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Inside Pakistan’s War on TikTok

In 2019, TikTok became the second most downloaded app in Pakistan with an estimated 16.3 million downloads from January to November that year. Many Pakistanis shot to fame by sharing snippets of their lives in rural areas but after becoming the most popular social media platform in the country, TikTok was banned. The Pakistani government first…

In 2019, TikTok became the second most downloaded app in Pakistan with an estimated 16.3 million downloads from January to November that year. Many Pakistanis shot to fame by sharing snippets of their lives in rural areas but after becoming the most popular social media platform in the country, TikTok was banned. 

The Pakistani government first banned the app in October 2020, citing “indecent content” as its reason. The ban was lifted less than two weeks after but another one was implemented in March, with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) citing “unethical and immoral content.” This second ban was lifted once again in early April. 

Before the first ban, TikTok had about 20 million active monthly users in Pakistan, around 10 percent of the country’s population. TikTok is appealing to many in rural and working-class communities because it’s easily accessible and you don’t need to be literate to use it. 

“Wherever I go, people ask me for selfies. Wherever I pass, people say ‘Oh, it’s that guy!’ That’s the reaction I get, that’s the kind of change [that TikTok] has brought into my life,” Zeeshan Akram, a 21-year-old TikTok star and farmer, told VICE World News. 

Akram takes videos of himself sowing rice and milking cows and now has about 193,000 subscribers on TikTok.

“People often say ‘Oh he’s just a bumpkin.’ I wanted to show everyone that people in the countryside can be of all types. Some are educated and some are not,” he said. 

TikTok didn’t just make users famous, it was a new source of income for them too.  

“All the money I’ve made from companies and brands, all the companies I’ve collaborated with and became ambassador for, and all the promotions I’ve done — you get paid hundreds of thousands from promotions — I’ve gotten because of TikTok,” Hareem Shah, a 27-year-old influencer with over 5.8 million followers on TikTok, told VICE World News. 

TikTok gave a voice to people who were previously excluded from mainstream media. Other influencers who rose to fame include Usman Nasim, a middle-aged man who shares religious content, and Tauqeer Abbas, a daily wage laborer who shares snippets of village life. But the same qualities that make TikTok so appealing to Pakistani youth are also what make it controversial. 

“There was a sort of golden opportunity, in a way, where people who didn’t have access to platforms of expression could use them and feel safe using them. But as the pool of users expands, as the platform expands, the same scrutiny that our society applies to people like that in real life, carries online too,” Meher Ahmad, senior editor for non-profit publication Rest of World, told VICE World News. 

Pakistan is a largely conservative and patriarchal society, and TikTok became a platform that showcased different aspects of Pakistan that previously only occurred in siloes, Ahmad said, aspects that didn’t coincide with the conservative Muslim country. 

On TikTok, there’s a long-haired male beautician donning beauty filters, young girls sharing their idea of the “perfect brown boy,” and police officers lip-syncing to Bollywood hits. In a lot of cases, these videos were met with criticism by Pakistani society. In April 2019, the country’s cricket board even reprimanded an international cricket player for a lip-syncing video that went viral on the platform, though the board did not specify how this was an act of indiscipline. 

In August, lawyer Nadeem Sarwar filed a petition at the Lahore High Court to ban TikTok. In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Sarwar said that there was “little difference between some of these videos and pornography,” referring to a video where a woman was breastfeeding her baby. 

This was followed by reports of dangerous TikTok-related incidents cropping up in the news, like a young woman who was allegedly gang-raped after meeting up with a friend she met through the platform. 

When the government officially blocked TikTok in October, the PTA said in a statement that the decision came “[in] view of [the] number of complaints from different segments of society against immoral and indecent content” on the app. This was not the first time TikTok was banned from a country. India officially banned TikTok and a number of other Chinese apps in July 2020 following a skirmish between Chinese and Indian troops, with the government saying that the apps were “engaged in activities … prejudicial to [the] sovereignty and integrity of India.” Then United States President Donald Trump had attempted to ban TikTok for national security reasons, though this ultimately didn’t push through. 

Many were skeptical over Pakistan’s grounds for banning TikTok. 

“If TikTok is a medium for indecency, then so are other social media apps. We have Pakistan TV dramas on national television that promote vulgarity. If Pakistan has an issue with [its] national security, then we’d be behind Pakistan. But this ‘vulgarity’ excuse doesn’t make any sense,” Shah, the influencer, said. 

While the government cited “indecency” as its main motivator, others believe that there could be other factors at play. When COVID-19 hit the country, it did two things: impact the livelihood of the lower-middle and working class, and increase the number of monthly active users on TikTok. In the months preceding the ban, videos criticizing the government started to gain traction. Some analysts and journalists believe that the ban was less about immoral content and more about curbing the criticism of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s COVID-19 response.

“When we started seeing TikTok memes that were making fun of the prime minister for his coronavirus response, that’s an average person — that’s a shopkeeper, that’s a laborer, that’s somebody who lives in rural parts of the country. That’s far more dangerous than a group of intellectual leftists reading anti-prime minister stuff on Twitter,” Ahmad said. 

Shah, for instance, used her platform to call out men in power. 

“The impact of that sort of public criticism and mocking can be again quite intense, intense in a different way than if it were on a platform that only educated people in Pakistan were seeing, that only upper classes, literate classes were seeing,” Ahmad said.

With the most recent lifting of the TikTok ban, the fate of the app in Pakistan remains to be seen. 

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