#banTikTok: Exploring the Internet Culture

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Scrolling through twitter a couple of days back, I came across questionable videos trending under the hashtag – #BanTikTok. After surviving a ban for “cultural degradation” last year, it is not amusing that nothing has changed with the application since then. Indians being the largest consumers of the app with over 460 million users including myself, it spiked my interest to think more about the issue.

It is a common observation that most of the insensitive videos on TikTok comes from teenagers and middle-aged people, but the trend on twitter seems to also highlight their impoverished backgrounds. Drawing parallels from a previous post The Indian Paradox, we can say that the large internet penetration enabled by Reliance Jio left a lot of it’s new users with more opportunity and less awareness. This has resulted in an instinctive consumption of the internet that pleases the need for escapism and instant gratification. However, does this largely happen with only people in the countryside? The short answer is no. 

Uses and gratification theory developed by Elihu Katz and Jay Blumler tries to understand how people actively seek specific media to satisfy specific needs. Modern studies under this theory have observed that these needs can be classified as relaxation, recognition, affection and cognition. Regardless of one’s background, access to social media provides an outlet to satisfy (or an illusion of satisfying) the needs of fame and belonging. But the reasons why they resort to insensitive content is a problem of the old norms set by mainstream media.

The mainstream media and parasocial (one sided) relationships with celebrities has often failed to draw a line between portrayal and reality. From a teenager’s perspective, when an actor breaks things with their head or stalks women, it may not go through their logical or moral filter to judge whether the portrayal was right but instead associate it with fame. Now think of all the movies you have watched that normalized such behavior.

Let’s take the example of a really popular movie, “Shivaji” which normalized stalking a girl at her home and workplace, unsolicited requests for her to perform and even when rejected, the hero tries to commit suicide. Apologies to the Rajinikanth fans for taking this example (I was a fan myself) but the problem is that this movie glorified that behavior and when I first watched it in 2007 as a young boy, none of my filters clicked nor did my peers called it wrong.

Tiktok as a platform offers a medium for these young people to replicate the same acting in shorter formats where the viewers can only react positively. Sharing and liking their videos for ridicule could easily be misunderstood for acceptance and positive recognition. So it’s not surprising that when we point our fingers towards the impoverished for participating in out-of-context videos glorifying rape, abuse and terrorism – they might as well innocently point back to our mainstream media and say “we were just acting”. But the real question is who decides what is wrong and what is not. We know the mimicking culture is not new and if it was considered problematic, the Indian Cinema industry should cease to exist given its reach to the masses. 

So ban Tiktok, that will solve the problem right?

Not really, as much as we’d like to exaggerate that the entire platform is filled with content of this sort, it is largely dominated by other forms of expression such as dancing, singing and humour that act as positive media consumption. Even if we hypothetically entertain the idea that it is dominated by insensitive content, Tiktok isn’t the only application that enables this – before we know it, we might as well be debating whether Youtube should be banned. Instead we should insist on disincentivizing people from posting such content on the basis of clearly laid out guidelines that are enforced diligently. For starters, a dislike button and active content moderation could help. However, the larger problem of lacking sensitivity towards gender, animals, disabilities and mental illness would still remain. 

The best feature social platforms possess that traditional entertainment do not is its personalized content delivery. An important free market idea that should be regulated by the rank level of consumers. When most of the users dislike a content because of its insensitivity, the application must learn by a sophisticated algorithm that can flag similar content in the future. Apart from banning tik tok not being the solution it is important to know that censoring/banning could be borderline considered as curbing freedom of speech and expression. The platform is so dynamic that it can be used in many ways that learning to incentivize and disincentivize people seems to be the only way forward.

This small digital window shows the reality of the society and shutting that window is simply being ignorant. Understanding the root of the problem and infusing digital literacy across the society should be the harmonious way forward.