In India, TikTok is mostly known for being home to videos of silly antics and movie lip-syncing. But the app now also has plenty of user-generated political content—a matter of which the company seems wary.
TikTok, owned by Chinese tech unicorn Bytedance, recently began displaying a public-service announcement (PSA) to its users when they search for some politically relevant hashtags. The hashtags Quartz found that are shown with the PSA are the names of prominent politicians or political organisations, including “bjp,” “narendramodi,” “rss,” and “rahulgandhi,” among others. This coincides with the start yesterday (April 11) of India’s parliamentary election, which will take place in seven phases over six weeks.
“In light of upcoming elections, we request you to continue using TikTok in a responsible way,” the PSA reads. “Please do not upload or share any unlawful content on TikTok. Guard against fake news by always referring to verified news sources.” The message also encourages users to refer to the website of the election commission of India (ECI) in order to learn more about the poll body’s electoral conduct rules.
The PSA does not appear on the home page of the app, but only on the search pages for specific political hashtags.
It does not appear on the page of every political hashtag, however. Many hashtags that do not prompt the PSA are popularly used in political content across social media. Some highly politicised hashtags like this include #chowkidarchorhai (the watchman is a thief), a rallying cry started by the opposition Congress party, asserting that prime minister Narendra Modi is corrupt.
The hashtag #myfirstvoteformodi, which the ruling party recently started in order to court young voters, does not prompt the PSA either.
When questioned about the PSA, a TikTok spokesperson told Quartz it had “taken multiple proactive steps” to ensure the app is “used in a manner that it is intended for—a short video platform that allows users to capture and share moments of their life that matter in a creative way.” The company said it “proactively reached out to the election commission of India (ECI) to comply with their instructions and establish an escalation channel, abiding by the model code of conduct”—the list of election rules the ECI enforces during polls.
The PSA, the spokesperson said, is a part of the app’s efforts to “further educate and encourage our users to behave responsibly on our platform.” It has also added an advisory for the elections on its “safety centre” page, a portal that contains information about using TikTok responsibly. The company created it earlier this year around the time criticism swirled about the app’s problem with child privacy—an issue that Indian cyber laws are not set up to handle.
The platform, which has an estimated 50 million Indian users, could have much to gain from playing it safe with the Indian government. Authorities, including the Madras high court, have expressed the desire for the app to be banned in India.
It’s not just TikTok, though. Late last year, India proposed controversial draft rules to govern nearly all internet companies, seeking to control them, and the content they post, more tightly than ever in the country’s history.
If implemented, TikTok’s PSA, and many more intense versions of it, could be the future of the Indian internet. One provision of the draft rules says platforms should inform its users, on a monthly basis, that if they do not comply with rules or the platform’s user policies, the companies have the right to “immediately terminate the access or usage rights of the users to the computer resource of intermediary and remove noncompliant information.”
What political content?
Indians have been politically mobilising on TikTok for months now. A February report in The Economic Times newspaper showed how they were using lip-syncing videos and other means to spread right-wing messaging.
Political videos on TikTok range from the comedic and satirical to the deadly serious. For example, scores of videos were uploaded celebrating the Balakot airstrike that India conducted against militants in Pakistan in late February.
Many recent videos can also be found of individuals exhorting others—either with song, lip-syncing, or dramatic acting—to vote for particular candidates, especially when using hashtags such as #voteformodiji.
However, TikTok isn’t yet the hotbed of political content that WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, or even Bytedance-owned Helo are. It may be only a matter of time, though, before mainstream politicians attempt to harness its power. When they do, let’s hope TikTok will be ready.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.