From being called “anti-national” for its “close relationship” with the Chinese government, to being referred to as a “hub” of anti-national content, the last two years have been rough for TikTok and Chinese parent ByteDance. It also happens to be among the most popular social media apps in India. Recently, MeitY’s Cyber Laws and e-Security wing issued a notice to TikTok and Helo, asking them to respond to concerns that they were being used to commit anti-India and unlawful activities. TikTok sent us this response to this piece, this is their full statement:
“We are grateful for the immense support given to us by India’s growing digital community. India is one of our strongest markets and we are happy to be part of the mainframe of Digital India in 15 Indian languages. In line with our commitment to India, we are investing $1 billion dollars in India over the next three years, with a strategic focus on developing technology infrastructure, establishing local partnerships and supporting initiatives such as the Skill India Program which we are proud to be assisting with already. Our continued success in India will not be possible without the support of our local community. We take our responsibilities to this community seriously and welcome this opportunity to fully collaborate with the Government to meet and exceed our obligations.”
Here’s every argument made against the apps so far:
The China argument: National security concerns raised against TikTok and Helo
Chinese companies have a close relation with the Chinese government: RSS affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch wrote a letter to the prime minister on July 13, calling for a ban on the TikTok and Helo. The organisation argued that the apps were exposing young people of the country and influencing them for “vested interests” at an early stage. It also noted that ByteDance paid ‘influencers’ to run campaigns promoting products, issues and ideologies. It also said that these applications under the garb of social media platforms circumvent domestic rules that exist to protect national security.
- Questioning ByteDance’ relationship with the Chinese government, SJM wrote that while ByteDance says it has no existing relationship with the Chinese government, it has never clarified if it has any partnership with other state-owned entities which allows the Chinese government to directly, or indirectly get access to data of foreign citizens.
- Voices against the apps have found a strong recourse in the Parliament as well. On July 4, BJD MP Pinaki Mishra pointed out the possible Chinese connection of the app. “Can you imagine the amount of information and data that is being aggrandised by them?… There is no guarantee that you [ByteDance] will not have a relationship [with the Chinese government],” he said in Parliament on July 4.
- Mishra also accused “these Chinese companies’ of indulging in under-bidding and under-cutting in telecom sector tenders in India, because they have full backing, might and the power of the Chinese Government. “They are sharing all their data with the Chinese companies as well as with the Chinese Government,” Mishra said.
Bytedance apps transfer data to US and China: “A study found that on an average, these apps transfer data to around seven outside agencies, with 69% of the data being transferred to the US. TikTok sends data to China Telecom; Vigo Video to Tencent; BeautyPlus to Meitu; and QQ and UC Browser to its parent owned by Alibaba.” SJM said in its letter.
The democratic process and influencers argument
Bytedance’s paid influencers can allegedly impact the democratic process: Congress MP Shashi Tharoor echoed SJM’s claims against TikTok in Parliament on July 1. He informed the Lok Sabha of the $5.7 million fine by US regulators on TikTok for illegally collecting data on children, and said that ByteDance TikTok and Helo who run a network of “paid influencers” can “impact our democratic process”.
- “Eventually, it is very important that going forward, the Treasury Benches also recognise the fact that while today they may be beneficiaries of agencies like Tiktok and Helo because perhaps it is said that it was helpful in their winning the elections. Tomorrow, the very same agencies and instrumentalities would turn against you. Eventually, we are all going to be victims because we, as Indians, are going to be victims,” Mishra said.
- Telugu Desam Party MP Jayadev Galla added to the chorus of scepticism against TikTok, and on July 3, said in Parliament that there was widespread use of TikTok for campaigning by political parties during the recently conducted elections.
Helo paid for morphed ads: The SJM said Helo had paid for over 11,000 morphed political ads on other social media platforms worth Rs. 7 Crore. “It is well known that some segments of the Chinese establishment have negative intentions with regard to the sovereignty and integrity of India,” SJM’s letter noted.
- ByteDance runs a network of paid influencers, who receive Rs. 1 lakh per month, Galla said. He also noted that in 2019, Facebook removed over 11,000 fake or morphed election related media shared by Helo in India. TikTok and its affiliates pose a serious threat to India,” he added.
‘A hub for anti-national content’, cultural degradation: issues raised around content
“In recent weeks TikTok has become a hub for anti-national content that is being shared extensively on the application,” SJM said in its letter.
TikTok and cultural degradation: On February 12, blamingTikTok for causing degradation of Tamil Nadu’s culture, Nagapattinam MLA Thamimun Ansari raised a request in the state Assembly to ban the app. Ansari said, that he raised the issue because TikTok was acting as a platform for heated debates inimical to law and order and sharing of sexually-explicit material. He also said that the app was ripping families apart.
TikTok was banned by the Madras HC: In April, TikTok was banned in India by the Madras High Court, which said it was spreading pornography, potentially exposing children to sexual predators, and adversely impacting its the mental health of its users. The ban, however, was lifted on April 24. The order by Justice Kirubakaran and S. Sundar, had pointed out four key issues with the application:
- Pornography and mental health: contains “degrading culture and encouraging pornography besides causing pedophiles and explicit disturbing content, social stigma and mental health issue between teens”…”It is evident from media reports that pornography and inappropriate contents are made available on this kind of cyber applications.
- Pranks: “majority of teens are playing pranks, gaffing around with duet videos sharing with split screen to the strangers”…”People are “making cruel humour against innocent third parties. Even television channels are also telecasting Tik Tok videos”…”Nobody can be pranked or shocked or being made as a subject of mockery by any third party and it would amount to the violation of the privacy.”
- Potential exposure of Children to sexual predators: Children who use the application “are vulnerable and may expose them to sexual predators”…Children are exposed to strangers and there is possibility of the photographs and other private details of strangers being landed in the hands of predators or third parties”…”There is a possibility of children contacting strangers directly and luring them.”
- Addiction: “By becoming addicted to Tik Tok App, and similar Apps, or cyber games, the future of the youngsters and mind set of the children are spoiled.”
TikTok has been accused for being a hostile place for children before the ban as well. In April, Nagalakshmi Bai, the head of the KSCW (Karnataka State Commission for Women), called for a ban on Tiktok becuase it encouraged pornography. She said that the videos that children using the app make are overtly sexual in nature, which is a reason for concern. “We are worried about the ill-effects the app could have on young minds. Recently, there were incidents in Bengaluru and Mumbai involving children, where a teenaged boy sexually assaulted his younger sister. Apps like these are a reason that women are objectified,” she added.
‘Cause ruptures in the fabric of our society’: Arguments made on the societal implications
Mishra said TikTok’s influence had spared no one, recounting an anecdote where nurses in Odisha were dancing to Hindi music, in full nurses’ uniform. He said that it was “shocking” to see all this happening. SJM meanwhile pointed out in their letter that TikTok promoted religious violence anti-Harijan sentiments, and mistreatment of women.