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TikTok puzzle as Kenya weighs economics, morality and security

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Last week, the good and bad of TikTok, a popular Chinese social media platform once again became a national debate, courtesy of the death and burial of a 26-year-old Brian Chira.

On one side, the social media platform demonstrated its economic prowess when users in Kenya raised Sh10 million in just two hours to accord the popular user a ‘decent’ sendoff.

Brian Chira had over 400,000 followers and six million likes on TikTok before his untimely death on March 16.

His burial on Tuesday last week, however, exposed the deviant behavior of most users who stormed the sleepy village in Kiambu County in thousands.

They not only prevented the clergy, family and elders from performing the normal burial ceremony but also poured alcohol into the grave, smoked marijuana, and danced semi-naked in total defiance of social order.

Kikuyu elders have since called for a cleansing ceremony to dispel the ‘evil’ brought into the area by TikTok youngsters.

Yet, this is not the first time Kenya has had issues with the social media platform which is growing at 47 percent, shadowing Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Last year, a petitioner sought its ban in the country due to inappropriate content that inspires deviant characters amongst young people, mostly aged 16-25 years.

Appearing before the National Assembly Public Petition, Bob Ndolo, the executive director general of Bridge Consultancy, chided the platform, alledging obscene content mostly at night.

Ndolo argued that whereas the use of the application has gained popularity among the youth in the country, the content being shared on the platform is inappropriate thus promoting violence, explicit sexual content, hate speech, vulgar language, and offensive behaviours which is a serious threat to cultural and religious values.

Music and Copyright Society of Kenya CEO Ezekiel Mutua who had supported the petition decried that the app has massive negative effects on the masses due to unregulated content.

Mutua implored MPs to take immediate action to safeguard Kenyans from the negative effects of the App which has exposed children to nudity and profanity.

These concerns forced President William Ruto to have a virtual meeting with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in August last year where it was agreed that the content on the short-form video platform will be moderated to fit community standards.

Last week, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki told Parliament that the National Security Council (NSC) is currently dealing with the threats posed by the social media platform.

Kindiki said that although TikTok brings huge economic benefits, there are grave dangers.

“This matter is so complex, so consequential that it is not easy to look in one direction and decide whether to ban TikTok or not,” Kindiki said.

He revealed that the government has reached out to TikTok, expressing dissatisfaction with their compliance with Kenyan laws.

He added that it would be premature to ban TikTok in Kenya without taking into account the perspectives of the owners and potential impacts on users.

Psychologists, economists, and tech enthusiasts are also divided on this subject.

Javoga Ilavonga who is studying generational behavior change among young people wants the government to be extra cautious and seek a desirable balance.

“What is bad, TikTok or our diminishing morals? You can’t kill a tree by simply cutting branches. We have to go for the roots. Technology can only be regulated,” he told the Star.

He added that technology has squeezed the world into a virtual village with equal merits and demerits. “We risk denying our young people access to global opportunities. There is also a possibility of killing our culture.”

These sentiments are shared by technology expert Tom Kimeli who wants the government to play its regulatory role without punishing innovations.

“This is a case of an egg and a chick. The solution is to weigh which came first without being super subjective. Technology morphs…if we can’t deal with the impact of TikTok, how are we going to handle other superior innovations?”

Joan Munga, a senior psychologist at a public referral hospital has no issues with TikTok.

“Young people are defiant. This is not a new phenomenon. Millennials questioned the status quo using Hip-hop music. We are in an information age. Generation Zs are simply using available mediums to express themselves. They ought to be listened to,” she said.

She added that although some countries have put some limits on TikTok, Kenya needs to do a serious soul-searching, adding that what works for America or China cannot always work for Kenya.

So far, at least 24 countries have banned the use of TikTok, including the US, UK, Norway, Canada, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Latvia, Bangladesh, Romania, Somalia among others.

Most of them have accused the social media platform of influencing bad manners amongst young people while others have cited cyber security reasons.

Economist Oliver Maganga says it will be ‘silly’ for Kenya to ban TikTok, considering its economic dividends. “It is not the root cause of social decay but an economic multiplier.”

Although there is no latest data on the contribution of TikTok to Kenya’s GDP, last year, the firm announced setting up a $1.49 million fund to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the country.

The fund, which is part of TikTok’s global initiative to empower local communities and creators, aims to provide loans, grants, training, and mentorship to Kenyan entrepreneurs who use TikTok to showcase their products and services.

TikTok contributed $24.2 billion to U.S. GDP last year and drove $14.7 billion in small-business owners’ revenue, according to a report TikTok funded.

-The Star

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