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Jobless Influencers, Silenced Users: Is India Really Better off without TikTok?

We are now 23 days into the Indian government’s ban on TikTok.

On the night of June 29, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MIIT) announced its decision to ban 59 Chinese applications including TikTok, in order to preserve India’s sovereignty, national security, and social order. In the past three weeks, this ban has shaken the lives of hundreds of millions: including the 200 million TikTok users in India, 1.2 million creators, and thousands of TikTok’s India-based employees.

The structure of India’s short video market is experiencing a gradual change. With the ban of TikTok, the top five free apps in Google store India are all Indian short video apps: Roposo, Chingari, Tik Kik, Mitron, and ShareChat. Facebook-owned Instagram also made the rapid move by extending Reels feature to India, in an attempt to fill the giant market gap left by TikTok.

Columnist Mihir Sharma felt “dissapointed” at the government’s action, believing it was a mistake for Indian government to ban TikTok. “TikTok in India had an equalizing effect,” he said in his article. “It was the online home of small-town Indians with outsized dreams and, if you looked, unforgettable stories. Young men and women from the countryside, in particular, discovered the joys of creativity and, indeed, celebrity on the site.”

But now, the ban has brought an abrupt stop to the value and changes TikTok once brought to India.

Influencers out of Income

Once again, Arman Rathod, the 29-year-old from Valsad, western India, has “nothing to do.”

In late March 2020, Rathod lost his job under India’s coronavirus lockdown. In April, he began posting videos on TikTok and soon went viral for a video of him dancing on a dusty patch of ground in front of his village. His follower number rocketed to 7 million in only a few weeks, to a point that he could even supported his family during the pandemic with the money from the ad sponsorships.

 

In India, TikTok was not only a source for creative content such as dance or music, but also an important livelihood for certain people. The app helped many creators like Rathod to gain fame and recognition from the public, even alleviating them from poverty. Many of them were working-class folks living in villages far away from India’s cosmopolitans, and TikTok gave them an opportunity to be seen and to define India’s popular culture.

“My dreams were coming true!” Rathod told the National Public Radio (NPR) during an interview. “I got calls to choreograph Bollywood movie songs and appear on TV dance shows.”

The above-mentioned article titled “‘TikTok Changed My Life’: India’s Ban On Chinese App Leaves Video Makers Stunned” also mentioned that many Indian TikTok influencers were devastated over the ban, but at same time, shown a level of understanding and support for the government’s decision.

“I was just getting to the point where I could have started making money from TikTok, but then it got banned,” said Anita Meena, a 26-year-old housewife in northern India who used to post TikTok videos of herself performing local folk dances. She has made plans to migrate to YouTube but is unsure whether she would get the same amount of followers there.

An Economist article on July 4 pointed out that TikTok had about 1.2m content creators in India, with a majority of them coming from marginalized groups. According to social media analytics firm HypeAuditor, there were 3.1 million TikTok creators with more than 1,000 followers in total, 7.7I %(241,000) of which, were from India, second only to that of the United States.

The ban from Modi administration has vaporized the value of the follower bases that hundreds of thousand of creators spent so much time building.

Hundreds of Millions “Lost Their Voice”

Dinesh Pawar, a resident of the tribal village of Jamde in Maharashtra’s Dhule district, was demolished when he heard about the Modi government decision to ban TikTok.

“We were devastated but we realised that it’s not only us. Both my wives saw the news and cried like anything.” He said, “this ban hurts millions of people like us.”

TikTok was popular across India, from top Bollywood stars to influencers in rural villages. Besides bringing incomes for tens of thousands of Indian creators, it has also built a community on sharing and expressing themselves for more Indian people.

The hut in which Dinesh Pawar lives with his family in Jamde village, Maharashtra

On July 2, Indian media The Quint has pointed out in a column that TikTok was a victim of geopolitical conflict, the app, which was flooded with creativity, has brought “freedom of expression” to millions of Indian users as well as “a creative outlet and a safe space where India’s marginalised sections from rural and urban spaces could express themselves.”

Another Indian press The Print focused on the huge blow the ban on TikTok has brought on India’s rural regions. According to the article, in India, a country where inequalities prevail between castes, races, and urban and rural regions, there has never been a product as inclusive as the TikTok. “For more than seven decades, Independent India has witnessed many welfare schemes and efforts to bring a semblance of equality for citizens discriminated against at many levels.” But none of the results were as effective and practical as the revolution driven by TikTok.

On TikTok, the LGBTQ community is no longer the target for discrimination, and a poor farmer showing his homely skills can shine like the king in the epic Mahabharata. Through TikTok, the everyday folks of India finally had the opportunity to rise from the bottom of the pyramid and create their own future.

Indian netizens have expressed their appreciation on TikTok’s promotion of equality and diversity. One video of a shepherd lip-syncing to the lines of a popular Bollywood song received over 14,000 likes on Twitter.

After the ban, the Indian people began experimenting with ways to re-use their beloved app. Their efforts, however, were in vain, as TikTok has disappeared from the Apple store and Google store in India, even those who have downloaded the app would not be able to access it anymore.

Start-up Ecosystem under Threat

On July 2, India’s Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said that banning Chinese apps was a “digital strike.”

According to media report, this “digital strike” will directly impact over 2,000 Indian TikTok employees, and result in an over US$6 billion loss for TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.

With a user base of over 200 million people, India used to be TikTok’s largest ex-China market. According to the data from Sensor Tower, by the end of the first season of 2020, TikTok India has accumulated a download of 610 million times, 30.3% of the global total. In last July, TikTok has just announced its plan to invest US$100 million in the construction of a data center in India, with a continuous investment of US$1 billion in the next three years.

Industry insiders have pointed out that due to the country’s inadequate infrastructure and low per capita GDP, Chinese companies currently based in India have yet enjoyed India’s demographic dividend. The income they obtained does not match with their huge user base, “the input-output ratio is relatively low.” In addition, Indian government’s restrictions on direct foreign investment have constrained Chinese companies from expanding in the Indian market. The current ban could further undermine Chinese companies’confidence in entering the Indian market.

Currently, there are three branches in India’s consumer technology system: the branch created, controlled, and monopolized by US technology giants, such as Google and Facebook; the branch led by Chinese start-ups, such as TikTok and ClubFactory; the branch occupied by India’s domestic companies, such as Paytm and Flipkart.

On July 4, senior Indian IT professional Vibhu Arya published an article commenting that the 59 App ban deprives consumer choices and makes everyone inside the Indian start-up ecosystem a loser.

In his opinion, India’s start-up ecosystem thrives on competition, “[creating] multiple winners” — local start-ups have the courage to innovate, and consumers are empowered with more choices. “Flipkart, Ola, Paytm were all built minus any protectionism, they competed with global leaders and went onto creating category leaders.” If these companies are sheltered under the wing of protectionism, the quality of the product may become a new concern.

However, these concerns have hardly shaken the determination of Modi government. Since Modi started his administration in 2014, the Indian authorities have been working to reduce the country’s reliance on Chinese products. The new slogan pursued by Modi government is “self-reliant India”, as the Prime Minister wishes that Indians could use self-developed apps instead of China-backed ones.