How TikTok, other social media apps will influence our elections

At the risk of confusing my more mainstream readers, we must talk about TikTok. No, not the clock, but social media’s latest entrant and its growing impact on Kenyan society.

As state security chiefs and digital experts met this week to update the country’s cyberspace security strategy, Mozilla Foundation researchers dropped another critical expose.

Firstly, some basics for those of us who have missed one of the fastest growing and most influential social media platforms of the decade. Headquartered in California, Bytedance, the company that owns TikTok is worth US$ 50 billion.

The video hosting platform grossed US$ 4.6 billion last year, making five times more than Safaricom. Available in 75 languages across 155 markets, in 2021, it was the most downloaded app in the world. Some 1.2 billion people actively now use the app for an average of an hour each day. So why have so many of us not used it yet?

TikTok is largely a millennial and generational Z app. 75 per cent of its global audience are under 34. Less than 3.4 per cent of its users, this columnist included, are older than 55. The app has grown phenomenally by over 2,000 per cent. Today TikTok, the youngest kid on Kenya’s digital streets, is the fourth largest app after WhatsApp, FaceBook and Instagram and 3 in every 5 social media users are 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 that had been watched over 4 million times. The videos contained hate speech, ethnic incitement, fake or manipulated content. Each one of the videos violated TikTok’s own policies yet there they were, spreading joyfully and without restriction on an open platform. 

The more dangerous of the videos intentionally resurrected our post-election violence 2007/8 ghosts to incite communities against each other ahead of the August 9 poll.

Videos titled “Ruto hates Kikuyus and wants to take revenge come 2022” attracted 445,000 views. That fake opinion poll, newspaper headline, news broadcast or that Joe Biden endorsement tweet all have two things in common. Much of this content is completely artificial and deliberately manufactured to demonise and divide political opponents and their supporters. Secondly, most political parties and their supporters are doing it.

The “From Dance App to Political Mercenary: How disinformation on TikTok gaslights political tensions in Kenya” report is another wake call for netizens, social media platforms and state agencies.

Like Mozilla’s investigation into twitter-based disinformation last year, this report punctures holes into TikTok’s stated zero-tolerance for discrimination and hate-speech.

We need to start paying more attention to and demanding stricter enforcement of law and platform guidelines. Disinformation watchdog Reset make some useful distinctions between disinformation (false information deliberately created to harm others) and mal-information (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 is under-investing in filtering out and deleting harmful and misleading content.

In the wake of this study, TikTok must relook at its current moderation guidelines and stem the peep holes that allow for so many problematic videos to get such widespread viewership. Like the other platforms, we must also demand greater transparency in how the algorithm works.

Can, as the report recommends, we have a commitment that at critical juncture like an intense election moment, the platforms switch off or monitor for closer attention, their trending sections, use of advertisements and group recommendations.  

After an era of centralised state communications, the rise of social media platforms is a critical feature of digital democracies today. We must not allow this be compromised by either the profits of transnational tech giants or predatory communicators and liars. We must demand tech platforms protect the public and strengthen citizen’s capacities to stop and reject digital disinformation. Tik Tok, this clock is also ticking…

This opinion was first published in The Standard, 11th June 2022. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]