The new platform for political activism in India
Lhendup G Bhutia | 31 Jan, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
FOR MOST OF his life, Adnaan Shaikh was a star in search of a medium. So while he clocked in his hours in a small shop selling mobile SIM cards—once even finding employment in a telecom office as a customer representative—and later, working as a cook in a tiny establishment his father set up in Dharavi, Shaikh worked on his dreams, grooming himself, working upon his physique in a gym, having his blonde-dyed hair sweep across his boyish face, and following the more traditional routine for stardom aspirants, doing the rounds of TV and ad film auditions and inter-collegiate talent shows. Late in the night, he joined a gang of bikers that performed illegal stunts on Mumbai’s roads.
What Shaikh was in need of was a medium, one through which this young ambitious man from a Mumbai slum could channel and establish his celebrity.
And then TikTok happened.
This new social media platform—owned by the Chinese media business ByteDance and becoming something of a global phenomenon from 2018 onwards after it was merged with another platform, Musical.ly—was just beginning to take off in India. Fortuitously for the company, TikTok’s ambitions of growth in India coincided with the rapid internet penetration through inexpensive data plans and cheap smartphones in the country. TikTok was growing rapidly, especially in India’s smaller cities and towns. And it was in need of its own unique stars.
Shaikh and four of his biker friends, all of them young, good-looking and hungry for stardom, curated the image of five close-knit friends known as Team 07 on the platform. They were just what TikTok needed.
Unlike other social media platforms that are built around the concept of increasing follower counts or adding friends, TikTok is a completely different beast. It is built around the idea of cultivating fans. The platform is in essence one large talent hunt show of performers and the audience. For performers, at its core is one egalitarian idea—it doesn’t matter where you live or where you come from, as long as you can go viral, one short video after another, and make audiences return to you again and again. You can become a new type of celebrity.
In an incredibly short time, Shaikh and his Team 07 members became one of TikTok’s biggest sensations in India. They made short goofy videos, sometimes play-acting or performing to the latest songs. At one point, Shaikh estimates, they had a combined fan following of over 70 million on the platform. They began to get promotional offers, performed at events, did music and TV shows, acquired PR managers, were covered by the media, and were tapped into by the traditional celebrity, the film stars who needed them to reach this vast new demography on this new platform every time they sought to promote their films. Everywhere they went, they were mobbed by young selfie-seeking fans.
For this group of young Muslim men, living in and around a slum, who had done all sorts of odd jobs from salesmen to drivers, they had finally arrived.
TikTok, however, isn’t just a new type of social media. It is the engine of an entirely new way of behaving online. Here, its ecosystem mostly consists only of teens and pre-teens. For anyone above 30, logging on to the platform is a disorienting experience, an experience akin to finding yourself at a party where the music is too loud and the dance floor erupting in moves you can no longer recognise. There are no ads on the platform, no news, no spats, no political parties or their trolling armies. The platform is devoid of any politics. It is a place that social media perhaps once was—fun.
In July last year, Shaikh and his Team 07 members felt compelled to do a different type of video. They were getting requests, Shaikh says, from their fans asking them to make a video based on a recent news event. The group made a video reacting to the news of the mob-lynching of a Muslim man (Tabrez Ansari) in Jharkhand. They essentially said that Muslims should not be called terrorists in case the children of that innocent victim decided to take revenge.
All hell broke loose.
There were comments both in favour of and against what they had done. An FIR was filed against them. Zee Music pulled down a music video featuring them, and according to some reports, cancelled a music album they were planning to release with them. TikTok also moved in swiftly. The company issued a statement condemning the video, pulled it down and suspended the accounts of three of Team 07’s members. “To be honest, we didn’t even come up with the idea of doing this video,” Shaikh says today. “Our fans were requesting us to do it.”
TikTok is awash with content around the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens and National Population Register. There are scores of videos of protests on the streets
This was really not the first time and this wasn’t going to be the last time something political had briefly slipped in on TikTok in India. The party was over and the real world was now breaking in.
