TikTok: From an Ally to Enemy During the Govt’s 23-Day App Stint
On 6 June, the government launched its official TikTok account.
At the peak of the #BoycottChineseApps agitation and amidst the tense Indo-China stand-off along the Line of Actual Control, on 6 June, the Government of India launched its official TikTok account.
Despite the absence of any fanfare, @MyGovIndia with a blue tick of authority next to it had notched up over 8 lakh followers on a platform that had been singled out as a symbol of anti-China sentiments.
The account, whose bio read “citizen engagement platform of the government of India” had now itself adopted a platform that millions of Indians were using daily.
The timing of the move, however, had baffled many.
Twenty-three days later, the account made a quiet exit as the government announced a ban on 59 apps, all of them Chinese-owned, including the hugely popular TikTok. The Press Information Bureau (PIB), which also operated an account, followed suit.
According to a press statement issued by the Ministry of Electronics & IT on 29 June, the banned apps have “engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”
In the three weeks between TikTok being regarded as an ally in the country’s fight against COVID-19 to emerging as a threat to user privacy and security, MyGovIndia had published over a dozen videos on the Aarogya Setu app, yoga and COVID-19 awareness.
Veterans of the app would describe the government’s brief stint to be a successful one. It had managed to reach out to over a million followers and garner over 7 million likes.
TikTok’s June Journey
June has emerged as a rollercoaster month for TikTok’s relation with its users, the population in general and the government. TikTok was caught in the crossfire of escalating tensions between India and China, however, the ban on the app has not come as a surprise.
Intelligence agencies had reportedly issued advisories against Chinese apps at the beginning of June and with public calls for boycott growing louder, the month concluded with an interim ban.
A closer look at the chronology of events in June and the events preceding it illustrates the app’s parallel roles as a trusted vehicle to raise awareness against the pandemic in India as well as the ambassador of China’s perceived deviance.
Lockdown to Locked Out: A Chronology
25 March: The Most Popular Lockdown App
In the fortnight preceding and following the commencement of the lockdown on 25 March, TikTok is the most downloaded app in the country. Between 11 March and 10 April, the app sees over 43.3 million downloads. Zoom emerges as a competitor in the opening weeks of the lockdown.
2 April: TikTok Donates 4 Million PPE Kits
TikTok makes a contribution of 4,00,000 protective Hazmat suits worth Rs 100 crore for doctors and healthcare workers who are fighting against the deadly coronavirus in India.
On 3 June, TikTok donates Rs 5 crore to two non-profit organisations in their COVID-19 relief efforts.
16 April: MHA, CERT-In Say Zoom App Not Safe
Two weeks after CERT-In cautioned users against the cyber vulnerability of Zoom, the Union Home Ministry issues an advisory stating the video-conferencing platform is “not safe.”
There are two important observations here. First, Zoom, despite being proven to have had vulnerabilities had escaped any stringent punitive measure such as a ban.
Second, MHA’s advisory was accompanied by a strong caution by CERT-In. No such advisory has been made public by CERT-In despite its warning being stated one of the justifications to ban the app.
17 April: Madras HC Ban on TikTok, Govt Enforces Order
After the government asks tech giants Google and Apple to comply with the Madras High Court’s order that had banned popular mobile app TikTok, the app is taken down from both Android PlayStore and iOS.
The ban, over concerns about access to pornographic content through it, is lifted on 24 April.
29 May: TikTok’s Desi Rival Mitron Rises, Falls
An Indian version of TikTok makes headlines for 5 million downloads in a month and is hailed by Electronics & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad as “India’s answer to TikTok”.
However, a detailed analysis and decompiling of the app’s source code by The Quint, reveals that Mitron, which has ridden high on an anti-China and anti-TikTok sentiment, has, in fact, been rebranded from an app called TicTic, developed by a Pakistan-based company QBoxus.
Other Indian apps such as Riposo and Chingari cash in as well on the popular sentiment against Chinese-owned apps like TikTok.
6 June: Govt Joins TikTok Platform, Uploads COVID-19 Videos
@MyGovIndia debuts on TikTok amidst aggressive calls to boycott the platform. Disseminates video on COVID-19 awareness and Aarogya Setu.
15 June: Indian Soldiers Reported to Have Been Killed
In a a violent face-off with China that took place on the night of 15 June, the army says at least 20 Indian soldiers are killed in the Galwan Valley.
18 June: Indian Intelligence Asks Govt to Ban 52 Apps
According to reports, Indian intelligence agencies ask the government to block or advise people to stop use of 53 mobile applications linked to China over concerns related to privacy and security of user data.
Zoom (though it is American) and TikTok both feature in the list of reportedly flagged apps.
19 June: Ramdas Athawale Calls for Ban on TikTok
Union Minister Ramdas Athawale appeals for a ban on TikTok to teach China a lesson. He says 15 crore Indians use the Chinese app due to which the neighbouring country makes a profit worth crores.
20 June: Viral Fake News of TikTok Ban
A fake letter attributed to the National Informatics Centre (NIC) directing a ban on Chinese apps in India is doing the rounds on social media. However, The Quint reaches out to NIC officials who confirm that the letter is fake and no such order has been passed by the organisation.
29 June: TikTok Banned
In a move that is seen widely as a response to the stand-off along the LAC, the government on Monday, 29 June, announces a ban on 59 apps including TikTok.
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