More than meets the eye in bid to ban TikTok


TikTok is set to establish an office in Kenya. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

TA petitioner, Bob Ndolo, has urged Parliament to block access to the popular social media platform TikTok in Kenya on grounds that the content being shared on video sharing app is inappropriate.

He is contending that it is promoting violence, explicit sexual content, hate speech, vulgar language, and offensive behaviour, and continues to state that it is a serious threat to the cultural and religious values in Kenya.

The video streaming app launched over five years ago has become a powerful medium, with a third of Kenya’s young generation using it as their primary source for news and information.

Live broadcast on the app captured cases of police brutality during the weekly demonstrations staged by the leader of the opposition calling on the government to lower the cost of living.

The video clips were circulated from one user to the other in real-time.

Hence some people see the quest to ban TikTok as Kenyan authorities starting to follow the playbook of other authoritarian regimes in Africa.

Mr Ndolo has gone for an American explanation for cracking down on TikTok raising concerns that could apply to almost all social media platforms.

He argues that the app’s data practices and ownership structure have the potential to compromise the privacy and security of most Kenyans using it.

The reality is that such allegations of data use and misuse apply to countries promoting rival social media platforms.

Other countries that have banned TikTok have done so in response to China's perceived influence. For India where the Chinese-made apps were banned in mid-2020, the move came amid growing tensions between the two nations.

The app was also banned in Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, over claims of featuring content deemed blasphemous.

The ban was overturned a week later after the company promised to send a team of officials to monitor and sanitise the content created and shared in the country.

The fact is most social media sites, including TikTok, are not immune to controversy and persistent attacks.

Governments fear the ability of social media in organising dissenting voices especially given the outsized impact that social media had in the Arab Spring uprisings.

Reuters Institute Digital News report 2023 survey shows that Kenya leads in world TikTok usage. The survey observed that a staggering 54 percent of users engaged in TikTok for specific purposes, including but not limited to entertainment contrast to hate speech, violence, vulgar language, and offensive behaviour as claimed by the petitioner.

The survey further noted that 29 percent of users specifically rely on it for news consumption. The report highlights TikTok’s growing significance as a news distribution channel especially to the younger demographics or ‘Gen Z’.

It indicates a shift away from traditional platforms like Facebook, which has long held the top position but is now experiencing a decline in popularity.

Furthermore, the report reveals that users of TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat demonstrate a stronger inclination towards following celebrities and social media influencers for news topics, rather than relying on established media organizations.

This phenomenon suggests that audiences selectively avoid emotionally challenging or distressing stories to safeguard their mental well-being.

TikTok as an instrument of expression

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that allows individuals to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions freely without any form of censorship.

This is well espoused in the International Declaration of Human Rights and in the Constitution of Kenya, Article 33 which states that individuals are free to seek, receive or impart information or ideas and freedom of artistic creativity.

Instead of an outright ban on the app, the government through the Communications Authority of Kenya should consider implementing stricter regulations or even engage in negotiations with TikTok’s parent company to address their concerns while still allowing the platform to operate.

TikTok is a powerful tool for communication and creative expression, especially among younger generations. The youths in the country have been using TikTok applications to seek and receive information from their favourite celebrities and social media influencers about their lifestyles.

The app has been a source of income for many such as Azziad Nasenya, a Tiktoker, who grew through content creation and sharing short videos on the platform in 2020.

Therefore, banning the platform could potentially limit the ability of young people to earn, connect, share, and engage with others.

TikTok as an advertising platform

Brand companies and businesses have TikTok accounts and use it as a source of advertising their services and products respectively.

In this technological era, the app provides the platform for lifting businesses to flourish in sales and profits. However, the users have the option of following the accounts that they may deem fit for viewing its contents from time to time.

The question of whether a TikTok ban is a threat to freedom of expression depends on how the ban will be implemented, the reasons behind it and whether it strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the users and upholding their right to free expression.

Therefore, the Public Petitions Committee, guided by the spirit of the constitution, should find and/or consider TikTok as an equal social media application with other apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram used for seeking, receiving, and imparting information.

Kithinji Nturibi is a law student at Mount Kenya University and Oscar Ochieng is a communications practitioner.