Potential TikTok ban impractical

By Nebal Snan

KUWAIT: Laxmi Shetty, like many people around the world, watched with rising dismay the protests that broke out in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini late last year. But she didn’t first learn about the unrest in news reports — it was through a viral video she accidentally came across on TikTok. Although the app’s short videos are known for being light and fun — Shetty’s favorite genre is cat videos, TikTok has undeniably brought users closer than ever to what’s happening in the world.

Laxmi Shetty

For example, the war in Ukraine, which has been dubbed the world’s “first TikTok war”, has unfolded in real time on the app. “When I want to get to know major issues, I feel TikTok is my source,” said Shetty, a fashion content creator based in Kuwait. Shetty is not alone; the app has become a critical source of information for many. In the United States, where TikTok has 150 million active users, about a quarter of adults under 30 regularly get their news through the app, according to 2022 Pew Research Center data. The app’s popularity doesn’t show any signs of waning.

Conservative forecasts show that TikTok will have 843.3 million monthly users by the end of 2023 — that’s despite being banned by at least 14 counties, albeit only on government devices in most cases for the time being, including more than a dozen US states. The bans are motivated by renewed concerns that TikTok poses a security threat due to its parent company’s roots in China. In recent weeks, lawmakers in the west have increasingly expressed fears that sensitive data on users’ phones, such as location information, could be accessed by the Chinese government.

TikTok has repeatedly denied that any user data could be handed over to Beijing. However, company executives in the US and Australia have admitted that user data from these countries is accessed by their employees in China. Calls for a ban have reached Kuwait, but for different reasons. This week, a lawsuit has been filed to block the app in the country on grounds that it disseminates content that violates public decency and promotes violent behavior, according to local media. The plaintiff, who is reportedly a lawyer, claims the app’s disregard for Kuwaiti laws and its negative impact on the public is in conflict with the country’s child rights law.

On August 20, Somalia joined the running list of TikTok-banning nations when it prohibited use of the app to counter “terrorists and immoral groups” who use it to spread “constant horrific images and misinformation to the public”. In an April interview, a Kuwaiti cybersecurity expert told Kuwait Times that banning TikTok is technically possible, but unlikely to be effective. “People can still find ways to access the app if it’s banned. But a ban would limit accessibility by 90 to 95 percent,” Head of the Cybersecurity Committee at the Kuwait Electronic Media Union Mohammad Al-Rashidi said.

He said Kuwait’s Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA) could ban the app by blocking downloads or requesting that Android and Apple app stores hide the app for IP addresses in the country. If the app has already been downloaded on your phone before a ban is enforced, CITRA can still make videos inaccessible, he added. “We saw that in some Gulf countries, where WhatsApp calls don’t go through because the app has been blocked.”

Hunaira Aref

A source of income

Close to half of American adults support a ban on the Chinese-owned social media app, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos survey. Still, at least three lawsuits have been filed in the US to put a stop to the ban for being unconstitutional, one of which was filed by TikTok and a group of content creators in Montana — which last May became the first in the US to ban the app statewide. Several academics have also sued Texas in mid-July for blocking the app on public-university computers and phones. The app has not been banned in Kuwait as of the date of publication.

Rashidi said blocking the app on government-owned devices in the country could be a sound strategy, but enforcing a full ban in the country is likely impractical. A Pew center survey published in early July, found that 40 percent of Americans who say TikTok poses a threat to national security still use the app. Hunaira Aref, who posts lifestyle content with a focus on food on her account, is mostly concerned about how the restriction of the app would spell the end of a creative space that provides users with opportunities to grow as people and entrepreneurs.“I think (banning the app) wouldn’t be fair,” says Aref.

“It’s a source of income for a lot of people”. Since launching her account, Aref says several people have reached out to her for collaboration. She now runs multiple restaurant social media accounts and two lifestyle accounts. Through TikTok, she was also able to cultivate her photography business. It’s not only content creators who benefit from these partnerships, says Aref, who is a fulltime marketing coordinator at one of the largest online shopping platforms in the middle east.

Many newly opened businesses, she says, use the video-sharing platform to attract customers, taking advantage of how popular the app is in Kuwait. According to 2022 data from CITRA, TikTok was the video platform consuming the largest Internet capacity in the country last year — ahead of YouTube and Netflix.

Fai Khan

A manipulative algorithm

Fai Khan, a content creator with a day job in marketing, says the app has forever transformed the world of advertising. “Even if your video has nothing to do with the product that you’re selling, … if you’re simply relatable, your brand awareness goes up,” she said. Khan said she’s concerned about how TikTok’s algorithm works more so than the privacy risks the platform might pose. “Because the algorithm is so catered to our interests.

I do have this one fear, would TikTok, or any app for this matter, be able to put videos in front of me that would lead me to deep depression? Would they be able to control my emotions in such an extreme way?” Khan said. Khan’s speculations are not too far off from reality. “Deep in the niche worlds of TikTok, users are more likely to encounter potentially harmful content that is less vetted by moderators and violated the app’s terms of service,” Guillaume Chaslot, founder of Algotrasnparency, an organization raising awareness of the impact of algorithms, told Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in 2021 as part of an investigation on TikTok.

If you watch several videos about mental health and depression on TikTok, WSJ found that the algorithm will show you more of those videos, eventually pushing you deep into a rabbit hole of depressing content with very few and far-apart videos on other topics in between. Despite her concerns, Khan values the app for offering her a platform to share not only her adventures in Kuwait, but also her mental health journey.

“If I saw someone who was sharing that they struggle with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, but in spite of that, they’re going to the grocery store and cook themselves a meal, it made me feel like I was able to do that too,” she said. “I felt so validated by these content creators who were transparent about their mental health struggles, and that they were going a step further and able to achieve these small wins.”

Finding community

Shetty, an expat who spent most of her life in Kuwait, said TikTok helped push her outside her comfort zone and got her creative juices flowing more than any other platform. “I was living in my bubble and I didn’t really know there were a lot of creatives (in Kuwait). But as I started making content on TikTok, I got to meet so many creators, and it’s been such an amazing journey getting to know (them).” Aref said the app is more useful than the popular search engine Google.

“I would rather see videos than just search on Google. I was planning my brother’s wedding and I was searching ideas from TikToks,” she said. While the app is indispensable for many, Khan predicts that even if TikTok is fully banned across the world, it’s unlikely to spell the end for content creation. Although it’s a “huge loss” for many users who spent hours building a following, a ban could also be a wakeup call for many creators who might have “put their eggs in one basket,” she said.

“We haven’t even hit the peak of user-generated content — short form video content; authentic, real people generating content for brands. I think we’re so early in its inception and there’s so much growth that could be done in this field. If it’s not TikTok, it’s going to be another app,” said Khan.

The post Potential TikTok ban impractical appeared first on Kuwait Times.

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