Thursday Jan 09, 2020
While 2018 was the year TikTok took over the world, it wasn’t until 2019 that the video-sharing application seized attention in Pakistan.
As 2019 rolled in, the Beijing-based startup was catapulted to national consciousness after a series of videos surfaced of policemen lip-syncing and dancing to Bollywood soundtracks. The cops were later reprimanded and suspended from service.
Still, for the rest of the year, TikTok continued to make headlines. There was the bite-sized video of Pakistani air hostesses filmed on duty, another featuring politicians, and one recording which took users inside the otherwise restricted building of the foreign office.
2019, nonetheless, ended tragically as two young boys in Pakistan were run over by a train while filming for the application.
TikTok was first created in China in 2016, by the company ByteDance. Today, that company is worth over $75 billion, with offices in 11 cities including, New York, London, Paris, Dubai and Mumbai.
Since its inception, the application has been downloaded 1.5 billion times, more than Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. As of now, it has 500 million active users worldwide, according to the research firm Sensor Tower, and it is the fourth most downloadable non-gaming application.
The numbers are staggering for a short-form, free app, with a simple mission statement, “to inspire creativity and bring joy.”
Interestingly, a large chunk of its viewers are clocking in from South Asia alone. In 2019, 43 per cent of its new users joined from India, according to the US-based marketing agency, Mediakix. The same year it was the second most downloaded application in Pakistan, as per Sensor Tower.
Usama Khilji, the director of BoloBhi, a civil society organisation working for digital rights in Pakistan, attributes the application’s popularity to its ability to break class barriers. “It is accessible to everyone,” he explains, “That is in contrast to other social media platforms which require a person to be literate, and are somewhat considered elitist.”
Through these 60-seconds homemade videos, people from a range of backgrounds, in the last one year, have shot to fame in Pakistan. Those who have acquired celebrity status include farmers, two working-class brothers from Karachi, a father and son duo, and a young woman named Hareem Shah. The latter’s videos have caused a political storm in the country. Shah’s account has featured notables politicians and celebrities.
TikTok videos are easy and quick to record. Since they are set against music, there are no language barriers either.
Its fanbase is largely teenagers. Around 41 per cent of its users are between the ages of 16 to 24 year, as per Global Web Index 2019.
Ali Fayyaz is a law student in Lahore. On TikTok, he is a star, with over two million followers. He and his friends share comedic skits, which have gained a huge viewership.
When Fayyaz first started to upload the bite-size videos, his family was furious. But today, he tells Geo.tv that he is the center of all family gatherings. He is often stopped on the streets for a quick selfie. Local brands have also approached TikTok users to promote their products, said Fayyaz.
Then there is Sehar Hayyat, an aspiring actress. The application, she says, provides her the perfect platform to showcase her talent, and her three million followers ensure that her work is noticed.
But in the fun-filled world of music and videos, there are also serious security concerns.
Last year, India banned the application after a court ruled that it was exposing children to cyber-bullying, pornographic content and child predators. The company appealed the verdict and ensured the court that it would crackdown on inappropriate language and content, which led to its services being restored.
Separately, the app has been probed in the United States for illegally collecting data of users under 13 years of age. ByteDance then agreed to pay a $5.7 million fine to settle the case. In the United Kingdom, the company is currently under investigation for similar reasons.
TikTok requires it users to be at least 13 years of age to register and have parental consent. Still, these rules are seldom followed.
“TikTok is used predominantly by the younger generation, which makes it dangerous,” explains Nighat Dad, the founder and executive director of Digital Rights Foundation, “The average young user pays little attention to things like privacy of data. Recently, in Pakistan, we have seen TikTok stars become victims of intense online trolling as well.”
Khilji agrees that on TikTok teenagers have public accounts, which makes them more vulnerable to predators and explicit content.
In response to the criticism, TikTok has attempted to enhance its security features. Last year it also launched its first transparency report, which included information on digital well-being and suggestions on how parents can block inappropriate. “We have a number of tools in place to help you control your teen's experience,” states the app’s website, “including limiting who can see their uploaded content, follow them, and send them messages by making their account private. With a private account, your teen can approve or deny followers and restrict their uploaded content and incoming messages to followers only.”
But is that enough?
Besides developers, insists Dad, law enforcement authorities and policy makers need to step up to ensure laws are enacted for the safe use of such applications. Meanwhile, some extreme measures have also been taken to shut down TikTok for good. Petitions have been filed in Pakistani courts and complaints launched with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to have the app blocked.
In the last one year, a spokesperson of the PTA told Geo.tv, the Authority has blocked “over a hundred videos containing unlawful content and 90 per cent were removed” from TikTok. It further added that since the service providers of the video-sharing app were cooperating with the PTA to remove inappropriate content, there were no proposals under consideration to block or ban TikTok, at the moment.
But its users, like Sehar Hayyat and Ali Fayyaz, disagree that TikTok is a bad influence. They both say they are responsible users and make sure that their content does not cross any red lines.
“My popularity is based on this,” said Hayyat, “One bad video and I could lose all my followers. TikTok just needs to be regulated, not shut down.”