July 22, 2022, Islamabad: Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) calls for transparency after TikTok’s removal of more than 12 million videos from the Pakistani market in the first quarter of 2022. The high removal rate not only places Pakistan second on the list of countries with most videos taken down, but also necessitates transparency around the removed content and the need for clearly defining what constituted violations of TikTok’s community guidelines.
According to TikTok’s Community Guidelines Enforcement Report, over 102 million videos were removed between January and March globally from the platform and the fact that 12.5 million of these videos were taken down from Pakistan raises a number of concerns. Firstly, Pakistan ranks behind the United States, which has topped the list with over 14 million videos removed. Comparing the size of both markets and considering various other factors – including connectivity and accessibility to digital devices – such a high volume of content being removed from Pakistan is naturally alarming.
TikTok has also faced multiple bans in the country, which have made it one of the most controversial and highly discussed social media applications in Pakistan. Tiktok was first blocked in October 2020 for failing to take down “inappropriate” content. A series of three more bans followed before the app was finally unblocked in November 2021 after TikTok’s management assured the telecom regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) of taking “necessary measures to control unlawful content in accordance with local laws and societal norms”. Given the government’s repeated attempts to control free expression on digital media by imposing boundaries that are vague and excessive in scope, the high removal rate raises the question as to whether majority of the content was flagged by the government or reported by TikTok users.
Extensive takedowns of content threaten the right to free speech, artistic freedom, creativity, and marginalised individuals who find social media a safe and inclusive space to express themselves. Besides being one of the fastest-growing digital platforms allowing the masses more convenient and accessible tools for self-expression, TikTok is also empowering individuals and communities by creating numerous bankable opportunities. As majority of small businesses flourishing on TikTok rely on the promotional content posted by users, it is extremely important to be cognisant of the implications of large-scale content removal, such as in Pakistan’s case, on the growth of these ventures.
We express concern at the lack of transparency in TikTok’s report which would otherwise have provided insights into the company’s moderation process, the mechanism it adopts to respond to requests for removal of the reported content, and whether the nature of the removed content actually constitutes violations as laid out in TikTok’s community guidelines. The data provided by TikTok in its quarterly reports is not sufficient and the high volume of content being deplatformed from Pakistan increases the need to ensure that users’ right to free speech is not compromised or curtailed in the course of complying with the government’s demands in regard to regulation.