Centre for Internet & Society

Unlike YouTube, where videos take a long time to upload, on TikTok it happens in a matter of seconds. Not just the youth, the trend has captured the imagination of criminals too.

The article by Gulam Jeelani with inputs from Priyanka Sharma and Ajay Kumar was published in India Today on April 17, 2019. Shweta Mohandas was quoted.

Last Saturday, 19-year-old Salman Zakir was accidentally shot dead when his friend and he were shooting a video at central Delhi's Ranjit Singh flyover - to be uploaded on the Chinese mobile application TikTok. The latest craze of filming short duration videos for this app, which uploads these within seconds, is giving headaches to the police, as well as parents.

In the last two weeks, the police have arrested at least six youth (including two of Salman's friends), who were caught posing with guns, making clips and uploading those on the app. Responding to this frenzy, the Union Ministry for Electronics and Information Technology on Tuesday asked Google and Apple to take down TikTok from their app stores.

The order came a day after the Supreme Court refused to stay a Madras High Court order asking the Centre to ban the viral app for the potential harm it could cause owing to inappropriate content being posted - pornography and violence. The ministry's order may lead to pulling down the app from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, preventing any further downloads. The order will not, however, prevent people who have already downloaded the app from using it.


Salman, along with his friends Sohail and Amir, had gone out for a drive to India Gate. While returning, Sohail sitting next to Salman, who was driving the car, pulled out a country-made pistol. He aimed it at Salman while trying to make the TikTok video, but the pistol went off shooting him on his left cheek. In February this year, a daily wage worker was allegedly killed by his friend in Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu for uploading an abusive video targeting another community, on Tik-Tok. The video even led to tension and unrest in the village.

Unlike YouTube, where videos take a long time to upload, on TikTok it happens in a matter of seconds. Not just the youth, the trend has captured the imagination of criminals too. Two weeks before Salman's death, apparently carried away by TikTok's online popularity, two criminals landed in the police net after a video featuring them flaunting pistols surfaced on the app. Shahzada Parvez (24) and Monu (23), had been on the police's radar for long.

"They were fans of singer Honey Singh. Earlier, too, they shot a video brandishing pistols at a community function and put it on social media," deputy commissioner of Delhi Police Anto Alphonse said.

"The young and the restless have a tendency to try out new applications in order to gain quick popularity on the web," added Madhur Verma, deputy commissioner of police, New Delhi.

TikTok, known as Douyin in China, where the parent company is based, is a mobile app for filming and sharing videos set to music or a voice-over. With a reported 500 million subscribers worldwide, India is the biggest market for the app, comprising almost 40% of global downloads. According to market analysis firm Sensor Tower, India accounted for 88.6 million new users out of 188 new users in the March quarter.


The app is the latest fad to give parents and teachers cause for concern after the popularity of dangerous online dares such as the Blue Whale Challenge and Kiki Car. "I had seen my son shooting videos at home and at times he would ask me to pose as well. But I came to know about TikTok when his teacher called me," said Vaishali Dhar, a resident of East Nizamuddin, whose son studies in class 8. "I have decided not to encourage him."

Apart from homes and schools, teenagers have been spotted shooting videos in public places such as the recently opened Signature Bridge which connects Wazirabad to East Delhi. Police have had to resort to chasing people shooting videos atop their cars on the bridge. The app is also a rage among Bollywood-crazed Indians who post videos lip-syncing to songs or reciting movie dialogues. It allows the creation of a 15-second video with the user miming to songs. The videos range from harmless to the explicit, depending upon the users one follows.

Last week, ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, said it had removed more than six million videos that violated its guidelines. The company has appealed against the stay against the ban, claiming it would harm free speech. "We are committed to continuously enhancing our existing measures and introducing additional technical and moderation processes as part of our ongoing commitment to our users in India," it said in an emailed statement.


But can the app itself be blamed for its misuse? Experts advocate taking the awareness and sensitisation approach than imposing a blanket ban. Faisal Kawoosa, Chief Analyst at Gurugram-based market research firm techARC, says the easy and inexpensive availability of the Internet and increased smartphone penetration has contributed to the growth of TikTok, and other apps in the country. "Banning is no solution. If you can't download it from the app store (which is authentic), you will encourage illegal downloads which are even more dangerous," adds Kawoosa.

"Even in a Google sign-up, one needs to be above 18 years of age. So it is more about ethics that we practise than an app having a problem," he said. Some experts also raised data privacy concerns which come with the application. "The issue with these apps as with other apps is that it is not clear in which way the data is being processed, stored, or shared with third parties," said Shweta Mohandas, policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based research and advocacy non-profit.

"I do not think that a ban on Tik-Tok is a solution. People forget that the existing videos can still be shared on other social media platforms. A young person with TikTok on his or her phone will in all probability be active on other social media and messaging apps. A better approach is to sensitise people about the way the app functions, and the information that is public on the app," she said.

In the US, the app has been accused of collecting personal data from users under the age of 13 without parental consent. "Every other person has a mobile phone today. In the recent past, the Blue Whale challenge, Kiki car challenge and now TikTok have become an entertainment tool for the youth and schoolchildren. In order to attain instant fame and validation from peers with likes and shares, they end up making viral videos on social media," said Dr Rajeev Mehta, Vice Chairman of psychiatry department at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

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