April 8, 2019 12:19:20 am
The Madras High Court has asked the government to ban the video-sharing platform, TikTok, for encouraging pornography and possibly exposing children to predators. They’re late to the party. Indonesia banned the platform for precisely the same reasons last year, plus blasphemy, but revoked it when TikTok instituted a team to screen Indonesian content. About the same time, Bangladesh blocked access to the service. Chinese media watchdogs took it to task for “unacceptable” content and this year, they threatened to punish the promoter, ByteDance, for violating guidelines. A survey in the UK had suggested that one in 10 children on TikTok had faced inappropriate behaviour. And this year, the Madras High Court has been approached with concerns of cyberbullying, explicit content and deepfakes. Despite the bad press, TikTok is one of the most popular social apps, offering the curious attraction of being able to perform for strangers.
TikTok is to video what Twitter is to text. Users compose 15-second acts instead of 280-character messages, and post in search of world fame. Therein lies both the utility and the weakness of such networks. Like its text equivalent, TikTok is a great equaliser, allowing talents without access to traditional networks to break the surface, and amplifying voices disadvantaged by history, geography or economics. But being focused on younger people, including schoolchildren, TikTok is perceived to bear more moral liability than Twitter or Instagram. The fault lies with the business model driving all of social media, which rewards controversial behaviour and exhibitionism with digital clicks, likes and follows which translate into real power and money. Extreme behaviour is rewarded, and children are generally less cautious than adults. And it is not only a question of the content that children are exposed to, but also the purchasing choices that they are nudged towards, an important issue as younger people are beginning to buy directly off social network promotions.
TikTok’s little setback in India is a sliver of a larger issue: The double-edged nature of social media. Twitter and Facebook powered both the hope represented by the Arab Spring and the betrayal of democracy in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The answer to TikTok is not the ban that the Madras High Court has called for, but the Indonesian strategy of nudging the company to institute an effective screening mechanism. As social media companies flounder to contain problematic content, governments should insist that they screen user content more diligently.
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