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Is TikTok a troublemaker?

If TikTok was a platform used by liberal elites, the government and the general public might have left it alone

After a week of uncertainty, the Madras High Court lifted the ban on mobile app TikTok on April 24. It should be noted that Indonesia is the only other country which banned TikTok in the past, though the app was unblocked a week later after various changes were brought in: removing negative content, appointing a government liaison office, and implementing age restrictions and security mechanisms. TikTok has promised similar measures in India too, but some questions remain.

When the court banned TikTok, a dank memes page on Instagram posted a compilation of TikTok videos, clearly intended to mock the performers. The videos selected displayed performances outside of the gender binary. It’s just one instance of pages and people who mock TikTok, its users and the ban in general.

Simply put, the online world consists of two sections: the one that creates content and the other which consumes it. The former is often dominated by the educated elite. Take Twitter, for example: it’s a platform for intellectuals to write on various topics. Then there’s Instagram to showcase one’s flashy lifestyle or photographic skills with high-end cameras and mobile phones. Facebook remains more of a common man’s platform, but there is still a hegemonic dissemination of content. It is into this social media space that TikTok came in.

Based more on visuals than written posts, TikTok’s appeal lies in that it can be used by those unfamiliar with written language—a huge factor in a country like India. It allows users to express themselves in various ways; they create videos involving singing, lip-syncing, reenacting movie scenes, dancing and comedy. Some dedicated users even create short-length movies using the filters and effects provided by the app. One doesn’t need any formal assistance or even a tripod to use the application. As The New York Times observed in its article titled “How TikTok Is Rewriting the World”, “it’s from the future—or at least a future”.

The app is particularly popular among teenagers, like most other social media applications. But it also includes thousands of couples, uncles, aunts and grandparents who became stars on the app. This is why despite India having the largest number of TikTok users in the world, it’s strange that no one questioned its ban. It slipped past the usual censorship debate, perhaps because it was overshadowed by the elections, so we have bigger issues to discuss. But that’s a very simplistic view.

India’s women in smaller cities and villages suffer a form of moral teaching thanks to patriarchy. Women, especially teenage girls, tend not to upload their photos on social media platforms thanks to fear that it might be morphed and spread online. Well-meaning “big brothers” online made videos and images explaining to their sisters and families the danger of using their real photos online.

But in a matter of months, TikTok ripped through such sermons. Women use the app just as much as men, uploading their performances and forging new friendships. In Kerala, regular TikTok meetups take place since last October. Needless to say, “big brothers” weren’t happy with this development as it breaks away from India’s “culture” of keeping women inside. At the same time, “cooler” and more educated elite classes looked down on the poor production and “aesthetics” of TikTok videos. You can see this in the comment sections of the videos, or where they’ve been shared on Facebook.

But despite these attacks outside the app’s platform, its users kept increasing, including women users. The beauty is that the performers on TikTok don’t really care about people outside of the TikTok community. They are not scared of society’s judgments on them or the elitist standard of aesthetics.

Beyond the moral lens of the society, TikTok is a platform for creativity. It doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender or social class. There are a number of performers who are differently abled and mentally challenged. Given the unequal society we live in today, it’s almost an ideal space.

Let’s go back to the dank memes compilation I mentioned above, where people were clearly being open on TikTok about their gender and sexual orientation. A number of people find this immoral—but that’s not TikTok’s problem. Bullying and passing judgement on people on the basis of sex and gender isn’t a problem with TikTok alone, it’s a larger one. Only last month, I watched the Tamil film Super Deluxe. In one scene, where the transgender character played by Vijay Sethupathi is—spoiler—raped in a police station, the other viewers in the theatre broke out into laughter.

On February 11, M Manikandan, Tamil Nadu’s IT minister, said his state will ask the central government to ban TikTok across the country for “degrading culture and encouraging pornography”. But any online medium can be used for spreading pornography, especially applications like Whatsapp which has end-to-end encryption. So the larger concern here is about degrading culture.

When Whatsapp became popular in India few years back, groups—particularly men’s groups—were a platform to share short porn clips. Same is the case with YouTube and Instagram. There are a number of channels which have the line “please don’t report us” in their descriptions. Facebook is no different either. The point is that if one wants, all these platforms can be misused because, essentially, all these platforms are monitored by artificial intelligence. There is only a certain point to which AI can track down inappropriate content. It was only recently that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted the limitations of AI-based crackdowns on inappropriate content.

During the ban on TikTok, a number of accidents were cited in court. But such accidents become just one of the categories among various accidents caused by the use of mobile phones. We’ve heard the same thing when it comes to taking selfies. It’s just that TikTok became the sole target of these concerns in the online space. For instance, the online website Chatroulette is not banned in India. It allows strangers to meet online and is often accused of pornographic content. It won’t be wrong to assume that TikTok became a target because of it liberated a large population from the moral constraints of society. And a large majority among those came the lower strata of the society. If TikTok was a platform used mostly by the elites—who are largely considered liberals and have the freedom and subjectivity to choose things—then I do not think the government or the general public would have taken this kind of interest.

When it passed its order on April 4, the Madras High Court observed that “there is a possibility of the children contacting strangers directly”. There is a genuine concern about children being exposed to a lot of content online and even on TV. There are instances of popular learning apps getting into hot water because children used their app-installed tablets to access porn online. Does this mean the government should direct parents to keep smartphones away from their kids?

In an increasingly digitised world, most parents want their children to have access to the Internet to be competitive. But Internet-driven learning comes with Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and everything else. Remember, the UNICEF study Child Online Protection in India reads: “India’s ability to protect children from online abuse and respond effectively to the dissemination and consumption of online child sexual abuse materials falls far short of meeting existing needs. There is a widespread lack of awareness among parents, teachers, the police and policymakers of the growing and ever changing risks of child online abuse and exploitation.” The Madras High Court bench also remarked that India does not have any legislation to protect children in cyberspace like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the US.

So instead of considering larger privacy issues and India’s weak cyber laws, cracking down on TikTok alone achieves nothing. There are a number of ways in which the government can develop stronger cyber laws instead of acting like fringe groups. There are particular challenges regarding the lack of effective coordination between law enforcement branches and Information and Communications Technology companies within India and across national boundaries. Some measures to consider including asking app developers like TikTok to set age limits and ensure the installation of a parental control interface on devices used by children. These measures won’t ensure complete digital security, but they’ll slowly grow into the larger sense of responsibility among children and parents.

I don’t intend to suggest that there aren’t any concerns about TikTok but the point is that such concerns are common to other social media spaces. In the current scenario a ban on TikTok would have only damaged a platform enjoyed by so many. It helped a large number of men shed their masculine behavior and perform in non-conventional ways, even as another section used the platform to exhibit their hyper-masculinity. If not TikTok, there will be other platforms. It just won’t be possible to contain the online world with India’s current cyber laws India has.

And if we don’t sensitise and educate our population about sexual minorities, race, caste, gender and social justice, cyberbullying will continue its course, as a reflection of the larger
society.

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