Inside the World of Hindutva Videos on Tik Tok
In a video on Tik Tok, a popular app for short-mobile videos with a huge following in India, a young bearded man is seen packing clothes. He is wearing a yellow gamcha and standing in a room with a large saffron flag on the wall. A pre-recorded voice in the background asks him “Kyun jaana hai Ayodhya? Ghar baithiye aur Ram ka naam lijiye!” (Trans. Why do you want to go to Ayodhya? Sit at home and pray to Ram.) The man lip-syncs to a pre-recorded loop and says “Yeh humaare rashtriya swabhiman ka prashan hai aur iss se hum koi samjhauta nahin kar sakte.” (Trans. This is a question of national dignity and we can’t compromise on this.) A beat. The background music reaches a crescendo and the video ends in a glitch-like effect; almost like in a popular Hindi action film. The 15-second video has 13.8 thousand likes and 132 comments. The hashtag #rammandir used in the video has 6.7 million views on the app.
This video is not a one-off.
Amidst the crowd of teenagers lip-syncing to Bollywood songs or reenacting silly pranks, there are hundreds of Tik Tok videos espousing a distinctly Hindutva ideology. Political Tik Tok videos of all kinds are prevalent on the app, including lip-syncs to Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s speeches. However, videos with hashtags like #RSS, #rammandir, #hindu and #bjp overtake those in popularity and more importantly, verge dangerously towards polarising propaganda.
And it’s slowly getting noticed as a cause for concern. In a statement to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in February 2019, the State IT Minister said that Tik Tok is being used to “circulate extreme content, particularly among a younger demographic of netizens.” It’s a familiar enough story for those tracking the evolution of social media — an app for entertainment & self-expression evolves into a platform for extreme political views.
But Tik Tok, with its specific audience in India and unique user interfaces, is a different creature.
Or in the words of @jitenkpatel, one of the 132 commenters on the #rammandir video described earlier, “@tiktok manoranjan ke liye he fir v mandir to wahin banayenge”
The Uniqueness of Tik Tok
As soon as you install Tik Tok on your phone and hit “Open” it directly takes you to a home page, with videos filmed by a bunch of people and endless scroll. No need to make an account on the app or register yourself, just direct access to content. The videos on the app are in a loop, reminiscent of Instagram’s Boomerang feature or the old Vine loops, and can be enhanced with filters, stickers and video effects. Often, these video loops get a million likes, and thousands of comments, giving rise to Tik Tok influencers, much like Instagram influencers. As of 31 January 2019, Tik Tok has 24.5 million daily active users in India, according to digital marketing intelligence service Similar Web. Indian users are 39% of its global users which go upto 500 million. The social media platform is owned by Bytedance — headquartered in Beijing and valued at $75-billion valuation.
Clearly, Tik Tok is sensationally popular. But why? This question is key to understanding Hindutva Tik Tok videos in India.
For most people, the entertainment value of most Tik Tok videos is more difficult to figure out than the app itself. Teenagers shaking their head to music, people in duets on popular film dialogues, loops of people swishing their hair…if you’re not acquainted with Tik Tok, the content on the app is a new world, and frankly, a baffling one.
“Why do 422 thousand people like this girl making faces at the camera? What am I missing...?” was one of my first thoughts when I scrolled through the app for this article. Before this assignment, I knew of Tik Tok only through the tweets dissing the idiocy of Tik Tok videos on Twitter and Facebook. But a week on the app changed my perspective. It’s clear that Tik Tok attracts users which aren’t seen on any other social media app, not on Twitter and not on Instagram.
Majority of users on Tik Tok are from small towns and villages. Most Tik Tok videos get thousands of likes — astronomical in digital currency — and the comments are made in a language usually made fun of in the mainstream or in colloquial language by those for whom English is a second language. And proudly so.
On a Tik Tok video, @pratibhasingh8673 says “yar itna talent bhara pada h India me…isly tik tok aaya h.” (Trans. There is so much talent in India, this is why Tik Tok has come to India.) She was commenting on a video posted by Naresh, of him and his friend standing in a ramshackle veranda, with a sheet over his hands, imitating an ‘invisible man’ trick.
The video does not particularly display any earth-shattering talent, but it’s a comment illustrative of Tik Tok. For many in small towns and cities, this app is an opportunity to showcase their talent, however unrelatable it may be to those of us in Delhi-Mumbai-type cities. A shot at stardom, even if it is achieved by lip syncing Salman Khan dialogues, using “contact lens” filters or trying all kinds of “challenges.”
Like most apps, Tik Tok offers a platform for self-expression, but unlike most apps, users know that the audience watching their videos is like them. Which is why most political videos on Tik Tok are unabashed, extreme, aggressive and creative –irrespective of political affiliation.
After all, who doesn’t love a #nojudgement space?
‘Life is For Sangh’ & Tik Tok as News?
The hashtag #RSS has 63 million views on the Tik Tok app. One of the videos posted under this hashtag is by Maaya R Naair who has 36.9k ‘fans’ on the app. The video shows her leaning in to the frame and saying in Malayalam “I will repeat, I like RSS. There will be no change in that stance.” The caption accompanying the video says, “All you losers are welcome to comment.” The video has 7.9k likes and 906 comments.
Another video with the hashtag #rss is posted by SreebalaSreeBind, who has 4.2k fans on the app. In the video, she is lip-syncing to what appears to be the RSS national song and saying that “life is for Sangh, heart of Sangh, and she is the daughter of the Sangh.” Again, she sings in Malayalam.
It’s not a coincidence that most right-wing videos on Tik Tok are from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The app became a popular tool to express political opinion through the Sabarimala debate in the state, and the momentum has carried on after the issue has relatively calmed down. Another significant political event when Tik Tok videos were used were during the Telangana Assembly election, with the #akbarowaisi and #aimim proving to be quite popular. The hashtag #narendramodi has 24.4 million views, with videos alternating between praise and mockery.
The unique UI of Tik Tok is another reason why political videos on the app are so creative. While creating a video on Tik Tok, it’s possible for the user to stitch videos; from different moments, which allows for an in-app edit. The “duet” option allows a user to juxtapose or complement their video with someone else on the app; which makes the app more collaborative than most social media apps. The audio loops for Hindutva videos, apart from popular songs, can also be created by other users.
Significantly, in a world of fake news on WhatsApp forwards, users don’t need to create an account to save and download a video and to share it on WhatsApp and Facebook, etc. In fact when the Pulwama terror attack took place, the app was flooded with videos, ranging from emotional to angry. At the time this article was published, the hashtag #pulwama had 43.5 million views, with tens of reiterations of the hashtag.
This echo chamber – a social media platform whose syntax, audience and creators are not aligned to what’s ‘cool’ – is at the heart of understanding the proliferation of Hindutva videos on Tik Tok. The views on these videos are not the point, though they are by no means a small number. What’s important is the consistency with which videos on topics like Akhand Bharat and Ram Mandir are posted.
Tik Tok is an important tool for self-expression for thousands of young Indian and men and women. With its fans, its unabashed political expression, its Hindutva aggression and its extensive user base. Can India afford to ignore it?