With the increasing popularity of the social media app TikTok, society is faced with yet another challenge to sanity, logic and reason.
While the app provides a platform for user to showcase talent, connect with others, and just have fun without exclusion or discrimination, the nature of the content being produced and widely shared has been consistently questioned over the past couple of years. TikTok’s India Head, Nikhil Gandhi, does claim prioritising privacy and safety for its users, but this ethos hasn’t translated into reality.
Violent and repulsive videos continue to thrive on this platform, outraging citizens who demand action against TikTok. For example, a recent video was seen as ‘promoting’ acid attacks on women, which led the National Commission of Women (NCW) to file a complaint to ban that TikTok user.
However, banning one or some users is not really the answer. There are multiple cases like these, as can be seen in this tweet, which glorifies rape, domestic violence, mistreating the elderly, and other forms of violence and misdemeanours, making such social media platforms all the more unsafe for women and vulnerable communities.
TikTok’s Remedial Actions Are More Reactive – They Don’t Address Root of the Problem
In most cases, women are portrayed as weak or subservient in the videos, with men exerting control and power over them, thereby normalising toxic masculine behavioural patterns of abuse, violence and control towards women in society. Harassment of women has been a recurrent theme in these videos, promoting offences ranging from everyday micro-aggressions to actual abuse, violence, and even rape and acid attacks. Two such videos (here and here) were further promoted by the official Instagram page of TikTok India.
Indeed, TikTok is not the only app that has objectionable content.
Rather, one should see it as yet another app which is being misused for the perpetuation and normalisation of hate crimes against marginalised sections of society.
Though fundamentally, an individual is free to express themselves in whichever manner they choose, the rights are not absolute. If the content uploaded on any medium is against the our societal principles, it can be taken down by the government or company, with reasonable justifications. This is the case in many countries including Australia, Germany, and Canada.
TikTok’s remedial actions are more reactive in nature, triggered by the objections raised by the users. The proactive measures, although they seem to exist on paper, are yet to manifest in real life. Lack of censorship by the app owners has led to a lot of disturbing content still doing the rounds via the app. Recently, TikTok got downgraded on Google Play Store from 4.9 to 1.3, and people even called for a ban.
Content On TikTok Only Reflects Societal Mindsets & Attitudes
Demanding a ban on the app itself is logically flawed. Such demands indicate the tendency to look for short-term solutions in the name of ‘nipping it in the bud’. Such content is also available on other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc, and there too, it is uncensored. If banning is the way to go, then we will need to ban all such platforms that host similar content, and it will be difficult to draw a line. Banning is a patch-work solution which ignores the fundamental flaws internalised in the social system. The content on any of these apps is a mere manifestation of the systems that exist in society.
Unless we try to repair the system itself, cosmetic solutions will continue to remain ineffective.
A parallel can be drawn with the status of pecuniary legislations. Despite stringent punishments regarding crime against women, including demand for capital punishment, the laws have not been deterrent enough.
There are other political issues regarding this demand for banning and censorship. It is akin to welcoming an authoritarian intervention by the government, providing it more avenues to control the narrative. Social media provides a platform to produce discourse and freely express ideas. The above-mentioned incidences of undesirable content are mere anomalies on social media, and such ideologies existed long before social media itself. These platforms just give voice to deep-rooted societal beliefs, which are often problematic, and make certain behaviours and attitudes more visible.
How TikTok Can Follow Facebook’s Method Of ‘Monitoring’ Content
While we need to look for alternative and effective solutions that tackle the issues of deep-rooted patriarchy and toxic masculinity, this will not happen overnight. A more timely and appropriate response would be for the app company to take regulation measures itself. The prominent placing of features like ‘dislike’ and ‘report abuse’, and their continuous monitoring would be a very useful way of letting users know what type of content the community (does not) appreciate and also for the app owners to monitor and act upon such vile content whenever it is posted and reported.
This is similar to how Facebook has been operating where it takes down content when it is mass reported to them. Other solutions can include imposition of fines on those who violate the community guidelines. Fines can be an effective way to control people's behaviour, for example, hefty fines imposed for violating traffic rules in 2019 improved compliance with norms.
Millennials Must Be Sensitised – And Learn Consent, Equality, and Respect
Behavioural economics tells us that social disapproval provides an intrinsic as well as extrinsic incentive to abide by the guidelines of the community. Censuring of misogynistic acts on social media, including calling out the violators, has helped in two ways. First, it helps in bringing into discourse the core problems in society like misogyny, leading to public recognition, and condemnation of the same. Second, censuring on the social media acts as a deterrence for the content creators to regulate their content.
The content we see on social media is a mere reflection of the regressive society we live in. Addressing this regressive thinking and calling out of the stereotypical norms would be a step towards finding a real solution (although long-term) than outrightly banning. We need to own it as our individual as well as collective responsibility towards our growing younger generation, the so-called ‘millennials’, sensitise and counsel them on gender equality and inclusion, etc.
Finally, if social media is potent enough to create anomalies, the power to correct it also lies with social media, with the least involvement of exogenous forces.
(Karan Babbar is a PhD scholar at IIM-Ahmedabad. He critically engages with issues of social concern like gender, menstruation, etc.
Deepika Saluja is a Ph.D. in Public Health Policy from IIM-Ahmedabad. She is also the co-founder of Women in Global Health-India Chapter and is currently working as an independent consultant.
Akansh Khandelwal is pursuing his Ph.D. in Economics at IIM-Indore. His interests lie in development, inequality, and feminism.
This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)