TikTok has taken the world by storm, garnering the attention of millions of people—there’s no denying it. Launched and currently owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, its popularity really took off at the advent of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although it started out as a lip-synching app previously known as Musical.ly, TikTok has since proven to be an online hub where communities come together and where users (mostly gen Zers) feel free to explore their identities publicly.
Having this type of influence on such a big audience has, in turn, made TikTok a platform where both political discourse and political mobilisation take place—most definitely against the wishes of the app’s founders. A 2018 study conducted by Daniel Lane and Sonya Dal Cin found public sharing of prosocial behaviour—that is, behaviour that benefits people or society as a whole—leads to more participation in activism in both online and offline worlds. The study also found that young people on TikTok who come across political content are more likely to engage in future acts of activism, both online and offline, therefore contesting the negative views of “slacktivism.”
Although political content shared on TikTok is often based on specifically American geopolitics, and occasionally British politics, the app’s political sphere also offers a chance for viewers to be educated on and be a part of the political scene outside of the Western media bubble we have become accustomed to. TikTok, over the last year, has also become a valuable tool to some African countries despite the digital divide. The video-sharing app has millions of Africa-based users alone, which makes a lot of sense as the country currently houses the world’s youngest population with a median age of 19—making TikTok the perfect place for the youth to mobilise and share political information.
TikTok’s increased accessibility is also credited to network providers seeing its potential as a means to generate profit and, thereby, implementing various data bundles dedicated to social media platforms like the app. While TikTok has had its fair share of controversies, it has become the perfect place for people to mobilise and share political ideals due to its easy-on-the-eye visual elements—with the information being released into digestible, bite-sized chunks. TikTok is to African countries what Facebook was to the Arab Spring: ready and full of potential to change the political landscape of an entire region.
Over the last two years, Ethiopia has found itself amid an escalating conflict in which forces from the northern Tigray region are clashing with the national military. The year-long crisis has led to the deaths of hundreds of people and displacement of thousands—a crisis people have dubbed the “Tigray genocide.” In this case, social media seemed only to worsen the climate.
Disinformation and misinformation played a role in escalating the conflict through fake news posts and articles pitting the sides against each other. The main culprits in spreading such falsities to propagate were, of course, Twitter and Facebook; and as a result, Twitter found itself at the centre of public distrust, thanks to reports by the Mozilla Foundation which found coordinated disinformation campaigns on the platform intended to sway public opinion.
On 6 November, Twitter announced it had suspended trends in Ethiopia, “We’re monitoring the situation in Ethiopia and are focused on protecting the safety of the conversation on Twitter.” the social media service wrote. “Inciting violence or dehumanizing people is against our rules,” it continued. Facebook followed in a similar trajectory soon enough. But the failures of these platforms only left space open for another to take their place—TikTok, obviously.
The platform became the perfect place for political discourse in Africa to come about, largely because of its supposed neutrality as well as its relative newness which essentially meant it wasn’t regarded as a threat. The app became the least moderated space to spread the word about the genocide and encourage people to help. Over the last year, TikTok has made its mark in Africa by giving many people from marginalised communities a voice with supporters from every part of the world to match. The efforts of bringing awareness to the Tigray genocide came from the Tigray diaspora sharing their story to the app, as well as larger creators learning to dedicate their presence on the platform to a cause larger than themselves. In short, TikTok has played a large role in bringing visibility to the Tigray people.
As TikTok has helped (and continues to) highlight crises across Africa, authoritarian governments are beginning to take notice of its social and political influence on the general population, which mostly consists of young people. Governments have begun cracking down on TikTok activists as a way to dissuade others from following suit.
The Egyptian government was the first to exhibit TikTok crackdowns. In early 2020, several young Egyptian women with significant followings were arrested on charges relating to ‘indecent content’, the corruption of family values, and the misuse of social media. Two of them, Haneen Hossam (1.3 million followers) and Mawada Eladhm (3.1 million followers) also faced accusations of managing private internet accounts to commit this offence. They were fined almost $20,000 and sentenced to two years in prison respectively. An Egyptian appeals court overturned the prison sentences just last month.
While authoritarian governments may try everything in their power to restrict their citizens’ access to the internet and platforms such as TikTok, the very nature of the giant app has come to show that the collective essence of such social media platforms do lend a hand in advocacy and allyship to friends in all corners of the world—with a simple 30-second video.
TikTok has taken over all other social networks as it is now, without a doubt, gen Z’s favourite and most profitable app. TikTok influencers are slowly replacing Instagram influencers, see 17-year-old Loren Gray, who currently has 40 million followers on the app and is making up to $200,000 a post. And yet, similarly to its fellow social networks, TikTok’s structure is far from being flawless.
Censorship-wise, the Chinese-owned app has made headlines after it was revealed it made some questionable ‘choices’ when it came to its content moderation. Videos promoting LGBTQ+ rights have repeatedly been penalised by the platform, expression of political dissent is usually not well-received, and, as revealed by an investigation based on internal documents published in March by the Intercept, TikTok instructed moderators to penalise any content created by users considered ‘ugly’, ‘poor’ or disabled, as well as videos considered harmful for ‘national security’—such as material portraying military intervention or natural disasters. When some of the above content is identified by the platform, moderators are told to ‘push it down’ by limiting the size of a specific profile’s audience and therefore its reach.
If the discrimination mentioned previously isn’t enough to shed light on TikTok’s censorship, just recently, a new bias against black content creators has become more visible, catching the attention of numerous TikTok users. Black Lives Matter Utah’s founder Lex Scott and fellow users spoke to Dazed in the article TikTok users protest the unfair censorship of black creators and explained that the ‘For You’ page on TikTok very rarely recommends videos made by people of colour (POC), while also pushing down any content openly speaking out against racism.
In response, Scott launched on 19 May the initiative named ‘black out’, in which she asked non-black users to stop posting videos for the day, exclusively like and follow content made by POC, and urged all her followers to change their profile pictures to the black power symbol.
In her call-to-action, Scott also encouraged people to create a video “that brings awareness to the racism on TikTok. This video can speak about how black creators are banned, how videos are being taken down, and how white racists are allowed to flourish.” On the day, videos from POC and hashtags such as #blackout2020, #blackvoicesheard and #iamblack all went viral on the app, shaking up an otherwise arguably racist algorithm that tends to privilege, quite literally, ‘privileged’ content.
On the one hand, it has previously been argued that TikTok’s creative content helped shine a light on political activism, as a few videos promoting diversity did receive many views and likes on TikTok. And yet, the app’s moderation guidelines have shown themselves to be highly discriminatory—as this most recent bias proves.
In the aftermath of yet another disturbing racist killing by the hand of US police, namely the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, it is near impossible to ignore the intrinsic racism that still inhabits not only our society, but our online platforms as well. Because, as we should have learned by now, allowing racism on social media platforms tends to lead to the same unfairness that we witness in real life and vice versa.
TikTok’s discrimination against POC and its censorship of what it qualifies as ‘ugly people videos’ is disturbing. Yet, the app’s success cannot be denied. That’s why initiatives such as the ‘black out’ protest are our only way to have a say in the app’s regulations without having to fully desert it. Challenging TikTok’s oppressive agenda by playing with its own algorithm and raising awareness among its users is an effective way to counter this discrimination and push for a change of rules and fairer management of TikTok’s content.