09/25/2021

The TikTok Curse: The Constant Struggle to Create

Warisha is a young advertising professional from Karachi who was a regular TikTok user before it got targeted with repeated government censorship. She says that she started using TikTok for her work owing to an increased interest of corporate brands to integrate it in their marketing campaigns, but soon her consumption turned personal and now, according to her, it is mostly for entertainment. She says, “Tiktok videos are short and catchy, [making them] perfect for my attention span. I watch them usually to kill time during the commute that I have to cover from work to back home.”

Ever since its global launch in 2018, content creators around the world quickly started using the video-sharing platform. By the end of 2020, the app had 1.9 billion monthly active users with a 93 percent increase in gross profits at US$19 billion, bringing the revenue to US$34.3 billion, up by 111 percent from the previous year. The app, however, did not have an easy start, as giants like Facebook, Google and Snap Inc already had a stronghold on the target audience that TikTok was trying to reach. However, TikTok is now increasingly considered a competitor of social media giant Facebook by its founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

Before it became competition, TikTok was Zuckerberg’s next potential acquisition, just like Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook tried to buy the company Musical.ly, which was later acquired by Chinese company ByteDance in 2017, and was rebranded to TikTok and subsequently launched in the following year. For a new application to directly challenge social media monopoly in the market, TikTok is now a preferred app for billions around the world for the convenience it presents.

It became a mainstream application quicker than its competitors primarily because of widespread internet access along with the ownership of smartphones by the young population that the app is most popular amongst. Moreover, with its easy to understand, user-friendly interface, the app found a home within those communities as well that might not necessarily have the knowledge required to operate other smartphone applications. The straightforward interface allows users to access content as soon as the app is opened, with the ability to create their own video with a single click. Whereas other applications demand coherence in written language and context, TikTok only requires them to be able to click the record button and start talking.

On TikTok, ideas belong to everyone

In a sense, TikTok democratised communication by reaching within communities who were not fluent in English – the preferred language on most of the internet. It promised content to audiences, no matter how they looked, where they were from, where they studied, how they spoke, and whether they were rich or not. In fact, TikTok was found to be more popular among lower and working class communities, who find it easier to open the camera and start acting. It is only then the talent within these communities came forth, and an app truly belonged to everyone.

Shmyla Khan, an avid TikTok user and a digital rights advocate from Lahore, says that TikTok has reduced the very visible class divide on the internet. According to her, “A lot of this has to do with the architecture of TikTok and how it’s designed because there’s not a lot of text involved when you open the app. The culture on [this app] is very visual-based, and I think that has really changed the game in terms of who gets to create and consume content.

One of the limitations that incurred in writing this article is that no member of the working class community could be reached for comment owing to the ban on TikTok in the country. However, based on observations, these communities have consistently used the platform to unintentionally present themselves in a different light while merely enjoying the application that resonated with them. It allowed for them to separate their identity as someone with limited social capital to someone with immense talent – it visibilised them on the global online sphere.

Shmyla believes that because TikTok is intuitively designed rather than designed around people who are comfortable with text, and says, “This led people who are middle class or lower income class to really gravitate towards TikTok, and it creates a particular kind of culture both in Pakistan and India, and a kind of sensibility and aesthetic that is missing from mainstream media where [there’s still] a lot of gatekeeping in terms of the visuals and the kinds of people we see.” 

Shmyla adds that even when a middle class aesthetic is represented in mainstream media, for example, it is always from an upper class and sanitised lens, indicating the concealing of actual lives and faces of middle and lower income classes. “With TikTok, it’s very authentic. It creates a space where a lot of people could participate who a lot of times would not find [opportunities of] participation or the ability to create their own content in other spaces.”

With millions of views and followers on TikTok, the often marginalised lower income communities are finding ways to create content that puts them in a different, truer light.

TikTok enabled those otherwise struggling to gain audience attention for their content to find a home on the app which highlighted the talents that have so far been hidden from mainstream conversation. A play with camera tricks and transitions, acting, special effects, exceptional production, dedication and hard work applied to merely 10 to 15 second videos are enough to determine the value that TikTok holds for those who are not given a limelight on a regular basis.

