TikTok isn’t going to work. You’re singling one out without addressing the larger problem,” he said.
“The call for a ban has set a worrying precedent”
The TikTok ban was borne out of a petition filed by a lawyer-cum-social activist Muthu Kumar a few months ago, who presented a case built upon cases of pornography, child abuse, and suicide. And while activists agree that citizens have every right to put forth a petition in the hands of the lawmakers, the “drastic” action is not the answer. “[The petition] also has to hold up to the constitutional values of free speech,” said Pahwa. “I don’t think these bans have any grounds. Look at the PUBG case. Just because kids were playing it, there was no reason to ban it. It’s the parents’ duty to stop their kids from playing it. It’s not the state’s duty to jump in and create a nanny state.”
Gupta thinks that bans have become trendy because of the overall lack of capacity, expertise, and patience in dealing with problems. "This is setting a very worrying precedent actually because this is the first well-publicised case of a large social networking app being blocked from being installed in India," he said. "And this portends to many more which may happen and may impact users of platforms in India.”
Has the government’s distrust in online spaces grown worse over the last year? “The truth is, the distrust in technology is there not just within the government, the court or the media, but among the people themselves. And the companies are to be blamed for it; they have not been transparent in how they use personal data, they have taken down content which is not illegal, and they’ve arbitrarily policed content in the past,” he said.
As TikTok readies for a plea hearing on April 22, they confirm with VICE that they’re optimistic about what lies ahead. "The case is still ongoing to date. We welcome the decision of the Madras High Court to appoint Arvind Datar as Amicus Curiae to the court. We have faith in the Indian judicial system and we are optimistic about an outcome that would be well received by over 120 million monthly active users in India, who continue using TikTok to showcase their creativity and capture moments that matter in their everyday lives,” the company said in a statement.
Gupta believes that the ban however, could continue to be a larger, looming problem – and could balloon further if citizens fail to question similar decisions. “I’m generally not a pessimist but I don’t think our current environment is conducive to policy and evidence-based solutions. People have started approaching courts because the government hasn’t kept in touch with what’s needed. The solutions being proposed are being done without any thought and study," he said.
"In the future, we can only expect a greater amount of erosion of fundamental rights with technology if we don’t actively start engaging and advocating for them.”
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