TikTok is not meant to be political. It is designed in such a way as to discourage any form of news-sharing or political expression. The feed on the home page does not follow any chronology. Refresh, and a new video appears, picked as if randomly. There are no time stamps on videos, the same audio tracks can be copied again and again for new videos, and options such as split-screen duet are available where new content is developed upon older videos, all of it in such a way that it becomes difficult to even trace when some new trend or event first started. The platform’s inner workings is also a big mystery, and it is feared, that its algorithms are tweaked in such a way as to divert viewers away from certain videos, for instance, political content, or distract them with something else entirely.
The platform also had, until recently, vague content guidelines that according to media reports encourage moderators to censor content sensitive to local governments. The Guardian, for instance, reported last year that in China, moderators are instructed to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong. There has also been suspicion that the platform has been censoring content related to the Hong Kong protests.
But despite these built-in design limitations for political expression, TikTok still continues to be by far the best means of disseminating ideas on the internet. Everything here is meant to become an internet meme and go viral. All it requires is some ingenuity.
The most subversive and creative of those videos featured in November last year when a video criticising China’s internment of Uighur Muslims disguised as a makeup tutorial went viral. The video’s creator, a 17-year-old Afghan-American (Feroza Aziz) delivered this message, her hands working upon her eyelashes, in the bored instructional tone of makeup tutorial videos. When the video went viral, Aziz’s account was temporarily taken down, although the platform later blamed this on a ‘human moderation error’.
Since then, Aziz has adopted this method—of circulating political messages and bypassing the platform’s censors by masking them as makeup tutorials—as something of a format. She has done several more such videos. Her latest? A skincare routine where she applies moisturisers, Vitamin C oil and rose water spray while criticising the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
In India, most of the media coverage of TikTok’s rapid growth has focused on the craze for popularity on the platform. And on the manner in which its pursuit has resulted in a vast number of accidents, sometimes even death, from guns going off accidentally to performers being run over by cars or being hit by trains during stunts. In December, in Delhi, an argument over a TikTok video being shot during a wedding eventually escalated into a group of individuals being shot at with guns. Another article (this one in Hindustan Times) reported last year of the murder of a popular TikTok figure who was shot at by two men over a suspected financial dispute. The two men wearing helmets pointed their guns at the TikTok star (Mohit Mor) and reportedly told him, ‘Let us make you a TikTok star.’ According to the report, ‘They fired so many bullets into him that even his teeth were found in pieces when the police came.’
P Saravanan, a deputy police inspector in Tamil Nadu, has a humorous anecdote to offer when he talks about TikTok. He laughs as he recounts an argument that broke out between a father and a son, when the latter secretly shot a video of his father taking a bath and uploading it along with music on the platform. “The father was so upset… the two ended up in a scuffle,” Saravanan says.
But not everything on TikTok is always amusing. Increasingly it appears, like the instance of Team 07’s controversial video, more political concerns are pressing on to the platform. TikTok revealed earlier this month in its transparency report that from among all the countries it operates in, it had received the most number of takedown requests from Indian authorities. According to the report, Indian authorities also sent the most number of requests for information on user IDs (107). The reason why China may not have appeared on this list is because the platform functions as a different entity (Douyin) in China.
For all the amusing incidents like that of the unsuspecting father bathing on TikTok, Saravanan himself does not take the platform lightly. Last year in February, he was at the centre of a storm when an irate crowd descended upon the police station he was then posted at, Thiruttani in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district, demanding the arrest of two men who had uploaded a hate-filled rant against the Dalit community.
The 20-something Venkataraman and a 17-year-old Vijay, both allegedly drunk and belonging to the dominant Vanniyar community in a remote village (Thalavedu) on the Tamil Nadu-Andhra Pradesh border, had shot the video on the former’s phone and uploaded it on TikTok. The video spread rapidly, Saravanan recounts, especially shared through WhatsApp, and soon Dalit youths hadn’t just gheraoed the police station, some had even stormed into Venkataraman’s house. The two had escaped by then, but a fight broke out between them over the backlash later, Saravanan explains, leading eventually to Venkataraman murdering his friend.
