Unraveling the culture and politics of Tiktok

The ban on TikTok poses a challenge and jeopardizes the individual freedoms that the democratic system aims to protect. It might just open a Pandora’s box that we may not want to travel down the path it opens.

Dr Alok K Bohara

  • Read Time 5 min.

“As long as human beings are imperfect, there will always be arguments for extending the power of government to deal with these imperfections.” Thomas Sowell

No technology has been utilized on such an unprecedented global scale as social media, with platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and X (formerly known as Twitter) leading the way. Billions of users worldwide engage in a diverse range of communicative behaviors and connectedness that marks a triumphant human achievement. These platforms serve as a driving force behind ingenuity, creativity, and e-commerce. However, behind the cloak of pseudonyms, troll accounts, and anonymity, the entire social landscape has become a victim of manipulated public debates, the hijacking of mainstream media agendas, and the influencing of political narratives. Furthermore, the prevalence of bullying and digital lynching is causing clear social harm. Many countries are grappling with these complexities for various reasons. On balance, social media has shown us all its sides—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Nepal recently expressed its frustration by joining the ranks, showing concern over the impact of TikTok on family, social harmony, and cultural values. However, the decision to ban the platform appears to be a hasty move without thorough consideration. While the decision raises legitimate concerns, it reflects the classic dilemma of a valid concern met with a potentially inappropriate solution. This echoes the famous saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

History has shown us that the pursuit of freedom often comes with inherent imperfections. The newly crowned achievement of the country’s new constitution, guaranteeing freedom of expression and personal liberty, is a good example. We should not consider it a perfect document but rather a work-in-progress project. While addressing valid concerns, the ban on TikTok poses a challenge and jeopardizes the individual freedoms that the democratic system aims to protect. It might just open a Pandora’s box that we may not want to travel down the path it opens. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One key aspect of a thriving democracy is the acceptance of diverse opinions and the tolerance of imperfections. In the digital age, platforms like TikTok provide an avenue for thousands of Nepalis to exercise their freedom of expression, showcasing talents and connecting with a global audience. Abruptly banning such platforms raises questions about the balance between safeguarding cultural values and harming individual freedoms. While the proliferation of content on digital platforms like TikTok does raise concerns about inappropriate material, it is essential to approach the issue with care. Blanket bans on entire mediums risk stifling the diverse voices that contribute positively to public discourse. This principle holds true not only for social media platforms but also for traditional forms of journalism. Further, this issue is not unique only to a developing country like Nepal.

In the ongoing debate surrounding the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian marches in the US, a similar discourse is entangled in the concerning environment of cancel culture. Both sides accuse each other of crossing boundaries and advocating for restrictions on the opposing side. Non-violent and peaceful expression of opinions must be protected, irrespective of their origin. Banning marches is not the solution; however, instances of harmful slanders can seek justice in court, as seen in the case of YouTuber Alex Jones. He was taken to court for spreading the false conspiracy that the children killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook were staged actors. Similarly, the Fox TV network settled a legal lawsuit, paying $700 million plus damages for spreading the stolen election claim of Trump in 2020. Print media also faces legal action for defamation and falsehood, showing that issues of harmful slanders and disinformation can be challenged. Simultaneously, preserving the right to free speech and non-violent expressions, even by controversial groups, is and should be protected. This principle can be applied to the case of TikTok without resorting to the extreme step of banning it..

Instead of resorting to draconian measures, there are other creative ways to address such issues, which I will touch upon later in this article. In my humble opinion, the ban is serious enough to perhaps warrant a challenge in the Supreme Court. It also appears that Nepal has chosen to emulate the Taliban, the only other group that has adopted such a complete ban, arguing from a perspective of cultural morality

Be careful

In the broader context of democratic values and freedom of expression, it is crucial to recognize that the existence of bad or unacceptable content should not be a pretext for canceling entire mediums of communication. This includes airwaves (radios), YouTube, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), print, or various podcasts. The history of journalism is rich with instances where the press played a pivotal role in shaping societies, holding power accountable, and fostering an informed citizenry. Nepali journalism, particularly in recent democratic struggles, has been hailed as a shining example. In fact, Nepal stands out as one of the freest societies in terms of journalism in South Asia and perhaps even in the whole of Asia, surpassing the largest democracy, India.

Instances of irresponsible reporting should not tarnish the reputation of the entire journalistic profession. Similarly, the presence of objectionable content on digital platforms should not be grounds for wholesale bans. Instead, a more effective strategy involves implementing robust content moderation mechanisms, empowering users with reporting tools, and fostering media literacy. In dealing with inappropriate content, a democratic society should seek solutions that protect free speech while addressing valid concerns. This may involve collaboration among industries, clear content policies, and ongoing discussions among platforms, regulators, and the public.

Geo-politics of TikTok

Some have speculated that the Nepali government’s decision to ban TikTok might be influenced by discussions and sentiments in countries like India and the US regarding China. Notably, these countries’ concerns are rooted in information gathering and national security, but their response is limited to restrictions rather than an outright ban. The use of TikTok and AI for potential election influence through bots and misinformation is a significant concern for these nations, but they address it through cybersecurity measures rather than complete prohibition. Comparatively, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, TikTok faced bans primarily on moral grounds, driven by concerns about its impact on young people. However, various other countries, such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, France, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, implemented partial or total bans on TikTok on federal government devices due to national security and data privacy concerns. Nepal should carefully consider its unique circumstances, avoiding undue influence from global tensions, and make decisions aligned with its national interests and values, steering clear of examples like the Taliban’s ban in Afghanistan.

Potential solution

Perhaps a more appropriate and practical approach could involve instituting verifiable accounts as an option on TikTok. This would allow authorities to address concerns related to anonymity and inappropriate content while preserving the platform as a space for creative expression. Verifiable accounts could provide a middle ground, ensuring accountability without sacrificing the fundamental right to freedom of expression. As for the Prime Minister’s noble objective of societal harmony and family unity, I would like to offer two tips. Firstly, for societal harmony, political parties should commit to engaging in civil discourse within the House, rather than resorting to threats of taking issues to the streets, disrupting daily activities and transportation. Secondly, regarding family unity, implementing policies to create jobs at home and reducing the outflow of youths to foreign lands might be more prudent and helpful in keeping the family together.

[From Nepal Unplugged]