What do Elsa Majimbo, Bridget Achieng, and Azziad Nasenya have in common? They are all Kenyan celebrities who rose to fame thanks to TikTok, the popular video-sharing app that has taken the world by storm. But while TikTok has brought entertainment and income to millions of Kenyans, it has also sparked controversy and criticism from some quarters. Last Wednesday, the 16th, Bob Ndolo, the Executive Officer of Bridget Connect Consultancy, filed a petition in parliament calling for a ban on TikTok in Kenya, citing its negative impact on the country’s cultural and religious values. 

Ndolo submitted his petition to the National Assembly urging legislators to consider measures against the platform’s potential erosion of societal values. He claimed that TikTok exposes the youth to explicit sexual content that is contrary to the country’s moral and religious norms. He also argued that TikTok promotes violent imagery, hate speech, offensive language, and inappropriate behaviour that could incite unrest and conflict in the nation. Ndolo cited several examples of videos that he deemed harmful or offensive, such as those that show nudity, sexual acts, drug use, homosexuality, blasphemy, or insults to national symbols or leaders. There were also raised concerns about the privacy and security of minors who use TikTok, claiming that the platform collects their data without their consent or knowledge. In the end, the Communications Authority of Kenya, the state agency responsible for overseeing the telecommunications sector, criticized the lack of effective internet content regulation and demanded to take action to protect the public interest and welfare.

What are the implications of such a move?

According to a report by Reuters Institute, Kenya is the leading country in TikTok usage, with a remarkable 54% of Kenyans utilizing it for diverse purposes. The app has enabled over 100,000 Kenyan creators to earn money from their videos and has supported over 1,000 small and medium enterprises in the country. Kenya is one of the leading countries in Africa in terms of internet penetration, mobile money, and e-commerce. A ban on TikTok could impact the digital economy and innovation in Kenya. It could also limit their access to diverse and creative content, as well as reduce their opportunities to learn new skills and express themselves online.

In 2020, Nigeria experienced a wave of protests against police brutality, known as the #EndSARS protests. The protests were largely organized and coordinated on social media, especially Twitter. It was a watershed moment in Nigerian history. It showed the power of social media to mobilize people and challenge the government. Shortly after, the Nigerian government suspended the use of Twitter in the country, citing security concerns. But many people believed that the ban was an attempt to silence dissent.

The Twitter ban which lasted for about 7 months was met with widespread criticism, both within Nigeria and internationally. Most importantly, it had adverse effects on the economy. According to the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the seven-month shutdown of Twitter cost the Nigerian economy $26.1bn (N10.72 trillion). The ban was eventually lifted after Twitter agreed to meet some of the government’s demands, such as paying an applicable tax and establishing a legal entity within Nigeria, but the incident highlighted the growing tensions between African governments and social media platforms.

The debate over TikTok in Kenya is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding Twitter in Nigeria in 2020. Both cases involve governments trying to control or censor social media platforms that are seen as a threat to their authority. In July 2023, a Mozilla Foundation fellow identified 130 videos on TikTok that contain hate speech and disinformation about Kenya’s upcoming elections. The video had been viewed over 4 million times and shared by 33 TikTok accounts. In one case, a series of videos that featured a woman who claimed to be a prophetess, predicting the death of several prominent politicians in Kenya. The videos were widely shared and commented on by TikTok users, some of whom expressed support for the woman’s prophecies and wished for the demise of the politicians. The videos were seen as a threat to the national security and stability of Kenya, especially as the country was preparing for the general elections in 2024. 

Nevertheless, this is beyond TikTok and Africa trying to censor content. As social media becomes more popular and influential, we will likely see more cases of this in the future. There are concerns about the potential for third parties to misuse user information. This information could be used for commercial purposes, such as targeted advertising, or more nefarious purposes, such as interfering with elections or conducting state surveillance. Even when users freely provide information, it can be used for malicious purposes if it falls into the wrong hands. Some US states and agencies are beginning to take action especially when it comes to data security. For example, New York City became the latest in the US to ban TikTok on government devices. Montana also banned TikTok for all users within the state earlier this month. 

While some Kenyan lawmakers have expressed support for the Tik-Tok petition, others have dismissed the petition as baseless, saying that it violates the freedom of expression and information guaranteed by the Constitution. They have argued that TikTok is a harmless and creative outlet for the youth and that banning it would be counterproductive and oppressive. Regardless, these speculations and assumptions may not reflect the actual outcomes if such a ban is implemented. The decision to ban or regulate TikTok in Kenya would have to be based on careful analysis and consultation with all stakeholders, including the users, creators, businesses, regulators, and policymakers. 

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