Laiba Zainab, a journalist and an activist from Punjab, says, “The best part about TikTok is that it does not matter which financial background or social strata you belong to, you can become a TikTok star. You don’t need to have a perfect camera or background, and you don’t need to have the false beauty standards to become an influencer on TikTok. So pretty much anyone can become a TikTok celebrity.” She further adds, “The class difference that is very evident on other social media platforms, you don’t see it on TikTok, and maybe that’s why it became so popular so quickly.”

Warisha agrees, and says, “Tiktok is the platform which helps the most with virality. This is where anyone can be noticed – it does not have to do with how popular the person is or how many likes of followers that they have. Content is the main thing which matters here, [and] you only need to be creative enough to get noticed and eventually be viral across the platform.”

Laraib Mehtab, a 27 year old content creator from Islamabad, says that she used to make content for TikTok everyday before it was banned. “I used to [post] three videos per day, and sometimes four. I used to create fashion [and] styling and funny meme content. For example, outfit of the day videos where I would show what I am wearing today or how to style one shirt and make different outfits with it.” 

According to Laraib, “Tiktok has the most organic reach among all social media platforms and it is the place to catch an eye if you are a creator or a brand.”

Then why is it targeted with constant criticism by governments and citizens alike? In India, TikTok is banned with official reasons based on security. Meanwhile, in 2020, the Donald Trump administration announced banning of the app in the United States of America by September 15 of the same year due to the app’s affiliation with Chinese company ByteDance that is obligated to follow the laws of China to operate. Much like India, the Trump administration’s announcement was also based on concerns over the lack of security of US citizens’ data on the app, and the potential abuse of their information given the Chinese government’s repressive internet regulatory and surveillance regime. But the app was later unbanned.

Of Immorality and Algorithms

However, in Pakistan, TikTok is undergoing its fourth ban in one year with reasons that were not based on security concerns of citizens’ data. In fact, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the authority responsible of regulating the internet under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, banned, unbanned, banned, unbanned, banned, unbanned, and banned TikTok on the basis of immoral, obscene and objectionable content on the app. But no Pakistani law has successfully defined what constitutes “objectionable”, “obscene” or “immoral” concretely and clearly, and most decisions taken under the garb of these terms remain arbitrary.

It is imperative to highlight that while blocking the content, the authorities fail to consider the basics of how social media functions. Much like the rest of the internet, any content on TikTok has to be searched for in order for it to be shown to a user, as TikTok’s content algorithm only suggests the kind of content that it thinks a person would like. Warisha, the advertising professional from Karachi, says, “I wanted to see a mix of both local and international content, and of multiple genres like cooking, humor and fashion. It was a bit tricky to find the right content for me when I initially joined the app.” She adds, “I had to initially follow the international content pages so I can start viewing their content on the Following page. After a while, such content started appearing on the For You Page – commonly referred to as FYP on the app – so now I’m pretty satisfied that Tiktok shows exactly the type of content that I’d like to see.”

It’s abundantly clear that algorithms on the internet only show content based on the interactions of the person, and no news feed, timeline or For You page for two people look similar. With each person’s interaction and content consumption varying with their interests and search pattern, it becomes all the more difficult to determine what would be deemed immoral or objectionable for each one of them. In a way, this is the gist of the subjectivity of these terms; just like someone’s normal could be another person’s abnormal, similarly, content that someone considers “objectionable” may be acceptable for others. 

Laiba says that the definition of “immorality” differs for everyone, and it is hard to have people agree on one definition. Imad Kazmi, a manager to some of the TikTok content creators, says that he did see some immoral content until last year, but TikTok started regulating it better this year. When asked what kind of content it entailed, Imad said, “There were different kinds of immoral content, one of which is wasting food and resources making a trend. People were spilling liters of milk / cold drinks just to get likes,” adding, “there were [also] some people uploading content like catcalling girls just to get likes.”

For Warisha, immoral and obscene content is the one that is sexist and has racist undertones to it. Laiba thinks dancing, lip syncing on songs, and showing talent on TikTok is not immoral, but she does say that the content that she had to watch for her reporting was incredibly misogynistic. She adds, “All kinds of content is available on every platform. It’s up to a person what kind of content they want to avail.”

