On a regular day, TikToker Mujeeb Khan, from the small town of Rudrapur, Uttarakhand, loves taking videos with his four-year-old niece, Amyra. For his 1.7 million followers, he uploads frequent videos with the hashtag “chachukiamyra (uncle’s Amyra)”, lip-syncing to songs and Bollywood dialogues, raking in almost or beyond a million views and likes. Last month, though, Khan noticed that something in the way content is being generated and travels on the app owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, has changed.
“As a verified creator, I look at what others are doing on this platform,” the 26-year-old tells VICE. “People are not making music, acting or dance videos that much anymore. 70-80 percent of viral videos are those that touch upon themes like brotherhood, solidarity and emotions around humans helping other humans. That’s why content around Hindu-Muslim brotherhood have been cropping up all over TikTok, especially around the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests.”
On December 25, while the anti-CAA protests continued full throttle across the country, Khan did something different, too. He shot a minute-long video, with the title “ Hum Sab Ek Hain (We are one)”, along with #nrc #cab. The video shows a Hindu man (with a teeka) saving a Muslim boy (donning a skull cap) from a mob of people whose affiliations with a specific religion are unclear. Till now, the video has raked in 6.9 million views. “There are over 5,000 comments and almost all of them are positive. Very few are negative,” he adds. One reads, “Great yaar, bohot zyaada zroorat he hme aaj ki situation me (Great, friend, this is very important in today’s situation)”, while another tells him “ Ye sab vdos me hi accha lagta h (This looks good only in videos).” But Khan insists that the negative comments don’t bother him much. “I feel like I’ve done good work.”
Over the last month, the nationwide uprising against the CAA has mostly been youth-led—it started from Indian universities across the country when the state police of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh cracked down on students who were peacefully protesting.
But what’s even more significant in the movement is how the protests have swiftly spilled over to the online space.
This is how Facebook, Twitter and Instagram became this infinite universe made up of explainers, artworks, dank memes and blow-by-blow updates on the ongoing dissent involving a mostly urban, educated demographic. And if you don’t know already, these are also the spaces where the government has come down heavily, reportedly “Chinese-style”, in recent times—from the government being able to take down content to people being prosecuted over their social media posts, to, now, platforms being forced to give out user account information.
But things on TikTok have always been a little different in India, and for a reason. After facing heavy scrutiny last year—with the controversial interim ban after activists accused it of encouraging pornography—TikTok has been laying low, quietly working and reworking on its safety and consent features. Simultaneously, incidents of deaths and killings of young TikTokers haven’t exactly made things easy.
So while TikTok has been a world far removed from the “woke” clutter of Instagram and Twitter, and with a reputation of delivering largely harmless fluff so far, the recent spate of somewhat political content suggests otherwise.
If you look up #caa on TikTok, the related content currently has 43 million views, while #nocaa has 22.4 million views, #no_caa has 3.3 million, #rejectcaa has 5.0 million, and #caaprotest have 757.7K views. You’ll find other similar trending hashtags that accompany videos of users lipsyncing to patriotic and positive Bollywood songs.
Globally, TikTok had assumed the identity of being “apolitical” in the most political times, but the very youth that are reshaping movements and democracies are heavily utilising this platform to voice their opinions. Over the last few months, users in countries like the US or Hong Kong reported facing “soft-censorship” and censorship of their political content and hashtags. Most recently, an Afghan-American teenager’s clever post depicting her applying make-up and talking about the condition of Uighurs in China, broke the somewhat entertainment-based reputation of TikTok.
In India, though, digital natives already have a lot of roadblocks to jump.
A recent transparency report released by the company shows that India not only tops the list of user requests to take down or restrict content, but also tops the list with regards to government requests for content removal. In fact, Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which works towards issues of net neutrality, free expression, privacy and innovation in the Indian online space, found something even more disturbing.
“We have found several instances of how Section 66A of the IT Act (that criminalises “grossly offensive” and “menacing” online content, among other activities), which was declared to be arbitrary and illegal by the Supreme Court in 2015, was being used as recent as 2018 and 2019, in various Indian states including Uttar Pradesh for social media posts,” says Apar Gupta of IFF. “Lawyers are calling this a chilling effect and it sets a very disturbing example that makes others self-censor on online platforms.”
