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.