A flash survey conducted on Twitter for this article suggests that people have different ideas about what constitutes immoral and obscene for them. Out of 204 people who responded, over 70 percent said immorality constitutes violence, whereas 17 percent said that it is nudity, 3.4 percent said that it is public display of affection, and almost 9 percent said immorality consists of reasons that are not listed in the poll. Respondents also wrote that intentionally violating someone’s consent and going against the moral code of a place or person constitute immorality.

Going by the cultural definition and moral code of obscenity in Pakistan, nudity, physical affection among consenting adults, queer individuals, women’s bodies, amongst other vague identifiers are considered “objectionable”. On the internet, this content would only appear when someone repeatedly specifically looks for this content and trains the algorithm to suggest similar videos.

Shmyla says that the arbitrary moral codes impact everyone who dares to digress from traditional roles of gender and identity. “Morality is a patriarchal construct and it has been used everytime to police and discipline bodies that are nonconforming to patriarchal stereotypes.” She says that women, as well as men who deviate from the binary gender representation, are targeted by morality policing. “We see more of that on women’s bodies because the role prescribed to women is so narrow that anything that they do on TikTok will be a deviation.”

However, the sexist and misogynistic commentary that Warisha and Laiba are worried about is not the reason authorities and individuals demand bans on the app. In fact, the association of morality with women’s bodies, people’s personal identities, their free expression and the speech that directly targets the heteronormative ideas of personhood have, over time, become the reason for TikTok in particular, and the internet in general, to be targeted and overregulated.

According to Shmyla, TikTok’s ability to force people, especially women, queer and marginalised groups, to be visible is what makes many of its critics uncomfortable. “Usually women have navigated spaces that have kept them somewhat invisible, but because of the nature of TikTok and because it’s fun, it has led to women being very visible online. And women taking up space, whether it’s online or offline, in and of itself is offensive to a lot of people.”

She highlights that the problem does not seem to be with the app itself, but with how dehumanised and invisibilised individuals have dared to express joy and personhood on a public platform. “I think it’s a combination of discomfort with women, marginalised queer folks taking up space where they don’t belong per se, and then expressing themselves in a particular way which doesn’t conform to this puritarian respectability idea that upper middle class and middle class folks are used to.”

Culturally, Pakistani society links honour and respect of the family, a man and the community at large with women’s bodies. Voicing any expression that challenges the “sad and bechari aurat” trope seen in Pakistan’s mainstream media and further perpetuated within households is seen as an attack on this honour. As Shmyla mentioned, TikTok is a space that visibilises women’s ability to express various emotions, thus being constantly targeted for its ability to humanise them.

For TikTok, the morality is middle class

However, where women are being seen as individuals with the ability to express a range of emotions, there is also constant policing of their existence that is mostly coupled with unprecedented abuse. Shmyla says, “If you check the comments section under any woman’s video on TikTok, you would notice that all the comments are about her appearance, how she’s dressed, how she speaks and looks, and about her beauty or the lack thereof.” And given this scrutinous reaction to a woman’s presence on the screen, a certain kind of hypocrisy is also evident amongst those who consume this content on a regular basis, and then object to it.

In a way, this sense of entitlement is rooted in the morality ingrained in society, where people believe it is their responsibility to eradicate notions that do not align with their personal beliefs. Hence, others follow the lead demanding that only one set of beliefs exist in any given society. This is also evident in how the current Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government has introduced a Single National Curriculum (SNC) in the country that obligates schools to implement a single curriculum focused on one religious ideology across the country where various other religious communities exist. The apparent motive is to reduce exposure to different ideologies, forcing people to accept and adhere to a mindset that aligns with that of the government and of the majority.

This forceful acceptance of one ideology threatens critical thinking, and pits individuals against each other, furthering the mob mentality that is already prevalent in the country. With the bans on platforms like TikTok, as well as YouTube in 2013 and Facebook in 2010, such bans will be repeated until a precedent is established that upholds people’s right to free expression, speech and access to information over hurt sentiments.

