TikTok and the Connectivity Shift in Pakistan
Years ago, a fellow journalist coined the satirical term “Al-Bannistan” in response to the wave of government bans when television channels were banned and the press muzzled. To circumvent restrictions on traditional means of expression, the media as well as Pakistani citizens wishing to exercise their constitutional right to free speech have turned to the cyber world and have started posting content online.
It was almost as if someone turned on the light up button, as websites were immediately set up for newspapers and magazines as TV channels began to put content online.
However, the blow to online media did not take long as the government banned YouTube. It’s too long and sordid a story to discuss here, but suffice it to say that when it comes to speech restrictions, all governments, no matter what party they belong to, have been violators of the equal opportunities.
This, of course, did not mean that the world stopped moving forward and faster; Shorter and increasingly popular social media platforms were being developed, which captured the imagination of an increasingly recent demographic. One of these platforms is TikTok.
Economies of scale have been the driving force behind the proliferation of smartphones and the steadily declining cost of internet connectivity. This gave voice to a whole new segment of the population who had not been able to explore their own talent and creativity, or the ability to express their thoughts, whatever they were, to a virtual audience. wider.
Once the shock value of seeing content from other than celebrities and organized media wore off, everyone on these platforms, the number of which soared to double digits in the millions (official figures not available but reports are at least 35 million on this application), have seen themselves as creators of content, especially in the field of entertainment.
This came as another plus, in a country with over two million children out of school. Most of those who have gone through the school system also cannot claim to have received any education or skills to be able to enter the workforce. It was an opportunity to explore their potential to do something that they enjoyed, that others enjoyed as well, and to earn a lot of money (and I mean a lot of money – sometimes even more than starting salaries offered to our business graduates).
While there is no direct monetization in Pakistan of the content posted by the creators of TikTok, there are indirect ways to profit from it. Not a bad deal, eh? Well, apparently not everyone was happy with their situation. The type of content created has aroused the ire of many.
In a regulated, rather over-regulated environment, the freedom to “broadcast” whatever you want has rocked the boat and we have seen the rise of moral policing. To give the devil his due, the Internet offers equal opportunities to creative and rude alike. However, both of these being very subjective, that meant that no one should be allowed to wield a large brush.
The platforms quickly developed and applied community guidelines based on best practices already accepted by other applications of this type. Of course, this meant that there would always be social standards which would be regarded as their minimum standards as devoid of the parameters of acceptability. This is where the enforcement of local and country-specific laws and trade agreements comes in, in which they agree to remove content that violates laws as well as certain state standards.
This made them skate on thin ice as the “authorities” demanded that they remove not only socially unacceptable content but also dissent and so on. This has been and always will be seen as problematic by consumers, as well as by the digital rights community, which sees it as an infringement of fundamental rights to the means of expression.
This is especially the case when compliances have been put in place, as in the case of TikTok, which in three months in the first quarter of 2021 alone, had removed more than six million videos deemed inappropriate, of which 15% came from in the “adult content” category. Anyone can guess what the other video content was, unless one takes a look at the transparency reports that these platforms publish each year.
This reassures rights activists that recurring bans are not always done by direct government and regulatory authorities, but also by citizens applying to the courts, who tend to be in favor of the bans route. The YouTube ban lasted for three years, causing numerous difficulties for education, commerce and entertainment. We had banned gaming apps, despite not all gamers committing murders or suicides.
In the case of TikTok, this is the fourth consecutive ban in the space of 10 months, showing the inconsistency in the understanding, application and implementation of the agreements that have enabled it to be present in Pakistan since 2014.
It is interesting and no less worrying that two of the four bans are the result of court decisions, while two were initiated directly by the PTA. Unfortunately, there haven’t been enough opportunities to explain to angry citizens or the courts how the internet works as an intentional medium.
Those who bring the petitions, their lawyers and those who hear them must understand that inappropriate content must be sought out consciously and deliberately in order to appear before them. There is no way he can jump in front of someone without warning and offend their sensitivity.
It is a shame that this attitude of starting over not only erodes business confidence to enter the Pakistani market, but also delays the positive growth potential of the market in a country enjoying an explosion of youth – the main demographic present in the country. these platforms.
The potential of this access to the hitherto socially excluded segment was immediately recognized by the biggest players. Businesses, marketing firms, organizations whose messages needed to be communicated, and savvy governments and politicians have all jumped on the bandwagon of spreading their story.
A recent example is the use of TikTok by the WHO (World Health Organization) as well as several governments, including that of Pakistan, for disseminating information on Covid-19. The government used the services of TikTok influencers to reach out to the enamored demographics of this video-sharing platform that could not be reached otherwise due to its inability to access or disengage from other traditional media for streaming. information.
The icing on the cake came when the Pakistani president also announced that he would use this medium to engage with citizens. This too, apparently, was not suitable for those who only see the content through the prism of immorality and obscenity, which they deliberately access.
It would be interesting to know the opinion of the president if he is questioned on the reasons why he decided to be present on a platform considered as a “promoter of obscenity”.
The reverse, however, would be more interesting: If one asked the petitioners, the self-proclaimed guardians of the nation’s morals, whether it had even occurred to them that someone in the position of of the State would be so naive to announce its presence on a platform that is not kosher! Is anyone up for asking that?
The writer is a freelance journalist who writes on the environment, climate change, gender and media ethics. She tweets @afiasalam.
This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2021 edition of the daily The news. It is accessible here.