In India, TikTok is mostly known for being home to videos of silly antics and movie lip-syncing. However the app currently also has much user-generated political content – a matter of which the corporate seems wary.
TikTok, owned by Chinese tech unicorn Bytedance, recently began displaying a public service announcement, or PSA, to its users when they explore for some politically relevant hashtags. The hashtags that are shown with the psa are the names of prominent politicians or political organizations, including “bjp”, “narendramodi”, “rss”, and “rahulgandhi”, among others. This coincides with the start on April 11 of India’s parliamentary election, which will occurring seven phases over six weeks.
“In light of upcoming elections, we request you to continue using TikTok in a responsible way,” the psa reads. “Please don’t upload or share any unlawful content on TikTok. Guard against fake news by always referring to verified news sources.” The message also encourages users to refer to the website of the election commission of India in order to learn more regarding the poll body’s electoral conduct rules.
The psa doesn’t appear on the home page of the app, however solely on the search pages for specific political hashtags.
It doesn’t appear on the page of every political hashtag, however. Many hashtags that don’t prompt the psa are popularly used in political content across social media. Some highly politicized hashtags like this include #chowkidarchorhai – the watchman is a thief – a rallying cry started by the opposition Congress, asserting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is corrupt.
The hashtag #myfirstvoteformodi, which the ruling party recently started in order to court young voters, doesn’t prompt the psa either.
When questioned regarding the psa, a TikTok spokesperson told Quartz it had “taken multiple proactive steps” to ensure the app is “used in a manner that it’s meant for – a short video platform that allows users to capture and share moments of their life that matter in a creative way”. The company said it “proactively reached out to the commission to comply with their instructions and establish an escalation channel, abiding by the model code of conduct” – the list of election rules the poll body enforces during elections.
The PSA, the spokesperson said, is a part of the app’s efforts to “further educate and encourage our users to behave responsibly on our platform”. it’s also added an advisory for the elections on its “safety center” page, a portal that contains info regarding using TikTok responsibly. the corporate created it earlier this year around the time criticism swirled regarding the app’s problem with child privacy – an issue that Indian cyber laws aren’t set up to handle.
The platform, which has an estimated fifty million Indian users, could have much to gain from playing it safe with the Indian government. Authorities, as well as the Madras high court, have expressed the desire for the app to be banned in India.
It is not simply TikTok, though. Late last year, India proposed controversial draft rules to govern nearly all internet companies, seeking to control them, and the content they post, more tightly than ever in the country’s history.
If implemented, TikTok’s psa, and many more intense versions of it, could be the future of the Indian net. One provision of the draft rules says platforms should inform its users, on a monthly basis, that if they do not comply with rules or the platform’s user policies, the companies have the right to “immediately terminate the access or usage rights of the users to the computer resource of intermediary and take away noncompliant information”.
What political content?
Indians have been politically mobilizing on TikTok for months currently. A February report in the Economic Times newspaper showed how they were exploitation lip-syncing videos and other means to unfold right-wing messaging.
Political videos on TikTok range from the comedic and satirical to the deadly serious. As an example, scores of videos were uploaded celebrating the Balakot air strike that India conducted against militants in Pakistan in late February.
Many recent videos can also be found of people exhorting others – either with song, lip-syncing, or dramatic acting – to vote for specific candidates, especially once using hashtags like #voteformodiji.
However, TikTok isn’t yet the hotbed of political content that WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, or even Bytedance-owned Helo are. It may be solely a matter of time, though, before mainstream politicians try to harness its power. When they do, let’s hope TikTok will be prepared.