Until that happens, this sense of morality will continue to lead to a mob mentality, where every person in a given circle feels obligated to take drastic measures and demand that actions be taken according to the moral code they hold on to. This, then, has a ripple effect on how official institutions work, owing to the fear of weaponisation of certain belief systems rooted in religious and cultural ideologies that reject differences and contradictions.

Shmyla says a lot of the attacks on progressive ideologies that we see in the current times are framed as cultural wars. She shares, “It is always anti-feminist rhetoric and the claims that these narratives put our nation, Pakistaniyat and our Islamic faith under threat that the ring wing groups use.”

The reason why TikTok has been the overwhelming target of censorship for the past one year in Pakistan is largely this same sense of morality that moulds legal frameworks to meet its standards. Every petition to ban TikTok and every notification to ban it followed the same reason – immoral and obscene content. PTA’s press releases maintain that it had successfully negotiated with TikTok’s management to take down content that offends the morality of Pakistani society, yet the app remains an unfettered target. 

Asad Baig, the co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “This is mostly an intimidation tactic by the authorities to have social media platforms agree on the terms that the government wants them to follow. But you also don’t have to look too deep into it to understand that this regime of censorship is legitimised by the legal framework that the lawmakers have set up over the years.” 

He adds that the problems that have continuously been highlighted by civil society were intentionally ignored, “You would assume that when someone is warned of the negative implications of a law, a lawmaker or an official authority would listen to the concerns and make the legislation better. I’m convinced that the laws regulating the internet are intentionally kept vague to give sweeping powers to the authorities to take actions and, as in the case of TikTok, abuse these powers for various reasons.”

Shmyla agrees, and adds, “Our state also prescribes to, or doesn’t have the courage to stand up to, these forces or maybe doesn’t even want to stand up to them because it’s an easy thing to pick on. And I think the state is also the reflection of the kind of attitudes that prevail in society.” She says that at some point, PTA must have agreed to the kinds of complaints that it received against TikTok, “and must have said that these women and people are getting too out of hand.”

It is imperative to mention that implementing authorities do so under laws such as PECA, that give wide powers to the PTA to block online content on ambiguous grounds under heavily-criticised Section 37: Unlawful Online Content. These implementing authorities include the same people who are an active part of a society that is too sensitive and inclined towards their strictly conservative moral codes and ideologies. According to Asad, expecting that it is possible for these people to separate their morality when they implement laws will be naive.

What’s at stake?

While TikTok agreed to comply with PTA’s demands of removing “inappropriate” content, the terms of this negotiation were not made public by either party. Attempts to intimidate the app is part of the PTA’s larger efforts to, what seems like, control online spaces while abusing the powers given to the the regulator under section 37 of PECA, which enables it to block content. Section 37 has granted wide powers to the telecom authority to block and remove content from Pakistan’s internet at its discretion. In addition, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) and PTA have introduced the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020, commonly known as the Social Media Rules, that give a widespread range of powers to the authorities.

However, PTA’s arbitrary use of powers prescribed under Section 37 were questioned by the Islamabad High Court (IHC) multiple times, with notices being issued to PTA and MoITT on July 30 in a hearing challenging the fourth ban on TikTok. Whereas, on August 6, Justice Athar Minallah sought a response from Secretary Information Technology in relation to the ban, while remarking that, “In the 21st century, social media applications are a source of livelihood for the people. Does the PTA want to cut Pakistan off from the rest of the world? All types of videos are also available on YouTube. Will PTA also block YouTube? Will Google also have to be shut down?”

Asad Baig, the founder of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “The Court has highlighted two very important aspects that need to be considered everytime a ban is being imposed. First, can we afford to block any online platform knowing all the positive impacts it has on people’s life and livelihoods? And second, with one platform closed, people will move to another platform to access the same content. You cannot stop someone from seeing what they want to see online. The internet does not work this way.”

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It is, in fact, true. TikTok is not just a platform where users can post anything without being regulated. It has community guidelines and policies that every user is subjected to, and the app has taken drastic measures to remove content on the platform that violate these guidelines, at least over the past one year. For instance, TikTok removed over 6 million videos in the first quarter of 2021 that were uploaded from Pakistan. Around 15 percent of the removed videos were adult nudity and sexual activities. According to TikTok’s transparency report, “In the Pakistani market, TikTok removed 6,495,992 videos making it the second market to get the most videos removed after the USA, where 8,540,088 videos were removed.”

