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TikTok - Enough Is Enough?

TikTok - Enough Is Enough?

TikTok, the Chinese social media platform  pulled from app stores in India over claims it made children vulnerable to pornographic and other inappropriate content, will be available for download again after winning a court fight.

The popular video-sharing app was reinstated by a court in India, a week after the Indian government forced it to be taken down from Google ( GOOGL) and Apple's ( AAPL) online marketplaces over concerns about inappropriate content.

The Madras High Court had ordered on April 3 that TikTok be banned, saying it could expose children to sexual predators, pornographic content and cyberbullying. But the court reversed its decision following an appeal by  TikTok's parent company Bytedance, which can now continue adding to the app's 120 million monthly active users in India.

If the popular Chinese interactive social media tool, launched in late 2016 has gradually become a hit across USA, Europe and especially India, what does it signify?  Out of its 500 million monthly users worldwide, an estimated 119 million are from India. This January, 43% of the app's new users were from India, compared to just 9.5% in last January. While TikTok is the most downloaded application even surpassing Instagram and Youtube, does the number of download or users imply that it is a great application? Was TikTok designed to create and share harmless music videos or was there a hidden agenda? Was it meant for nefarious purposes? Who are its target audience?

Reports indicate that primarily its users are aged between 16 and 25 but it has many users younger. Be it anything from dance, comedy or performances - TikTok predominantly enables users to quickly and easily create unique short videos that can be shared with friends worldwide. Literally, users have fifteen seconds to do anything they like and TikTok also allows its users to make a duet, where a user films a video alongside another video and the two videos appear on the same screen, often without the first video-maker’s permission.

Well, TikTok videos can earn hundreds of thousands of likes but what about its darker side? As a recent investigation in London found, hunger for fame has also turned TikTok to be a veritable trap for unsuspecting youngsters. Yes, its darker side is frightening. That many parents were unaware their children used TikTok or that the application had a reputation of predators using it to target children. The study also found instances where a number of TikTok users, hiding themselves behind anonymous profile, repeatedly approached teenage girls to post sexually explicit, threatening and disturbing violent messages on their videos. The cause for concern is those who posted them were able to remain on its platform, despite the company’s own rules against sexual content directed at children. Notably, TikTok failed to suspend the accounts of people sending such sexual messages to teenagers and children.

Facing wrath for its hyper-sexualized content uploaded by underage, the app has already been fined heavily in the US recently. Even as TikTok knew that many children were using the application but since it failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses and other personal information from users under the age of 13, the Federal Trade Commission imposed the largest civil penalty of $5.7 million. Apart from complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, TikTok agreed to take down any videos uploaded by users less than 13 years of age. It is banned in Bangladesh.

TikTok has been under the scanner in India as well. The Chennai police busted a flesh trade racket which used morphed pictures of women downloaded from TikTok to lure customers. A TikTok video that made fun of cops at the police station emulating a matinee idol in Tamil Nadu led to the arrest of some persons. TikTok is also attributed as the cause of accidental deaths across the nation. In a tragic instance, a youth who tried to act as if he was committing suicide by slitting his throat for a TikTok video lost his life. In Delhi,  a youth was allegedly shot dead by his friend when they posed with a pistol to film a video on TikTok.

Observing that there was no problem as long as the app was used for humour, but nobody could be pranked or shocked or made a subject of mockery by any third party, as it would amount to violation of privacy, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, has, as an interim measure, issued directions to the Government to prohibit downloading of TikTok mobile application and has also banned media from telecasting videos made using TikTok app. The Government has been asked to pass a law to prevent children from becoming cybercrime victims.

While the final verdict will decide the fate of TikTok in India, those in favour of the ban seem to allege that with social media already fast turning into an addiction, will not the younger generation which is hooked to TikTok get pushed on the path of cultural degeneration? As TikTok allows sexual exploitation to take place openly, isn’t such unfettered spread of sexually explicit content and morphing of innocent people’s faces, especially women, through the app not a cause for serious concern?  On the other side, the argument is why shouldn’t there be absolute freedom of expression on social media? Banning TikTok is not the only solution but educating children to be careful on social networking applications besides having a relook at the privacy issues can pay rich dividends.

We have already witnessed how social media has been used by unscrupulous elements to spread fake news, rumours, disinformation etc. Enough is enough.

(Published on 29th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 17 & 18)