A young woman smiles sweetly at the camera, covers her lens, and then reveals leopard-print eyelids. Another positions an empty Creme Soda can in her hair as a curler.
Foyin Ogunrombi, a 24-year-old Nigerian-South African lifestyle influencer, promoted the #7Days7Faces make-up challenge, which ran four times in 2020 and featured seven thematic make-up looks over seven days, on Instagram and Twitter. She attained a reach of more than seven million impressions on Twitter and 4 000 tags on Instagram. But it was on TikTok that the challenge really took off.
“I didn’t expect when doing #7days7faces that people would be posting about it on TikTok, let alone that my little challenge’s hashtag would get close to 300 000 views there,” says Ogunrombi.
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread, so did TikTok’s popularity. Launched in 2018 when ByteDance merged with Musical.ly, the Chinese smartphone app surpassed two billion downloads globally at the end of April 2020. As many countries went into lockdown, TikTok offered an entertaining means of escapism.
TikTok was in the top 10 most downloaded apps of 2020 in South Africa across both iOS and Android devices, according to digital media platform Gadgets Africa. TikTok could not be reached for official comment on what statistics looked like before and after lockdown, but in October 2020 it signed an agreement with influencer marketing platform Webfluential to bolster the app as a platform working with African creatives across the continent.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Webfluential declined to be drawn on exact figures but said that “interest in the available TikTok product offerings for brands has been extremely successful”.
The consequences of this freewheeling growth set against a backdrop of continued internet and social media suppression in China and Africa, as well as TikTok’s controversial former policies and the geopolitical tensions it has given rise to, work together to make the app unique.
In 2019, there were at least 25 incidents of internet and social media shutdowns in Africa, according to the digital rights advocacy group AccessNow.
“African governments do not shy away from censorship or content regulation once political and cultural issues are involved,” says Ufuoma Akpojivi, head of the University of the Witwatersrand’s department of media studies.
“Governments want to determine or control the information that their citizens receive or share to ensure that it doesn’t become a platform to communicate dissent and to be in accordance with the national interest.”
TikTok itself has come under scrutiny for its moderation policies. First reported by The Guardian in late 2019, documents published by online publication The Intercept in March revealed TikTok policies including the “ugly content policy” — which barred content showing “abnormal body shape”, “ugly facial looks” and “shabby” shooting environments, including slums — and “live policy”, which governed controversial content related to sexual, political and dangerous content. Under the “live policy”, specifics include “defamation, spoofing, or criticism against civil servants, political or religious leaders” and “documents, images and videos that undermine national unity”.
According to TikTok, these policies were outdated as of May 2019. “In TikTok’s early days we took a blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform,” the company said, adding that “the old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use.”
TikTok’s Chinese origins hold unique significance in Africa, where the majority of the continent’s internet infrastructure is owed to China — and in particular, the Chinese tech company Huawei. “It would be hard for African governments to simply dump Huawei, which is integral to internet in Africa, from undersea cables to devices,” says Cobus van Staden, senior researcher in the South African Institute of International Affairs’ foreign policy programme.
Huawei was banned by the US government in May 2019 after accusations from 2012 that it was a tool for Chinese espionage, which Huawei denied. This may have given rise to then president Donald Trump threatening to ban TikTok in the US, as fears arose around the security and data risks posed to Americans by potentially giving China access to their data. Negotiations see the app only continuing in the country if it makes a divestiture deal to become a majority American-owned company. Before his election as president, Joe Biden expressed concern about the access to information China may have through TikTok, but it is unclear what direction he will take on the matter moving forward.
In 2020, TikTok was hit by a number of bans. India — the country with the highest number of TikTok downloads outside of China — banned TikTok in June, along with more than 50 other Chinese apps, citing cybersecurity risks following tensions with China. India’s neighbour Pakistan banned the app for 10 days in October, citing “immoral” and “indecent” videos. Fellow Muslim-majority nation Indonesia also banned TikTok for a week in July 2018 after it featured content deemed pornographic and blasphemous.
In Africa too, TikTok crackdowns based on similar reasoning are growing; in early 2020, a number of young Egyptian women with significant TikTok followings were arrested on charges relating to indecent content, the corruption of family values, and misuse of social media.
Two of them, Haneen Hossam (1.3-million followers) and Mawada El-Adhm (3.1-million followers) also faced accusations of managing private internet accounts to commit this offence. They were fined almost $20 000 and sentenced to two years in prison each. An Egyptian appeals court overturned the prison sentences last month.
But not all African countries see TikTok as a risk — yet. Videos mocking the long-term rules of African presidents and satirising how the coronavirus is no match for other pandemics — corruption, HIV and high poverty rates — that many African countries already face have gone viral on the app.
“For now, [it’s] a social network … social in the Nigerian context,” says Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based think-tank. “It is yet to reach the level of political organisation of Twitter and Facebook in Nigeria.”
As creative industries grow rapidly in Africa, China will be keen to be involved in as many sectors as possible. Nigerian-based music streaming app Boomplay, which is bigger than Spotify or Apple Music in Africa, was launched five years ago in partnership with the Chinese music streaming company Transsnet.
Van Staden says: “Digital economies have huge commercial implications for Africans. The rapid growth of TikTok shows online pop culture platforms developing quickly [on the continent.”
African TikTokers starter kit
@Witney8 (1.5M followers)
One of South Africa’s favourite TikTokers, check out Witney’s fun dance moves and quips about South African culture (fun fact: she’s the originator of the globally viral #tremble challenge)
@Azz_iad (872k followers)
Social media star Azziad, 20, is known as Kenya’s TikTok Queen, and her energetic dances will instantly get you hyped
@TroySheperds (1.5M followers)
His reenactments, lighthearted social commentary and skits about school life have made him a hit with the Gen-Zs of South Africa
@McShemComedian (4.1M followers)
One of Nigeria’s funniest social media stars, he posts short videos poking fun at the relatable things experienced in African households
@ahmed_alshb7 (252.4k followers)
With his silly parodies, short skits, and musical ability, Ahmed is one of Sudan’s favourite social media personalities