The Chinese video-sharing app may be spreading bad content, but wiping it out can only send wrong signals to users and investors
That’s a first. In what could be a game-changing moment in regulating social media, Tamil Nadu’s lawmakers are planning to ask the Central government to ban short-video application TikTok in India. The State government headed by the AIADMK’s Edappadi Palanisamy this week informed the legislative assembly that TikTok, developed by Chinese technology company ByteDance, is spreading sexual content and messages that ridicule Tamil culture and other social values, and banning it is the only way the State can curb its use in Tamil Nadu and beyond.
In a reply to a query from the ruling party MLA, Thamimun Ansari, Tamil Nadu’s minister for technology M. Manikandan said TikTok is creating law-and-order problems, while misleading children and youth with vulgar content. The minister even equated TikTok with Blue Whale, a digital game that triggered a controversy some time back for its alleged encouragement of life-threatening challenges, including suicide attempts. According to him, several political leaders and others have been expressing concern over the use of the entertainment app, which currently has more than 25 million daily active users in India. TikTok, with a valuation of $75 billion globally, has a social content-sharing app called Helo for the India market.
Of late, the video-sharing app has drawn criticism from several agencies for the content being spread on it. Just recently, Kerala police officially responded to a ‘challenge’ spread on TikTok where users are asked to mouth a peppy number from a popular movie (“Nillu, Nillu”, which literally means “Halt, Halt”) and block vehicles and people, causing damage to property and civic life. Even the ‘Kiki Challenge’, where one would see people dancing on the road along with a moving vehicle, most often a car, had drawn criticism from law enforcement agencies as well as sociologists. Just a month ago, a 17-year-old girl hanged herself in her house at Mumbai’s Bhoiwada after, according to police, her parents objected to her TikTok videos.
Clearly, TikTok helps spreading of such silly, absurd and at times dangerous ideas. Still, banning it in India or elsewhere is also silly, absurd and could also be dangerous for a five reasons.
First, TikTok is an extremely popular video platform that is even challenging the omnipotent, omnipresent YouTube powered by Google’s IT infrastructure, and ignoring its potential in allowing people, mostly commoners, ‘express themselves’ can be counterproductive. To be fair, this was an application that revolutionised the idea of interactivity in video-blogging, paving the way for many clones. Bytedance launched TikTok in China in 2016. It was then called Douyin and in about a year, it reached 100 million users, with a billion views daily. It is still growing and turning a blind eye to its popularity is absurd.
Second, technically speaking, it is difficult to argue that TikTok is spreading anything. It is just a medium, like YouTube where people host (post) videos and the onus is on the users to behave in socially acceptable ways. On that cue, the first platform to be ticked off the list could be YouTube, which, as many social scientists and activists had illustrated, has become a reservoir of ridicule, right-wing propaganda, misogyny and sexually abusing content targeting children and women. All the arguments that work against TikTok can also go against YouTube or even Facebook for that matter.
There Is Always A Workaround
Third, as any geek would tell you, the most popular rule in the world of Internet has been “There Is Always A Workaround’. Even if the Centre passes a law to ‘ban’ a platform like TikTok, all it could is to ask internet service providers to block or throttle it or ask app-hosting services such as as Google’s PlayStore to stop offering them to Indian customers. This is not plausible on two counts: First, anyone can install a version of the app via an ‘APK’ downloaded from the web and on a ‘rooted’ phone such bans won’t make any sense at all. Next, such apps are cash cows for their makers and platforms such as Google and before killing their golden goose they will think many times over. And a ban will send all the wrong signals about India’s understanding of the digital universe.
Fourth, Tiktok is not in denial. Reminding the responses of YouTube and Facebook to allegations that they help spread fake news, TikTok said said in a response that it would be hiring an entity to better cooperate with law enforcement agencies. In India, the person will be based in Gurugram, as reports suggested. So when the platform is offering its willingness to make amends and create awareness any attempt to ban it would be termed as ill-manned and a knee-jerk reaction.
Finally, it is meaningless to impose outright ban on social media or any product of the digital era just because we don’t have a robust legal infrastructure that can be customised to gauge and govern digital products and their impacts. Social networks are indeed creating a crisis of democracy across the globe, turning out to be Frankenstein monsters. As many scholars including, most recently the likes of Niall Ferguson (The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook) argued, these social networks themselves offer ways in which bad actors can undermine democracy by disseminating fake news and extreme views. Clearly, keeping the medium free of such bad actors is the priority, not denying it to those who seek to use it for simple vicarious gratification. A ban, hence, is not the solution. Better awareness may be the best place to start.