However, most of the content on TikTok is not adult nudity and sexual activities. Instead, the targeted content is videos that people share to show their talent, to share information, start trends, educate and raise awareness, or to just follow pop culture. Journalist Laiba Zainab from Punjab shared that the informational content on TikTok is vast and helps people learn new things in an informal and memorable way. “There are a lot of doctors out there, people who give mental health awareness, then there are also people who give you tips regarding cooking, cleaning your home.” She further adds, “But then there are also people who you see talking about social issues.”

Shmyla Khan, the digital rights advocate, says that the ban on TikTok is very interesting because while you would assume that it could be politically motivated to control the narrative, it is not. She says, “A ban on a platform like Twitter could be considered politically driven because that’s where most political commentary happens, but with TikTok it is more based on cultural and gender aspects coming into play, at least from the kind of rhetoric that is generating and the type of groups that are mobilising against it.”

TikTok employs an informal approach to addressing various social issues in the country in order to raise awareness. A commentary on patriarchal roles defined within the household when contextualised might not resonate with the masses, or even those people who inflict these roles within their households. But a lighthearted TikTok video with staged emotions but strong narration of the message stays with the audience and becomes relatable for everyone.

There is also directly informational content on TikTok that raises awareness about the most relatable issue that has engulfed the world within a matter of a year: COVID-19. This is why the Punjab Government in June 2020, invited “TikTok stars” to partner with the government to raise awareness about the virus in the country. This development could be perceived as an acknowledgement that the platform holds significant power amongst the masses who even the government cannot reach and convince to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. It was a testament to the fact that the work TikTok content creators are doing in the country has an incredible impact on their audience. Just two weeks before the latest ban, on July 16, 2021, the President of Pakistan Mr. Arif Alvi also joined Twitter “to spread the message of positivity & motivation for the youth of Pakistan,” according to the tweet on the President’s official Twitter account.

It is evident that the government, its departments and its officials acknowledge the importance of TikTok, but fail to uphold its right to access for the citizens who depend on it for various purposes.

For Laiba, the value of the content of TikTok is purely entertainment and a getaway from her work. She says, “As a journalist, I’m constantly dealing with traumatic and triggering information for my stories. So whenever I need a break from it, I go to TikTok. Sometimes I watch makeup or cooking tutorials, and other times I watch these videos to see their production quality.”

But for Laraib, the young content creator, it was a hope to earn a living. “People make a lot of money [on] TikTok. It’s not a secret anymore that big influencers on TikTok charge more than 1 lac [Rupees] per video,” she told DRM. And according to Imad Kazmi who manages some of the TikTok content creators, TikTok has been helping these creators financially. He says, “TikTok itself does not provide any monetisation, however the brands do provide handsome amounts to the creators with good following. The money is different according to the followers, and it goes upto even 3 lac [Rupees] per video for creators with a great number of followers.”

Platforms like TikTok that have garnered an incredible amount of reach over a short span of time contribute extensively to the preservation and exercise of fundamental rights on the internet, and puts Pakistan on the map of the digital landscape. These global platforms have the tendency to attract an audience for Pakistani content creators and shed a positive light on the country, further changing the way the world perceives Pakistan. This happens to be the image that the current government and its supporters have expressed concern about. In fact, the recent censorship regime could make the country’s digital market unfavourable for global corporations that are investing millions of dollars in neighbouring country India.

In addition, given the way the internet works, no content can completely be banned. In 2013, when YouTube was banned in the country on account of hosting a blasphemous video, the said video was accessed more after the video sharing platform was banned as it directed attention towards the video. Similarly, people who were previously not fond of TikTok started accessing it after the ban in light of the increased attention to it. At this point, it becomes important to ask why the response to content that does not align with conventional moral codes has to be banned, instead of raising awareness around digital literacy and ethics of online spaces, and then leaving it up to users decide on their content consumption instead of parenting their internet usage.

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