New Delhi: Contrary to the popular image of TikTok as a gimmicky, over-the-top video sharing app, there is another, more meaningful side to it. Seventeen-year-old Feroza Aziz’s viral TikTok video about Uighur Muslims in Chinese concentration camps is just one example.
Owned by Chinese tech firm, ByteDance, TikTok is a video app popular among millenials. Young people post videos of themselves lip syncing songs or movie dialogues, performing trending dance moves, re-creating memes and more. Video selfie apps such as DubSmash and Musical.ly were its precursors.
In India, the app has emerged as a tool of expression by masses across classes. Nearly 47 per cent of its worldwide downloads are from India, reports Sensor Tower, a market intelligence firm.
The changing face of TikTok
A week ago, Aziz, the New Jersey teenager uploaded a video condemning China’s detention of Uighur Muslims, while pretending to give an eye-lash curler tutorial.
TikTok suspended her account citing “human moderation error” but later restored it and issued a public apology, following international criticism. The teen has since updated her bio that reads — “Just a Muslim who wants clout, Got deleted last time”.
Indian users have used the app for similar purposes of activism. For example, TikTok and UN Women came out with ‘#KaunsiBadiBaatHai’, an anti-gender violence campaign, which has over 744,890,528 views. The trend has moved more swiftly in the US, UK and Europe and given young people a platform to talk about entrenched social issues.
Following Aziz’s footsteps
Since Aziz’s video, scores of Muslim teens have started uploading videos speaking out against the Chinese concentration camps. This week, American teen Sarah, who goes by @issa.hijabi, posted a video that began with the pretense that she would remove her hijab to show her hair. After unwrapping a yellow head scarf to reveal another underneath, she says, “Now that I got your attention, did you know that over five million Muslims are actually in China concentration camps.”
Not only does Sarah speak about the oppressive nature of the camps but also criticises the lack of media coverage on the issue. One of the hashtags accompanying her video is #thereareconcentrationcamps, and TikTok videos under that hashtag have collectively garnered over half a million views.
US House Representative Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American, has lauded the likes of Aziz and Sarah for their “clever ways to raise awareness”.
Love these young people using their platforms in clever ways to raise awareness for the millions of Muslims who are put in camps in China and forgotten by the world ✊🏽pic.twitter.com/yMbVefuRnZ
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 28, 2019
TikTok experiment on Hong Kong protests
Some TikTok users have taken activism one step forward, from raising awareness to carrying out social media experiments to test data privacy and surveillance. Take Nathanial White, or @tokiejoestar, who has a following of 2,60,300 and according to his bio, is a musician, songwriter and performer.
White uploaded a video in late October about his plans to carry out a TikTok experiment about the Hong Kong protests that began in June.
He claims to have a friend in Hong Kong with a “Chinese regional-locked Huawei phone” that has access to the Chinese version of TikTok. Through him, White plans to set up two fake accounts — one that is pro Hong Kong protests and another that is against, and uploading videos using “AI generated Asian looking faces”.
“We’ll see which one does better — obviously, anti-Hong Kong,” he remarks after briefly mentioning the ethical problems with facial recognition apps. The video has almost 2,20,700 likes till date.
On 5 November, White informed viewers of a discord server link on which they could access the results of the experiment, but many in the comment section said they had problems joining the server, with some asking if the “invited expire[d]”.
Make-up and global warming
There is a vast forum on TikTok for environmental issues like climate change and global warming. There are about 87.3 million views for videos under the hashtag #climate change and 113.7 million under #globalwarming. This does not include the many variations of these hashtags, which respectively have a considerable number of views.
There has been an emerging trend of beauty artists on TikTok who use make-up to spread awareness about climate change, like Hana Martin, who has over 8,00,000 followers. In a recent video she depicts the effect of global warming on her own face, which has been viewed close to 7,00,000 times
With over 4,705 remarks in the comment section, Martin was both praised and mocked. Some accused her of armchair activism or attempting gain recognition. One comment read —“we keep on saying save earth but are we actually doing something [f]or it?? Or ppl are here for likes.” Users in the comment section also argued over whether climate change was real or not. Others urged people to turn to veganism as “animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than global transport”.
Using TikTok to voice social, economic, political or environmental causes is not contrary to the app’s creative intent. “Let the creators tell stories. When everyone is comfortable with the content, it is probably boring,” said Stefan Heinrich, marketing director, US, TikTok, at a Cannes Lions panel discussion in June. After all, the app’s tagline is “Real people. Real videos.”