Technology for a social cause: TikTok and Asia’s mobile-first nations

TikTok, the most installed app amid the COVID-19 pandemic, makes influencers on social media “essential workers”. The platform presents an opportunity for concerted partnerships between governments, civic agencies and citizens to tackle the global crisis. Have we learnt to manage the role of technology for a social cause?

When Finland classified social media influencers as “key workers” during the COVID-19 crisis alongside nurses and bus drivers, it seemed like a cruel joke. It turns out that Finland is not alone.

From Bangladesh, Vietnam to India and Indonesia, governments are actively partnering with influencers to harness their networks to flatten the curve. The Chinese video sharing social networking site TikTok has risen as a top application for these mobile first nations, especially among their billions of young users coming online for the first time due to radically cheap mobile data plans. Their popularity has been amplified amid the COVID crisis, hitting 2 billion downloads and becoming the most installed app in 2020.

Only a few years ago, some these governments debated the banning of this app due to concerns of illicit content, data privacy and national security. Today, they have launched their own campaigns on TikTok in collaboration with companies, development agencies and influencers to guide their citizens through the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, Vietnam’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health launched the #GhenCoVyChallenge handwashing campaign that became viral as TikTok influencers rendered their own dance moves to the campaign video’s catchy tune.

Even the World Health Organization has embraced TikTok to help educate and build global solidarity while they struggle to combat the “infodemic” of misinformation around COVID-19. They have partnered with companies like Dettol and Lifebuoy to promote hygiene tips and launched the Stay at Home campaigns with local influencers and the United Nations Development Programme for keeping people’s spirit up in these regions. Their first two Tiktok videos garnered 60 million views, paving the path for other agencies to follow suit.

Beyond the utility-driven agendas of using influencers for the public good, there is a parallel and diffused social movement that we must attend to. The human cost of the lockdown and the intimacy with glaring injustice rooted in systemic inequalities is also being mediated by apps such as TikTok. In India, the privileged among the Gen Z who got to retreat to their homes and maintain social distance was lambasted with a spate of gut-wrenching videos on mass media that humanized the headlines of “India is walking home” -  the casualization of suffering of a child on a man’s shoulder as he made his way to his village to entire families huddled on the roadside with their meagre belongings gave a collective quiet scream on mass media.

“Poverty porn” however doesn’t quite make it on TikTok though. Resilience does, humanizing the epic struggles of millions of migrant laborers through their everyday digital storytelling. The algorithmic mediation of these kinds of content juxtaposed with the typical TikTok videos of lip-synching, comedy skits and cooking and fashion vlog challenges may only have amplified and accelerated the discomfort with the disjuncture of inequality that has long been normalized.

The fact is that the future of work will remain its past unless we fuel the public consciousness with empathy, outrage and optimism that comes from the belonging to a growing conscientious collective. Clearly systemic change is no easy task. While numerous GoFundme campaigns and hashtag fundraisers have sprung to aid the vast vulnerable segments of society including in low-income countries, the formalizing of this informal generosity of the human spirit into legal protections and enforcements takes time. For instance, historical achievements through collective organizing for the right to a weekend or a 9 to 5 work week took more than a century to be fortified into law in Western democracies. After all, it remains a challenge to build empathy for those who are invisible.

But what if COVID-19 can be a global catalyst that can repurpose platforms like TikTok to build a healthy global intolerance for the ways in which current human labour are organized? Can we have a TikTok revolution of organizing digitally through the ludic pathways of creativity, humor, parody, and play to help re-imagine and re-engineer reality?

I know we have been down this path before. We had the “Facebook revolution” where Facebook was viewed as a digital organizing tool of the collective discontent towards the Iranian presidential election in 2009. The “Twitter revolution” emerged  in 2011 particularly across the Middle East that led to the Arab Spring in 2011, mediatized by the Twitter application. Critique quickly followed of commodifying protest and feeding into the techno-utopian myth of technology’s liberating power.

Is it perhaps different this time with concerted partnerships between the governments, civic agencies and citizens coming together to tackle a global crisis? Have we learnt to manage the role of a technology in a social cause, capitalizing on its networked potential while mitigating our naïveté of its inherently capitalistic logic and pushing for responsible regulation?

Could we seek for a slow burning revolution that transforms into a resolution that permeates the nations conscience? And what if this self-commodification of activism can result in the consolidation of a global confederation which reminds us of our universal vulnerability as well as our global courage?

Either way, going back to status quo is not an option.

Payal Arora is Professor and Chair in Technology, Values, and Global Media Cultures at Erasmus University Rotterdam and author of the book “The Next Billion Users. Digital Life Beyond the West.” Her work focuses on Internet usage in the Global South, specifically on digital cultures, inequality and data governance. 

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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