Manjamma pops up on the screen, wearing a big red bindi and sari, and launches into a tirade in rustic Kannada: “Why ya? When you go out to buy vegetables and fruits, why you have to fall over the next person? Can’t you listen to what they are saying? Stay 3 feet away no! Stay one metre away no! 3 feet means one metre. Keep it in your head. Or else, remember these numbers: 3 feet by 6 feet — the size of your grave.” COVID-19 LIVE updates
This could be just another 30-second video on TikTok, the hyperkinetic short video social networking app with 200 million active users in India, except that it marks the debut of the government of Karnataka on it — the first state to use TikTok to reach out to the rural hinterland with information on COVID-19.
“One of the many suggestions we got was to look at TikTok because it has a huge reach, especially in rural areas. All the other social networking apps, whether Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, are largely urban. We needed to reach out to the remotest parts of the state,” says Shikha C, the IAS officer heading the taskforce for public health communication and social media.
“It is not a conventional medium for a government because of how uninhibited the platform is, but I think the pros of TikTok far outweighed the cons. The way it works, we have to reach out through humour and sarcasm, which also cuts down the panic,” says Sushma Bhardwaj, who runs a digital marketing agency that is overseeing the TikTok creatives and scripts.
Since March 23, @covid19awarenessgok, a verified handle on TikTok, has posted videos of Kannada actors like Puneeth Rajkumar asking people to stay home, animation videos for children talking about their superpowers against the virus (staying home, coughing into the elbow and not listening to rumours), and, of course, Manjamma berating fellow villagers for violating lockdown rules.
“I imagined Manjamma as a village woman, not very educated. I modelled the way she speaks on my mother, who also speaks a rustic Kannada typical of the Mandya region,” says Chitral Rangaswamy, a 28-year-old actor who stars in the videos. With a follower base of 182.7k followers, she posts the videos on her timeline as well.
So far, the handle has mopped up close to 70,000 followers, which is a modest number given that TikTok “influencers” have followings that run into millions. But the videos are relayed further through a network of WhatsApp groups run by panchayat officials or district administration. “It is an experiment. We need a counterweight to the fake news and misinformation, by reaching those who do not have access to either print news or television,” says Srinivas Alavilli, an activist and veteran of several public campaigns in Bengaluru, who is working with the government on COVID-19 awareness.
Alavilli has also roped in a pool of TikTok influencers and film professionals. “For instance, I asked Kirik Keerthi (an actor with 517.9k followers) to do a video on how to wash hands, but without running water,” he says. In the first few days, the handle barely got traction, but it has since then picked up. “Till April 8, we had managed to clock over 18 lakh views,” says Bhardwaj.
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The exuberance of TikTok, however, needs a restraining influence when it comes to public health communication. “All the creatives have to be vetted by the government before we upload them. We often end up rejecting a lot of videos because they don’t fit a government handle,” says Bhardwaj.
Background music, songs or dialogues from films cannot be spliced with the videos — a common feature of TikTok videos — to avoid copyright tussles. Some videos have been rejected because they had double meaning, Alavilli says. “In one, the artist was holding a mask in one hand and a sanitiser in another — and talking about how they are the most important things in his life now. It was a funny video, but because he was holding the mask all wrong, we rejected it. Even visually, a government handle cannot give out wrong information,” says Bhardwaj.
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