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TikTok in Kenya: the government wants to restrict it, but my study shows it can be useful and empowering

EVERY day, 750 million people around the world engage with TikTok – the short-video sharing app. Kenyans are among its top users.

According to a Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023, 54% of Kenyans sampled used TikTok for general purposes, the highest proportion among the countries in the survey. They also use TikTok to express themselves and connect with others. The app, launched in 2018, has become an integral part of social media culture, offering a space for creativity, entertainment and community interaction. It’s particularly known for its memetic videos, which often feature lip-syncing, dance routines and comedic skits.

But the Kenyan government, like others across the world, is considering various restrictions – from outright bans to more limited controls. The government has cited internal security threats for its stand, saying TikTok is increasingly being exploited in Kenya to spread propaganda, carry out fraud and distribute sexual content.

Based on my research as a scholar of literature, I believe that Kenya can do a lot of good as a country by looking for ways to make this app work more efficiently for local content creators instead of shrinking its use.

In my research, I have examined the positive uses of social media platforms in Kenya. In a paper published in 2021, I looked at how social media could help victims of crimes get justice. More recently, I published a paper in which I argued that TikTok is an embryonic component in a growing Africa and a crucial pointer to evaluating group dynamics.

By studying the audiences targeted by the TikTok content creators, especially what content they like, share and comment on, we can understand what Africans want or yearn for in the present and in future. Therefore, TikTok serves as a useful tool to understand what young people are interested in and how they behave.

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In addition, Kenyans are increasingly using TikTok to challenge patriarchal and colonial narratives about Africa. Through their creative outputs shared on the platform, Kenyan TikTokers are greatly influencing the arts elsewhere.

A restriction of TikTok use would silence this success story prematurely. In my view, the government should be looking at ways of easing access to the platform to boost its use among Kenyans rather than restricting it.

Female Kenyan voices and TikTok

Across Africa, TikTok is opening up and delocalising indigenous knowledge hidden within the popular song genre. Through TikTok, this hidden knowledge is put out there, in the virtual space, for all to see. My paper found that the knowledge that local people have relied on for centuries is being relocated into online spaces. This deliberate re-situation of African popular knowledge in online spaces has placed African indigenous knowledge at the centre of discussions around the human question.

The paper showed how African female content creators have used TikTok’s space to dissolve epistemological (nature of knowledge) and ontological (view of reality) boundaries by creatively archiving and curating Black voices into what was the realm of Northern thought.

African women have introduced their voices and ideas to users elsewhere in the world. Two Kenyan TikTokers, Vivian Taabu (@Swiry-Nyar-Kano) and Azziad Nasenya (@azz_iad), for instance, use TikTok to debunk the dominant ideologies and structures that have shaped the lives and roles of women throughout history through the revival of particular “forgotten” African knowledge. It includes women as givers of life, through birth, and as healers who use particular herbs.

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Through this revival on TikTok, African women content creators promote African life, histories and cultures. Women use the same space and tools to engender African music and dance for African renewal. This means that African music and dance holds a key to Africa recognising itself and its place among nations.

From my findings, I conclude that TikTok is the new canvas for visualising indigenous knowledge within popular literary meditations in Africa. It provides a space that has placed contemporary African art forms at the centre of transformative possibilities. Therefore, the contemporary art re-situated in the virtual space of TikTok is a new form of art – one in which the fundamental relationships between creator and consumer, product and platform, are radically renegotiated. The paper concludes that African music on TikTok is an epistemological tool that communicates context and community-specific knowledge.

What’s missing

Artists in Kenya are already raking in dollars from TikTok. This has mainly been through brand sponsorship, product selling and affiliate marketing. For artists, TikTok has given content creators a platform to show off their creativity and talents through short videos.

But Kenya’s government should be addressing the lack of a working policy governing TikTok use in the country. The platform needs to be properly regulated, not to control but to make its use more equitable in Kenya.

There are three areas that need particular attention.

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Firstly, there is no TikTok Creator Fund in Kenya. TikTok Creator Fund is a TikTok loyalty programme that pays TikTok content creators according to the number of views their content attracts. The absence of the fund means TikTokers cannot be paid for their content directly by the app but through other means like brand sponsorship, selling products, or tips and donations. If this fund was operational, earning from content creation would motivate creators to produce high-quality content.

Secondly, policies are needed to safeguard users while respecting their freedom of expression.

Thirdly, regulation is needed to protect underage children from harmful TikTok content. This can be done by restricting access to the target audience.

In conclusion, it is important to encourage the establishment and support of those spaces that share the African story with the world.

STEPHEN MUTIE, Literature lecturer, Kenyatta University

By STEPHEN MUTIE

Literature lecturer

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