The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom. 

A decade ago, no one would have thought creating 15-second lip-sync videos online would be enough to make a decent earning. From elaborate MySpace pages in 2008 to TikTok’s fast-paced micro-content in 2020, social media has evolved swiftly.

The diversity and accessibility of TikTok’s content attracted Indians, who make up the app’s largest international market, with more than 120 million active monthly users. The livelihoods of so many people were dependent on creating content on TikTok, but things took a turn when the Indian Government decided to ban Tiktok and 58 other apps with Chinese links.

The ban comes after Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh on 15 June. Although there has been no confirmation about the casualties on the Chinese side, twenty Indian army personnel lost their lives. The skirmishes had been building up since 5 May on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India has blamed China for encroaching beyond the LAC. This may be in reaction to India improving infrastructure in the area to build a road that connects the rest of the state to a military airbase. 

India is Tiktok’s largest international market, with more than 120 million active monthly users.

As a reaction to the clashes, the Indian government has discouraged its citizens from using Chinese products, including digital services such as apps. On 29 June, India banned 59 apps with Chinese links, including TikTok. 

India’s Ministry of Information Technology, announced that they have received many complaints which claimed that the apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner”. However, hours after the statement was made, India’s TikTok head Nikhil Gandhi clarified that “TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under the Indian Law”.

TikTok was previously banned in India in April 2019, due to concerns over its supposedly explicit content and cultural degradation. Back then, TikTok owner ByteDance had claimed a loss of $500,000 each day the ban stayed in effect. 

In 2020, TikTok had become a beneficiary to Indian content creators and businesses alike. TikTok democratized content creation by providing access in 14 Indian languages. Thanks to cheap data packs, a digitally hungry audience, and budget smartphones, people who had never used technology before were creating content in India.

TikTok attracted all classes of Indians, especially those belonging to rural backgrounds. These not-so-privileged users, who were previously isolated from the digital world, managed to make a name for themselves on social media.

According to Sumit Jain – a textile shop owner in central India with four million followers on TikTok – the app gives people like him an opportunity to test their talent and creativity from the comfort of their homes, instead of having to leave their lives behind, and move to bigger cities to struggle for a career in the entertainment industry.

TikTok has become a valuable tool for the expression of creativity and speech. 

TikTok lets its users easily import videos to other platforms, therefore its content has a very broad audience that spans other social media apps including WhatsApp, a popular communication medium in India. Even people who do not use TikTok are exposed to its content, transforming the app into a valuable tool for the expression of creativity and speech. 

Business and brands have also made the most of TikTok’s growing popularity for marketing and advertisements. TikTok’s content creators with a following of more than a million can earn around 30,000 INR ($400) every month through brand endorsements or advertisements. But the sudden ban on the app means thousands of influencers have lost their only source of income. Two TikTok stars, Siya Kakkar (16) and Sandhya Chauhan (18) have died by suicide after the ban – both these girls are said to have been depressed and the ban might have triggered them. 

This ban shows the volatile nature of social media and the government’s power over our consumption of content. Coincidentally, India has had a bad reputation for incapacitating free speech in the past few years. With public lynchings, defamation charges, and unprecedented censoring, the lives of anyone with differing opinions is threatened. Thus, we may not be too far from the truth in assuming that the ban was also meant to regulate free speech and the expression of opinions. 

A foreign application meant that the government did not have limitless power over content created on TikTok. While Indian mainstream media is heavily controlled by political parties, TikTok provided content with differing opinions, especially from underrepresented communities.

The nationalistic angle of the ban may be a reason why there is a lack of protest against the decision. It is supported by influencers and users alike because blind patriotism is becoming a common phenomenon among Indians. As news channels emphasize on ‘taking revenge with China’, they have managed to sway TikTok users to sacrifice this platform for ‘national security’.

ByteDance has claimed that the ban curtails the rights of the citizens of India, who have been using the app to express themselves through its content. As of now, the ban on the app is temporary. The government has asked the company 79 questions, which need to be answered by 22 July. But there seems to be no room for compromise. They do not realize that permanently banning the app will not just hurt India’s economy, but also content creation and freedom of speech.

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  • Suha Amber is a poetry-loving computer engineering undergraduate who's stuck between her love for the 19th and 21st century. She has found solace in creating conversations about things we are afraid to talk about.

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