The National Commission for Women (NCW) has filed a complaint against TikTok user Faizal Siddiqui after a video that promoted violence and acid attacks on women went viral, causing massive outrage. Activist Laxmi Agarwal who became an acid attack survivor at the age of 15 also spoke up against it.
While the action by NCW was much needed, the institution seems to be a bit late in waking up to the reality of social media platforms such as TikTok in India. With nearly 81 million active monthly users in India who spent over 5.5 billion hours on the platform in 2019, the video-sharing app has become an obsession of sorts with Indians. And it is no secret that it is a hub of deeply sexist and misogynistic content that often directly promotes violence against women without anyone so much as batting eyelid.
Be it in the form of traumatised housewives, gold-digging girlfriends, sexual and domestic abuse victims with battered faces, the representation of women on Indian Tiktok has often been talking point among gender rights activists.
One of the most common kinds of content amid TikTokers, young and old, in India, revolves around beating or harassing women and making light of serious offences such as domestic abuse and gender violence.
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Not just violence, videos on TikTok even promote rape and sexual abuse.
The particular acid attack video that has gone viral is not a stand-alone video either but an existing trend.
The problem here is not just with the individuals, but also with @TikTok_In as a platform which lets such videos that promote such problematic behaviour thrive on their platforms. It is obvious why an individual is being targeted, but the problem here is much larger. pic.twitter.com/iBXpHk5Jwd
— Mohammed Zubair (@zoo_bear) May 18, 2020
Who is accountable?
While the ByteDance-owned Chinese company, formerly known as Musically, is quick to clamp down on dissent against China, its attitude toward containing sexist, racist, homophobic and other problematic content on its platform has been lax at best.
This is not the first time that the platform has run into legal trouble in India. In April 2019, the app was banned in India after the Madras High Court found it responsible for spreading sexually abusive content that could affect children while also exposing them to sexual predators and gratuitous displays of pornography and violence. The ban was lifted within a matter of days after the platform ensured it will take measures to restrict problematic content.
One year on, it seems the company is back in focus for almost the same thing - untempered displays of gender violence.
It is great that the NCW has finally taken note of the situation and decided to act on the perpetrator of one such video. But what about all the others who post such videos to gain millions of views and followers and then delete them after outrage? Or those that remain unnoticed under the clutter despite influencing millions to do the same?
Additionally, a majority of content on Indian television, films, and advertisements wholeheartedly endorse sexist and gender stereotypical attitudes. In a country where renowned filmmakers rely sexualized item numbers to boost profits and artists use women's sexuality as a scapegoat for glorifying female nudity under the male gaze, it is unfair to expect each and every TikTok user including teens and young adults to possess the training and gender sensitization needed to create gender-neutral and progressive content.
Millennial actors like Kartik Aaryan also play their role in promoting violence against women. Recently, the actor posted a video with his sister in which he seems to pull her by her hair and throws her off the balcony after she cooks a bad roti. While Aaryan took down the video after outrage, the fact remains that sexism is a popular trope in entertainment content and is often encouraged by both creators and consumers, disturbing as that may be.
Is ban an answer?
Not really, given that TikTok videos are shared on other platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and gain millions of views. A ban on TikTok will only move users toward newer mediums. And social media giants are doing their part in filling the gap. companies like Instagram, Google and Vine are constantly developing new video-sharing platforms (such as Google's Tangi’a) that can compete with the Chinese giant which continues to hold sway over the market.
As per statements shared by TikTok following the lifting of its ban in India, TikTok had revealed that it lost $500 billion each day that it was banned in India. With a market that size, platforms are sure to scramble to fill the top spot and allow early adopters a high degree of leeway in terms of shaping content.
Moreover, it would be unfair and untrue to say that TikTok is just a platform for sexism in India. The video-sharing app has brought a revolution of sorts in the way the underprivileged masses of the country contribute to popular culture and narrative. For many, it has come as an opportunity to showcase their talent, be it acting, dancing, singing, or a variety of other stunts. To many Indians who initially struggled to make their space in other platforms like Instagram and Vine, TikTok emerged as a viable option to participate on social media.
What the platform probably needs is stricter editorial policies and guidelines against sexist content. And a firmer public eye on such platforms as well as content creators across mediums including films and television to call out misogyny each and every time we spot it.