People defying gravity, imitating celebrities, dancing dangerously in front of moving cars or even simply smiling at the camera packed with all kinds of special effects. This is the world of TikTok, a short-video social media platform powered by music. Lately however, the wildly popular app owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, which has an estimated 50 million users in India, is facing backlash, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
First, the Karnataka State Commission for Women approached Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy seeking a ban of the app in the state and is set to file a petition in the Karnataka High Court. And in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, in response to another such petition, the Madras High Court issued directions to the state government to prohibit download of the app, citing child safety concerns. Prior to this, Tamil Nadu MLA Thamimun Ansari had demanded a ban of the app, alleging that it contains obscene material.The state assembly then agreed to enforce a ban.
But what explains the intense antagonism towards TikTok from lawmakers and authorities? Does TikTok’s platform encourage graphic content? While TikTok disagrees, critics say that it potentially exposes young children to inappropriate videos and language thanks to its global popularity.
A February 2019 report by Sensor Tower, which tracks organic user acquisition, 43 % of the app's new users were from India. In fact, 25 per cent of TikTok's downloads to date have come from India.
The app allows users to upload and view lip-synced videos and many videos that are popular on the platform itself, then find their way to other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. However, lurking amidst these seemingly innocent videos mocking celebrities or phenomena from popular culture are sexually suggestive videos by men and women, some of them involving children. Many of these videos casually reference rape methodology in Indian languages, stage dry humping scenes and feature children being used as props by adults for recreating sexually-loaded songs.
Since the app is largely used to enact popular film scenes, TNM also found that a number of them feature obscene dialogues objectifying women from softcore pornographic films.
Skirting the safe search algorithms
The Madras High Court while issuing directions to the government to prohibit download of the app quoted the example of one feature by which users can share a split-screen with other users. The court said, “Majority of the teens are playing pranks, gaffing around with duet videos and sharing with split screen to the strangers. The children who use the said application are vulnerable and may expose them to sexual predators.”
A December 2018 investigation by Motherboard, a Canadian-American online tech news publication, found a section of users soliciting nude images from children who use the platform. The investigation also found that while typical searches or hashtags for pornography did not yield results, suggesting that TikTok maybe monitoring these, other hashtags did throw up explicit content. Similarly, TNM found that searches for such explicit content were localised in India too. For example, a search for a word commonly associated with porn showed far less graphic content than a search for the Indian English word meaning dirty joke.
TikTok vs. other social media platforms
While lawmakers have long criticised the indiscriminate usage of social media, TikTok in particular appears to have irked authorities for its popularity and mass outreach particularly among youngsters. TikTok requires that users be at least 13 years old to use the app and also asks that those under the age of 18 have approval of a parent or guardian. However, several under-age users have been found using the application.
The main element setting TikTok users apart is perhaps the option to engage with total strangers, sharing a split screen and responding to their videos. The app has also been credited with embracing a ‘cringe’ personality, unlike the more ‘sophisticated’ Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. The awkward, less-than-perfect videos that may be trolled or ignored for its crassness on other social media platforms are vigorously encouraged on TikTok.
Nitish Chandan, a cyber security specialist and founder of The Cyber Blog India and project manager of Cyber Peace Foundation argues that the attention on TikTok is being blown slightly out of proportion. “Not to discount the suggestive and problematic content on TikTok, but there are several other apps and platforms where borderline pornographic or pirated material is available, and solicitation is happening at a presumably larger scale, in India. Unlike these apps, TikTok has happened to garner more media attention, which is why it is facing scrutiny,” he says.
Nitish adds that we need to look beyond bans to regulation. “A better idea would be a software regulator which can flag these platforms as unsafe for those under 18 at least. We also need to start demanding better accountability from platforms. For instance, they should not just be getting away with saying they have AI tools to flag inappropriate content; there needs to be some investment into safety and trust also, even if it means setting up manual teams.”
‘Committed to users’ digital well-being’
Elaborating on what it calls built-in protection features, TikTok states that it offers restricted viewing mode, filters, and in-app reporting. These filters allow users to ‘self-define keywords in English and Hindi that they would like to automatically filter out of unwelcome wording from their comment section.’ “Users can add as many as 30 words and change the words according to their preference or when they feel necessary,” the company says. But this feature is yet to be introduced for other languages. Several abusive words in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu are still seen on the application. The company has also launched a 'Safety Center' along with implementing anti-bullying guidelines in response to the criticism against it.