Among the 1.3 billion Indians, some have had the chance to follow his provision in the comfort of their home while others are struggling and risking their lives just to get some food for their family. How exactly has COVID-19, and the unavoidable lockdown it brought with it, exposed more than ever India’s deep social inequalities?
People from India have always seen the country’s social inequalities, but the coronavirus outbreak has amplified the situation. Indian correspondent for The Guardian, Amrit Dhillon, recently wrote a brutally honest article titled As the wealthy quaff wine in comfort, India’s poor are thrown to the wolves, in which she summarised her experience of India’s lockdown to: “If, like me, you have a live-in maid who happens to have picked up some beautician skills, you are ‘condemned’ to confinement in a spa. Shall I have a facial today? Or a pedicure? No, let’s settle for a massage. It will relieve my lockdown tension.” For rich and middle-class people in India, being under lockdown is a very similar experience to a holiday—Dhillon describes it as “an enforced period of recreation or a chance for self-improvement.”
In the same breath, the newly imposed shutdown means one thing for India’s poorest population: things are about to get way worse. Street vendors are barred from selling their products outside, workers who usually get paid by the day will end up with no money at all and, meanwhile, the Indian government is struggling to offer people any kind of potential help. Poor communities are left with nothing; no work, no money, and no food.
Although the lockdown is also affecting working-class families in the UK, Italy, Spain and the rest of Europe, Dhillon highlights that for most of us in “[more egalitarian] societies, the lockdown experience is not marked by the same sharp disparities as in India.” Most EU citizens have access to smartphones or the necessary technology to connect with our friends and families and check up on them while feeling support and affection.
In India, millions of migrant workers are separated from the rest of their families who stayed in their hometown. Labourers have no choice but to stay in ‘rented accommodation’, which Dhillon describes as “dingy cells usually shared with six or seven other labourers.”
The lockdown is also catastrophic for the Muslim citizens that lost their homes during the anti-Muslim riots that started at the end of February in Delhi. At the time, many houses were burned down by Hindu mobs who killed 53 Muslims and injured thousands. Families ran away, some of them ended up living in the Eidgah relief camp in tents set up in the courtyard of a mosque.
But Eidgah was only temporary and on Monday the Delhi authorities forced the families to leave the crowded camp in order to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Muslims have been given the minimum rent for a small room (which equals to £33) and nothing more. While some citizens went to live with family members in other cities, others were left homeless.
As China, a country next to India, slowly gets back to business, the situation in India becomes alarming. Although it is obviously necessary for the Indian government to focus its attention on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, what does that mean for poor communities who were already struggling before this? As many questions are left unanswered for now, one thing is clear to me: we should feel grateful that we have a roof over our heads and cupboards filled with food instead of losing it over Houseparty lagging during peak hours. In the end, it’s all about perspective.
Over the past year and a half, TikTok has been rapidly taking over Southeast Asia, and has made impressive strides in the U.S. and Europe, situating itself as the next ‘it’ app in the social media landscape. Alas, the 15-second video app has been used as a vehicle of egregious hate speech, racist vitriol, and violent attacks, particularly in India.
An investigation by WIRED revealed that thousands across India have taken to TikTok to spread racist and violent messages against members of groups who are perceived to be lower than them on the caste system’s social ladder.
In one case, Venkataraman, a 28-year-old man in the state of Tamil Nadu, had posted a video in which he drunkenly yelled racial slurs against the Dalits—the group ranked lowest in India’s Hindu caste system. “Fight us if you are a real man, you Dalit dogs. You bastards are worthless in front of us. We’ll butcher you lowlifes,” Venkataraman was seen saying in the video, which he claimed he shot at the encouragement of his 18-year-old friend. As the video went viral, a wave of protests broke out in the area, and Dalit demanded that acion be taken against Venkataraman. The latter then placed the blame for video and the backlash on his friend, whom he then strangled to death.
Overall, tens of thousands of TikTok videos have reportedly promoted hate speech and contained casteist-inspired hashtags. Over a two-month period this summer, WIRED came across 500 TikTok videos that included caste-based hate, incitement for violence, and threats. In a growing number of cases, the rapid proliferation and ubiquity of such hate speech encourages people to take the fight off of the screen and commit acts of violence in real life. Thus far, 18 incidents of violence (ten of which resulted in deaths) were linked either directly or indirectly to TikTok in India.
Responding to the investigation, TikTok stated that, “The team had identified the videos cited before WIRED contacted us and were in the removal process, but we continuously work to improve our capabilities to do even better.” The company has also appointed a special grievance officer to India in August.
Yet, court documents procured by WIRED reveal that the company currently fails to curb the volume of hate speech spreading on its platform in India. Over a five-month period, between November 2018 and April 2019, TikTok removed 36,365 videos that breached its codes on hate speech and religion, and 12,309 videos that included dangerous behaviour and violence. And still the court documents reveal that only one out of ten of the overall videos reported (677,544) were eventually removed, and that those reported only account for 0.00006 percent of the total videos uploaded. While this data makes it difficult to measure the true impact of TikTok on the proliferation of hate speech in India, it indicates that the company simply fails to establish an effective screening mechanism to moderate content on its app.
“The problem with Tiktok is that they are not very open to advocacy or engaging with civil society. Not even to the standards of its American counterparts,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a South Asian human rights group, adding that, “I think they’d rather pay the fines and don’t care.”
TikTok has also inspired the wrath of numerous lawmakers and judges in India, who have been vocal in their opposition to the app and its influence over the Indian population. At the request of the Indian Court system, which ruled that the app was disseminating “pornographic” and “inappropriate” content, Google and Apple removed TikTok from their app stores last April, and didn’t reinstate it until millions of additional videos were taken off the platform.
The power of social media platforms in exacerbating tensions and their role as potential vehicles of hate should not be taken lightly. It is true that TikTok is not the only company struggling to formulate a proper system to curb hate-speech and halt the spreading of misinformation, yet with its position as the most popular kid on the block, at least in Southeast Asia, comes an even greater responsibility to lead such efforts.
TikTok—get your act together.