TikTok and its toxicities

The quest for gratification without ethical consideration has made the social network dangerous.


Representational image. PHOTO: THE KATHMANDU POST

October 17, 2023

KATHMANDU – TikTok is ubiquitous these days, with its effect extending beyond the realms of digital spaces. It has reshaped video sharing, with diverse users creating content, unlike the traditional approach limited to media producers. In Nepal, the recent example of how religious purposes did not just drive temple visits but also the zeal to create content for TikTok in Shrawan highlights its influence on our decision-making and social life. This pattern is not only limited to religious and holy places but also to other public places such as restaurants, tourist destinations, cinema halls, academic premises and so on. These spaces have become an ideal place for self-publishing consumers to produce user-generated media based on a wide range of content.

TikTok (DouYin in Chinese) is one of the most successful Chinese social media applications used globally. Initially, Musical.ly was founded by Zhang Yiming back in September 2016. Soon, Beijing Bytedance Technology acquired the application in November 2017 and renamed it TikTok. Since then, TikTok has seen widespread distribution, especially attracting young users to engage, view, create and comment on lipsynced videos. The third-largest social network, TikTok, is predicted to have 834.3 million monthly users worldwide in 2023. The audience size in Nepal itself is 1,349,830.

The use of TikTok is extended by its users’ creativity, which can be both positive and negative. According to the Tiktok community guidelines, its mission is to unlock human imagination, enabling creative expression and providing entertainment and enrichment by welcoming people worldwide as they discover diverse ideas, creators and products and connect with others in the community. Notably, TikTok’s use has expanded beyond the stated intention by its creators.

Understanding the obsession

Nowadays, it is common for individuals across all age groups to obsess over TikTok. The theory of gratification can explain this obsession; it suggests that certain media can gratify a person’s need, and the person will continue using it for gratification. Consequently, the motivation to use Tiktok could be to expand one’s social network, express oneself creatively, feel competent, and seek fame or power. In the technocratic world, other factors could be to avoid the psychological state of fear of missing out (FOMO) so that the users don’t feel excluded by missing the current trends. However, the scope of understanding the use of TikTok might be beyond this theory and have undesirable results. Socio-psychological studies conducted in this field suggest that people’s motivation for involvement in such user-generated media is to peek into other people’s lives and take pleasure in accessing private details. Notably, TikTok represents a global phenomenon characterised by a failure to protect user data and ensure privacy, leading to lawsuits in several countries.

Currently, TikTok is confronting the challenge of handling hate speech, inappropriate content, threats, harassment, cyberbullying, misinformation, plagiarism and conspiracies. Further, users misuse TikTok to threaten others over a minor inconvenience overtly. Similarly, people with little journalistic credibility go around poking others’ personal issues and expose them for “justice”. Worse, viewers perceive it as a mere source of amusement rather than questioning the morality of such content and the ethics behind such behaviour.

To gain viewers and want to become “viral,” people do anything and everything. From filming people without their consent and prioritising capturing a serious incident instead of extending a helping hand (the recent Manipur violence case), TikTok users have blurred the line between humanity and content-seeking obsession. Other disturbing trends found in TikTok are videos of people quarrelling, intentionally harming animals to match them with song lyrics, objectification and sexualisation of young children by forcing them to dress, dance or act in a certain way, filming the misery of terminally ill patients, and so on. The question here is not about counting the so-called creative content but rather about pondering on how much content fulfils TikTok’s objective and its valid use—to inspire creativity, bring joy and unlock human imagination by enabling creative expression.

Primary mission

TikTok’s popularity ignites anxiety and fear about its misuse and the extent to which people can become regressive. The present discourse displayed by TikTok represents “techno panic,” a moral panic that centres on societal fears associated with specific contemporary technology or activity instead of the content.

Such moral panics point out the consequences of social media that trigger people’s perceived vulnerability and societal fears, which seem to be getting worse and unfiltered. However, recent research suggests that TikTok can be an informative channel to inform about health and safety-relevant information, share official information from the government, stir healthy political discussions, promote tourism, online sales, educational content and appeal for charity.

Despite its rampant creation of improper content, it is still not too late to leverage TikTok to foster civility. First, the users need to seriously comply with the community guidelines provided by TikTok. In case of violation, the users must report the video for its irrelevant content and share feedback. Second, based on the pattern of TikTok use, its operators need to be attentive and efficient to take relevant action to remove and prevent ill-suited content. Finally, it is up to its users themselves to comprehend the actual use of TikTok for the well-being of society in every dimension possible.

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