THE TIKTOK ERA

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By Maurine W. Ngugi

In the contemporary landscape of employment and self-expression, the rise of social media platforms has opened up unprecedented avenues especially for the younger generation. Among these, TikTok stands out as a juggernaut, offering a platform for creativity, self-expression, and even entrepreneurship. However, with great opportunity comes great responsibility, and recent concerns have been raised regarding the platform’s influence on its users, particularly the youth.

Prominent player

In Kenya, TikTok has become a significant part of the digital landscape, with millions of users actively engaging with the platform. A survey by the Reuters Institute Digital News report 2023  indicates that TikTok had 10.60 million users aged eighteen  and above in Kenya in early 2024. With the country’s internet penetration standing at 40.8 percent and a total of 13.05 million social media users in January 2024, TikTok has emerged as a prominent player in Kenya’s digital ecosystem.

The emergence of the influencer profession has transformed the way individuals, especially the youth, engage with content creation and online presence. No longer confined to traditional avenues of employment, many are modelling out careers by leveraging their personalities, skills  and creativity on platforms like TikTok. This democratization of fame and influence has undoubtedly empowered countless individuals to pursue their passions and monetize their talents.

Yet, amidst the glitz and glamour of TikTok’s digital realm, a shadow of concern looms large. The unregulated nature of these platforms presents formidable challenges among them the imperative for responsible content moderation and user behaviour regulation. While TikTok has democratized expression, it has also fostered a breeding ground for toxic behaviour, cyberbullying, and the dissemination of inappropriate content, raising alarm bells in an era where empowerment is a prevalent discourse. Instances of cyberbullying and harassment have been reported, with individuals facing verbal abuse, threats, and even doxing. Such behaviour not only undermines the platform’s potential as a positive space for creativity,  but also raises serious concerns about the mental well-being of its users, particularly the younger demographic.

Compliance

Last year, a petitioner called on Members of Parliament  to ban TikTok, citing its contribution to the erosion of cultural and religious values in society. In response, TikTok CEO Zi Chew pledged to ensure that content aligns with community standards. However, concerns persist, with Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki expressing dissatisfaction with TikTok’s compliance with Kenyan laws, prompting government intervention.

One poignant illustration of TikTok’s impact in Kenya is the tragic story of Brian Chira, whose untimely death sparked a frenzy of speculation on the platform, with users amplifying various narratives surrounding the incident. This episode underscored the platform’s susceptibility to misinformation and disinformation, serving as a stark reminder of the urgent need for robust regulatory measures and vigilant community oversight.

Entrepreneurship

In addition to fame and influence, TikTok has also become a source of income for many Kenyan youth, tapping into the gig economy in various ways. Influencing, where individuals leverage their online presence to promote products and services, has become a popular avenue for monetization. Moreover, TikTok’s “tap to gift” feature, which allows users to receive monetary gifts from their followers, has emerged as a significant source of income for content creators. Additionally, some youth utilize the platform to sell their goods and services, further highlighting the entrepreneurial opportunities presented by TikTok.

TikTok’s lax approach to content regulation has facilitated the dissemination of inappropriate and explicit material, including sexual content. Despite efforts to implement age restrictions and content guidelines, many users, including minors, are still exposed to content that is not suitable for their age group. This raises significant questions about child safety and the platform’s responsibility to protect its younger users from harmful influences.

While the platform offers immense potential for self-expression and entrepreneurship, it also demands greater accountability from both its users and  creators. Effective regulation and moderation mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that TikTok remains a safe and inclusive space for all. Although the platform has revolutionized the way we engage with social media and content creation, it also requires concerted efforts to address issues of toxicity, cyberbullying, and inappropriate content. We can harness the potential of TikTok while safeguarding the well-being of its users, especially the most vulnerable among them.

The writer is a communication specialist. Kindly reach her on: maurine.w.ngugi@gmail.com

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