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Censorship claims emerge as TikTok gets political in India

BBC Technology 31 Jan 2020 12:34
By Nilesh Christopher Technology writer, Bangalore
Ajay BarmanImage copyright Ajay Barman

Ajay Barman, 22, is a fading TikTok star in India. Not because he is past his prime, but because - he alleges - he's been "shadow banned" for uploading videos on Hindu-Muslim brotherhood on the popular video creation and sharing platform.

Shadow banning is the act of partially blocking content so it doesn't reach the platform's entire community of users. It will not be obvious to the user that the creator's content is not being promoted.

TikTok has traditionally shied away from political subjects, but Mr Barman built a strong following of just under a million by performing and uploading 15 second skits on the theme of Hindu-Muslim unity at a time when many in India fear the two communities are being driven further apart. His most popular offering garnered more than 2.5 million views.

The fact that a young Hindu man from the Indian city of Bhopal was uploading videos promoting brotherhood and peace between Hindus and Muslims captured significant attention, earning him the moniker of top "humanity" content creator.

But over the past four months, TikTok India has been restricting the reach of his account to stay away from such "risky" content, he says, adding that he has lost some 25,000 followers since the end of October.

"My videos used to get an average of 200,000 views but it's now down to 8,000 views. None of my videos show up on the 'For You' page," Mr Barman says.

The law sparked fears it would marginalise India's Muslim minority, triggering protests. In the past few months, many of TikTok's 200 million Indian users have posted skits and songs on the app to voice their own opposition.

But many are now worried after Mr Barman alleged he was shadow-banned. They wonder if they may be next.

"I was inspired by many of Mr Barman's videos that talk about brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims," said Mirza Ateeque Baig, a 16-year-old user.

He says he was "scared" to upload it at first. "I thought about it for 15 minutes. They [TikTok] don't want anything political that will impact them."

While the app does ban accounts for serious violations like pornography or hate speech, content it sees as a "lesser infringement" of its guidelines is left up on the app - but partially limited across user feeds.

In the past few months the social media platform, owned by China's ByteDance, has been called out for allegedly censoring so-called "risky" content. Most recently, it faced massive backlash in the US for blocking a teenager's account after she uploaded a video accusing China of putting Muslims into "concentration camps". TikTok later issued an apology and reinstated her account.

In Turkey, the company was found to be censoring content that showed the LGBT community or same-sex relationships in a positive light. It has since updated its policies.

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Tiktok told the BBC it had temporarily suspended Mr Barman's account because he was seen wearing a t-shirt with a drug reference in several of his videos. "This should not have been a violation, and we have reinstated the videos accordingly," the company added.

"Our guidelines are clear that political content is allowed on TikTok, as long as it does not include extremist content, such as hate speech," a TikTok spokesperson said. "All users have the opportunity to appeal violations, which the user had not done in this case."

The company, however, did not respond to Mr Barman's allegation that he had been "shadow banned".

For Mr Barman, the timing remains troubling. "Since the censoring, I have made most of my Hindu-Muslim humanity videos private, hoping that TikTok will reverse the shadow ban." He has even abandoned his first account and started afresh, uploading only comedy content that steers clear of his usual themes.

Mr Barman's fans, meanwhile, have started an online campaign to reinstate his account, using the hashtag "unfreeze". They have made more than 700 videos.

Image copyright Getty Images

Free speech activists have also raised questions over the practice of shadow banning content on TikTok.

"They will have to be transparent about to what extent and technical ability they are boosting, de-prioritising and changing the ecology of experience for users and creators on the app," said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

He also pointed to the larger problem of censorship being algorithm-driven. In most cases, apps like TikTok tweak the platform in a way that matches their commercial interest over any interest in free expression, Mr Gupta added.

"We also now have a platform which has the communitarian ethos of China, which is risk averse to almost any kind of political commentary. TikTok doesn't recognise that in the territories it operates, politics is an everyday conversation."

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