TikTok has many issues but banning app for exposing our cultural problems is pointless and counter-productive

Rather than banning TikTok, one must have honest conversations around the cultural issues that are being reflected on the social media platform, and develop societal solutions


We need to talk about TikTok, the wildly popular video-sharing app. TikTok is huge. Its owner ByteDance, from China, is the world’s most valued startup with an estimated market cap of $100 billion. In the quarter ending 31 March, TikTok was downloaded 315 million times — the highest number of downloads for any app in a quarter, surpassing even WhatsApp or Facebook.

 TikTok has many issues but banning app for exposing our cultural problems is pointless and counter-productive

Representational image. Reuters

The social media app is apparently available in 141 countries, in 39 languages, boasts of the highest social media engagement rate and has 800 million active users worldwide. But it is India — TikTok’s fastest-growing and largest market accounting for over 30 percent of the app’s total downloads — where all the action is. Already, the app has been downloaded 611 million times in India. There are close to 200 million monthly active users and the company hopes to increase it by another 100 million by the end of 2020.

According to a data analytics firm, Indians spent over 5.5 billion hours on TikTok in 2019. In December last year, the time spent on TikTok in India “was more than the next 11 countries combined”.

The reach, scale and level of engagement make TikTok India’s most influential app that seems to have (quite speedily) broken through the access barriers of ethnicity, age, class, gender, geography and even socio-economic status in a way that other social media apps cannot dream of.

The non-anonymous format of the video-creation app — where the user must put oneself out there as the medium to create and share content — makes TikTok a more ‘honest’ platform where self-consciousness takes a backseat. It is also a platform where the “real” meets “digital” lives — a segregation which is possible in other social media apps. Certain platforms such as Twitter and Reddit offer anonymity, and even in those based on real identities — such as Facebook or Instagram — one may curate or create a virtual version of oneself that could be a little different from the reality.

In TikTok, that is not possible. As sociologist and columnist Pratyasha Rath writes, “In TikTok, non-anonymity hits you in the face. It is a medium where your body and your face are your ticket to expression. Unlike Twitter, where it is your words and your views. Slightly like Instagram but where the level of your uppityness is what matters. So, there are no anonymous users. And there are very little of manicured expressions. Because, unlike in the Instagram world, TikTok has people who do not have the time and importantly the money to create a better version of themselves at all times.”

This popularity, level of engagement and most importantly, equitability, make TikTok a true social media platform for the masses, and that is where the problem begins.

First, it is owned by a firm in China — a country known for surreptitious harvesting of personal data and infamous globally for data espionage through its tech firms. We know about Huawei and the risks it poses to national security, but it is interesting to note that TikTok, too, has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed in the US where it has been accused of “illegally and secretly harvesting vast amounts of personally identifiable user data and sending it to China.”

TikTok has a feature where users may create videos and keep it private in a “draft” folder if it is unintended for sharing. According to the lawsuit, not only has the app transferred data to Chinese government through a backdoor, it also surreptitiously took “user content, such as draft videos never intended for publication, without user knowledge or consent.”

These are serious charges that forced TikTok, at least in the US, to open a “transparency centre” in its Los Angeles office.

Second, TikTok is another tool for China’s warped sense of censorship. It meticulously removes all reference and opinions that it deems are detrimental to Chinese national interest but has little regulatory or censorship control over pornographic, violent or child-abuse content.

In fact, TikTok was briefly banned in India last year for encouraging pornography and making underage users vulnerable to sexual predators. Since this app is used mostly by millennials, this is an area of particular concern. Third, despite being once rapped on the knuckles, TikTok’s enforcement of community guidelines remains suspect. It has courted controversy of late and its ‘app rating’ has also taken a severe beating after a spate of disturbing videos emerged in public sphere where users were seen creating and distributing content that mocked at, normalised or even glorified rape, sexual assaults and acid attacks on women, violence, animal abuse, sexualised representation of children, terrorism, religious conversion of Hindus and a lot of other disgusting imagery.

Some of the content floating around is so depraved in nature that it is unfit for reference. The abusive content has led the National Commission of Women to file a complaint against a user and there have been widespread protests and outrage against the platform and sustained call for TikTok to be banned in India. On Twitter, #bantiktokindia was a top trend for several days and still continues to be among top three trends in India. The company has been forced to defend its community guidelines but it is evident that its regulatory mechanism is either broken or non-functional.

It brings us to the point central of the debate. Given the depraved content being created on the platform, should TikTok be banned in India?

The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Banning TikTok is not only pointless, it could even be counterproductive. There are two problems with this approach. First, banning is an inefficient form of censorship when it comes to cultural problems. As one Twitter user has pointed out, it barks up the wrong tree.

As has been pointed out earlier, compared to all other social media platforms, TikTok is more inclusive and cuts across social, economic and other social access barriers. It is a more representative mass medium and mirrors perhaps to a greater extent the cultural churning that largely stays outside the elitist bubble of a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

If TikTok reveals the thought process and content-consumption habits of an India where sexual violence is normalised, misrepresentation and abuse of women appears acceptable, then we must step outside our bubble and confront the deeper and corrosive cultural problem.

It's worth noting that much of the content on TikTok that reflects a version of toxic masculinity (slapping a women after getting rejected, for example) also features women as equal and enthusiastic participants. Therefore, the issue resists a straightforward critique and demands better analysis.

It isn’t an urban-rural divide. The mindset that causes users to create and share such content is also reflected perhaps to a lesser degree in other platforms. The lewd messages targeting underage girls or gang-rape banter in Instagram or Snapchat group conversations is indicative of the same outlook. TikTok’s format and user base has made the subterranean issue more mainstream. This is exactly why any ban on the app will be pointless. Unless the root cause is addressed, the content will simply move to another enabling platform.

Not to forget the fact that a bulk of the tools that users in TikTok employ to show their creativity is drawn from Bollywood content that has long legitimised violence and sexual abuse of women. So, logically, Bollywood should also be banned. Banning a tech platform for a value-system issue misses the wood for the trees.

Second, banning comes with its own set of problems. If one tech platform is banned for its content (whatever may be the reason), authorities may use the same logic to ban another platform which they don’t like.

The answer, therefore, lies not in banning TikTok but pressing it hard to put in place a better regulatory mechanism, holding it accountable for instances of omission, and taking legal and penal action against every user who violates the law of the land. More importantly, we must have honest conversations around the cultural issues that are being reflected on TikTok, and develop societal solutions. There is no quick fix.


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