This sets a dangerous precedent on platforms like TikTok, which is known to be a space primarily used by a giant demographic from tier 2 to tier 5 cities who are discovering social clout for the first time. Ateeq Baig, a 17-year-old engineering student from Hyderabad and a TikToker with 23K followers, says that being political on TikTok is a very recent sentiment. “I honestly wasn’t interested in politics or raising my voice like this before. Now that I see that people are into it and want to see it more, I make content around it too,” Baig tells VICE. Baig has TikTok videos of himself lip syncing to Bollywood song “Jingostan Beatbox” from Gully Boy, while holding a signage saying “#WeRejectCAB&NRC”, and an elaborate caption saying, “WE ALL ARE TOGETHER FOREVER. No one can divide us! And we are Indians #rejectsCAA #rejectNRC.”
But it’s evident that, unlike the anger on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, TikTok content around the CAA is comparatively light, even with a tinge of entertainment.
“When I started looking up content around CAA and the NRC, I saw that a lot of people from all sides were spreading hate,” says Baig. “With my videos, I wanted to spread messages of Hindu-Muslim unity and love. The idea of only positive messaging really worked, and people have loved and shared my stories widely.”
Gupta feels this “lightness” has got to with the ecology or architecture of platforms such as TikTok, where “algorithms disincentivise political content and focus on more popular, non-controversial content that can be consumed by people without bringing in ideological differences.” He explains, “It’s like each social media network is a room with several buttons for on and off switch for lights. There are algorithms that are working as wiring. If the light doesn’t switch on or is not bright enough, you can’t do anything to change that because you’ve not been provided that option.”
So are Indian TikTok users being careful? If you go through the anti-CAA content, there are negative comments too. Amir Siddiqui (2.4 million followers), another TikTok user, has a post on lipsyncing to “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola” (a patriotic song) that accompanies an anti-CAA and NRC protest scenes, and has the caption, “We want Peace Love and Humanity. NO CAA NO NRC (sic).” It has 123.6K likes and over 700 responses that included “Report him. I support CAA and NRC” and “U r tik tok creator dont share thats type of videos (sic)”.
But despite the hate, Baig, who is an aspiring actor, believes all platforms should allow young people to engage in any manner, political or otherwise. “In fact, political awareness should be there among the youth as they’re the future of our developing society,” he tells VICE. “TikTok as a platform is huge, and it’s easy to push such opinions. There are so many people and things that tend to get viral very easily and quickly.” Does he feel like he should be careful, though, considering politics might not fit the company’s agenda?
“Till now, I have uploaded two posts on the NRC and CAA and they weren’t removed. In fact, both of those videos got a lot of traction,” says Baig. “TikTok usually freezes problematic accounts but, so far, that’s not happened.”
Khan reiterates the sentiment, emphasising that this is different from TikTok’s well-publicised ban on political ads. “As a TikTok creator, I’m aware of all the guidelines and in terms of political content, I haven’t seen any direct messaging by political parties. Even the CAA and NRC related content and protest videos are a part of creative expressions,” he says.
VICE reached out to TikTok India for a comment on this recent spate of CAA-related content. While the management refused to send a specific response to our questions, they requested us to go through their community guidelines, which lists risks such as “dangerous individuals and organisation”, “illegal activities and regulated goods”, “violent and graphic content”, “hate speech” and “harassment and bullying” among others. “Offering a safe and supportive environment is our top priority,” reads the policy. “We believe that feeling safe is essential to helping people feel comfortable with expressing themselves openly and creatively.”
But a pertinent question remains. With the ongoing dangers of social media users being arrested and the existence of an atmosphere of uncertainty that leads to self-censorship, along with increasing reports of digital spaces being arm-twisted by the authorities to censor and restrict content—how free are young Indians really on platforms such as TikTok?
Gupta, who is currently travelling across protest sites to engage with young people on internet safety during the CAA protests, feels that now that young people have been successfully circumventing tight social media platform rules to voice dissent—case in point, the makeup tutorial featuring the advisory on Uighur Muslims in China—they need to look beyond just blaming governments and authorities. “They need to focus on what is enabling this repressive environment, and that the problem is not just the present government of the day,” he says. “They need to question the way governments legalise different forms of subjugation and control, which in turn is giving power to policing mechanisms and administrative bodies that crush dissent and free speech.”.
As we witness the beginning of the year at a very high note in terms of the intensity and scale of dissent, it’s important to look at the way forward. Concludes Gupta, “It’s become very important for us to meaningfully engage with structural faults of our laws and ask whether certain laws even make sense in today’s times.” As recent history has shown—especially when it comes to colonial laws used by the British back then to suppress Indians, being used to suppress Indians by our own government even now—most often they do not. And this is why, young people experimenting with digital and intangible ways to protest is the most political thing we have seen and will continue to see in the near future.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.