On the evening of June 29, 23-year-old Prem Vats had almost finished uploading the latest TikTok video of him dancing to a happy Bollywood tune when news broke that India was banning dozens of Chinese apps in the country. He was at a friend’s place on the outskirts of New Delhi when he received a call from another friend who had already seen the news, laughing at Vat’s suddenly-altered fortunes.
“I was shocked — it almost seemed unreal,” he says. He immediately contacted TikTok to check if the news was true. This month Vats, who had carefully built his following in the last three years through swift dance moves and funny skits, expected to hit the 10 million follower milestone — but he’s now stuck at 9.5 million.
Less than 24 hours after the announcement, the app stopped working.
In the western city of Surat, TikTok creator Shivani Kapila, with 10.9 million followers, was in tears because she was unable to access the app any longer. Until then, she was known in her neighborhood as the girl who makes TikTok videos. Now, she says she feels like her past two years “do not exist anymore.”
“I still open the app 40 times a day just out of habit,” says Kapila, whose account name was @littlegloves, a nod to her tiny hands. “TikTok gave birth to me, made me who I am.” And now, she doesn’t know how to charge ahead, rebuild the same audience and how to pay her bills.
Vats and Kapila are among the 1.2 million Indian creators who turned to TikTok to express themselves, build a sprawling network of followers and pad their bank accounts. In a good month, Vats would end up earning Rs 1.5-2 lakh ($2,000 to $2,700) and during a bad month it would go as low as $670. On average, a category A influencer (with at least ten million followers) could charge up to Rs 3-4 Lakh ($4,000 to $5,300) but these account for a small percentage of the overall creator economy.
But when the Indian government announced on June 29 that it would ban 59 Chinese apps because it had determined they were a threat to national security, scores of Indian TikTok creators became collateral damage.
The ban came in the midst of a geopolitical crisis. India has been in a border battle with China for many decades now, but the latest military standoff in mid-June, which saw 20 Indian soldiers killed during a skirmish, further stoked calls for the boycott of Chinese products in India. These events were preceded by India altering its foreign direct investment norms in April, making it difficult for countries sharing a border to invest in Indian companies without government approval.
The move sets an important precedent to similar sweeping measures in an increasingly polarised world. The United States has already lauded India’s move to ban Chinese apps as a decision that could “boost India’s sovereignty”. Indian entrepreneurs have jumped on the bandwagon to create TikTok clones with their only motto being “Proudly Indian”.
“This move gets us one step closer to the balkanisation of the internet where we have a Chinese internet, Indian internet, United States internet or UK internet,” says Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of digital news portal MediaNama.
When the Indian government said that a list of 59 apps would be banned, it did not explicitly say that it was a move against China. But all the apps affected are Chinese, leading most industry experts to peg the ban as a political move rather than a step to protect the data and privacy of Indian citizens. “If data protection was the reason for this ban, the question is why now?” says Pahwa.
“This ban is an important signal of the risks that exist for an open internet and the fear that governments have that companies can effectively be controlled by the state or country of their origin,” Pahwa adds. “For the open internet, it’s important that rules be defined regarding the kind of control that can be exerted on dominant platforms globally by their governments.”
Before being banned, India was TikTok’s biggest market outside China, with 200 million monthly active users. Its growth coincided with Indians getting access to cheap mobile internet following the launch of telco service Jio. This fuelled the growth of the platform in small-town India, which makes up the majority of TikTok’s user base in the country.
There were young women and housewives who found an outlet to express themselves and also earn a living while many from remote parts of India became TikTok celebrities by showcasing their talent. One TikTok star, Sonali Phogat, even became the candidate for ruling party BJP during local elections in the North Indian state of Haryana in October 2019, fuelled by her popularity on the site (though she lost the election).
“Apps such as TikTok democratised digital participation in India and broke the perception that social media should only be used by English-speaking, educated elites of the society,” says Torsha Sarkar, policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society. “This ban is primarily going to impact creators who don’t have the privilege of having an acceptable cultural and economic background.”
Vats, who graduated in commerce from a local community college, was low on confidence and coping with a personal loss when he was introduced to Musical.ly, the precursor to TikTok, in 2017. In 2018, winning a creator competition on TikTok boosted his confidence to pursue making videos as a full-time career.
TikTok has helped many creators with upward social and economic mobility. In Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, 22-year-old Divyanka Sirohi was able to purchase an apartment for her family only because of her earnings from TikTok. Now she’s concerned about the remainder of her mortgage payments. “I haven’t figured out what to do next because my focus was on TikTok entirely,” says Sirohi, who had 4.9 million following until the ban. “I am on Instagram but haven’t really built a following there yet.”
Creators believe that new homegrown short video apps such Chingari and Mitron TV, which popped up to replace TikTok, may not last long. Many believe these new platforms lack the technical sophistication and deep pockets of TikTok parent company ByteDance. In the months after its launch in India, the company spent almost $20m per month on marketing and paying creators in the country.
“I tried using Chingari but the app kept glitching so I didn’t continue with it,” Vats says. Without an obvious local alternative, creators are left with Instagram and YouTube, which may not work as well since neither Facebook nor Google are expected to offer the same monetary incentives that ByteDance did.
If the ban was a political then TikTok might be allowed back in if border tensions deescalate. Until then, Vats is working to build his profile on Instagram and YouTube. He is in talks with some brands for sponsored posts but for a substantially lower fee – almost half of what he was offered for TikTok posts. Plus, he admits that working on videos for Instagram and YouTube is a lot more time consuming.
At the time of writing, Vats had spent two days on his YouTube video which still wasn’t finished. “TikTok came with its vast music library, a variety of filters and massive reach,” he says, “That isn’t going to be the same for people like me on Instagram and YouTube.”
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