“Those two didn’t really understand technology [well]. They didn’t understand how things can spread on TikTok,” Saravanan says. “That time hardly anybody in that village knew what TikTok was or how it worked,” Saravanan continues. “But now everybody knows everything about it.”
Venkataraman surrendered to the police about a week after the murder. He was released on bail in July, and according to his bail conditions, had to report to the police station daily. But Venkataraman cut a forlorn figure. “He was suffering badly, I could see,” Saravanan says. “He was a lonely figure. Everybody, his friends, his family, had stopped interacting with him.”
Not long after his bail, Venkataraman’s body was discovered one day amid some bushes. He had consumed poison.
Venkataraman’s father Kanniyappan, a mid-day meal cook at the local primary school in the village, told a reporter that his son had paid the price for shooting the video in an inebriated state. “There were people on both sides who made it a caste issue. We never had caste problems before…” he told The Indian Express.
Venkataraman’s might be an extreme story, one that had ended in tragedy. But there are several reports about how casteist and hate speech now frequently appear on the platform. The portal News Minute reported in November last year, for instance, how the video of a 31-year-old beautician from Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu, where she abused Dalits, went viral. Interestingly, the video was uploaded in August but began to receive traction only in November after the vandalisation of an Ambedkar statue at a nearby location.
TikTok did not respond to requests for an interview. But in the past when they were briefly banned by the Madras High Court after the platform was deemed unsafe for kids, it claimed to have removed over six million videos in India in the preceding one year for violating its community guidelines. “This is part of TikTok’s ongoing efforts to make its millions of users feel safe and comfortable within the community by empowering them with the right tools and resources,” it had then said in a statement.
But the infiltration of political content based on real-world issues is being seen most right now on the platform. The app is awash with content around the CAA, National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register. There are scores of videos of protests on the streets (and a few in support of the CAA), retooling of Bollywood songs such as the popular Gully Boy track ‘Jingostan Beatbox’ to protest against the CAA, and, suitable to the medium, short creative videos about inter-religious harmony. In one video, which has witnessed over 8.2 million views and nearly 6,500 comments, a Muslim youth heeding to the ‘azaan’ is saved from a mob of rioters by a Hindu youth. The video has in turn spawned—as is the nature of this platform—countless more videos, either by playing the same audio track onto other imitative videos or splicing new videos over the original video using the split-screen duet feature, making the political message of the original video repeat again and again in this strange memetic loop.
I MANAGE TO TRACK down Adnaan Shaikh after a week of pursuit. While he and one more member of the Team 07 group still have access to their TikTok accounts, those of the other three continue to remain suspended. They have tried, he says, to have the suspensions revoked but to no avail.
The group however continues to remain fairly big internet stars. They have to an extent successfully managed to carry their stardom from TikTok to Instagram (Shaikh, who was 11.2 million followers on TikTok, has 4.8 million on Instagram; Faisal Shaikh, the most popular among them, who had 24.1 million followers before his account was suspended on TikTok, now has close to 10 million on Instagram). They still get promotional offers, are as busy as ever, he says, creating videos for various platforms or working on their own music videos. Just a few days before, Shaikh and his teammates performed at a sold-out internet celebrities’ event at Mumbai’s Jio Gardens.
Shaikh also has lost none of his swagger as he talks of his future, about a fashion line he plans to bring out in the near future and the establishment of an NGO for promising children from Dharavi. “I hear from fans all the time,” he says. “They say, TikTok is not the same without us. They say they will quit it.”
And although Shaikh continues to possess his account on TikTok, he suggests he is displeased with the platform. His follower count has remained stagnant, he says, for most of last year. And although he doesn’t say it, he suggests that he thinks the platform’s algorithms don’t promote his work as vigorously as they once did before the group attracted infamy.
This has however not come in the way of expressing his opinions, he says. Shaikh continues to post political opinions online, especially around the recent debate on the CAA and the NRC, even on TikTok.
“Some people say we (Team 07) have become scared after what happened,” he says. “Well, we are not.”