At the risk of confusing my more mainstream readers, we have to talk about TikTok. No, not the clock, but the latest addition to social media and its growing impact on Kenyan society.
As state security chiefs and digital experts met this week to update the nation’s cyberspace security strategy, Mozilla Foundation researchers dropped another critical brief.
First, some basics for those of us who missed one of the most dynamic and influential social media platforms of the decade. California-based Bytedance, the company that owns TikTok is worth $50 billion.
The video hosting platform brought in $4.6 billion last year, five times more than Safaricom. Available in 75 languages in 155 markets, in 2021 it was the most downloaded app in the world. Some 1.2 billion people now actively use the app for an average of one hour a day. So why haven’t so many of us used it yet?
TikTok is largely a millennial and generational Z app. 75% of its global audience is under 34. Less than 3.4% of its users, this columnist included, are over the age of 55. The app has seen phenomenal growth of over 2,000%. Today, TikTok, Kenya’s youngest digital street kid, is the fourth largest app after WhatsApp, FaceBook and Instagram and has 3 out of 5 social media users on it.
This month, TikTok took down several videos in response to another excellent investigation by the Mozilla Foundation. Their micro-study reviewed 33 accounts and 130 videos viewed over 4 million times. The videos contained hate speech, ethnic incitement, false or manipulated content. Each of the videos violated TikTok’s own policies, yet they were there, spreading happily and unrestricted across an open platform.
The most dangerous of videos intentionally resurrected our ghosts of the 2007/8 post-election violence to incite communities against each other ahead of the August 9 poll.
The videos titled “Ruto hates Kikuyus and wants revenge by 2022” have garnered 445,000 views. That bogus opinion poll, that newspaper headline, that news show, or that Joe Biden endorsement tweet all have two things in common. Much of this content is completely contrived and deliberately fabricated to demonize and divide political opponents and their supporters. Second, most political parties and their supporters do.
The report “From dance app to political mercenary: How misinformation on TikTok is illuminating political tensions in Kenya” is another wake-up call for internet users, social media platforms and state agencies.
Like Mozilla’s investigation into Twitter-based misinformation last year, this report pokes holes in TikTok’s declared zero tolerance for discrimination and hate speech.
We need to start paying more attention and demanding stricter enforcement of the law and platform guidelines. The misinformation watchdog, Reset, makes some useful distinctions between misinformation (false information deliberately created to harm others) and misinformation (truthful information twisted to harm others).
Only a combined civic, business and state response will match the speed, reach and proliferation of both. Like FaceBook and Twitter, TikTok underinvests in filtering and removing harmful and misleading content.
As a result of this study, TikTok needs to revise its current moderation guidelines and stem the peepholes that allow so many problematic videos to gain such a wide audience. Like other platforms, we must also demand greater transparency in the operation of the algorithm.
As the report recommends, can we commit that at a critical time like an intense election moment, platforms will shut down or watch for more attention, their trending sections, ad usage and recommendations of group.
After an era of centralized state communications, the rise of social media platforms is now a key feature of digital democracies. We must not allow this to be undermined by the profits of transnational tech giants or by predatory communicators and liars. We must demand that technology platforms protect the public and empower citizens to stop and reject digital disinformation. Tik Tok, this clock is also ticking…
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