Somali authorities banned TikTok citing explicit content and violent extremism: Photo: Others 

By Timi Odueso

During a sitting on August 15, 2023, the Kenyan Parliament announced that it had received a petition to ban the popular short-form video platform TikTok. A private citizen, Bob Ndolo, who reportedly noted that the platform needs more regulatory handholding, submitted the petition.

In the petition, Ndolo—who heads a digital consultancy firm—wrote that the social media platform promotes vices like violence and sexual content, which threaten Kenya’s cultural and religious values. The petitioner called for an immediate ban on TikTok, which has 14 million users nationwide.

Fortunately, the Kenyan Parliament quickly noted that a complete ban is impossible, as it would mean thousands of Kenyan creators would lose their livelihoods. Earlier this year, Kenya was revealed to be the country leading the world in TikTok usage.

It’s the TikTok capital of the world with over 100,000 creators, including stars like Elsa Majimbo and Moya David, who had their start on the platform.

But while Kenya might not be banning TikTok anytime soon, the same can’t be said for another East African country, Somalia.

A week after Kenya’s parliament reviewed its petition, Somalia banned TikTok on August 21. This was part of measures against social media platforms, including Telegram and 1XBET, which the Somali Ministry of Communications said were being used by terrorists and “immoral groups” to spread misinformation and explicit images to the public.

More than 12 countries worldwide have imposed a full or partial ban on Tiktok. Photo: AP  

While Somalia might be the first African country to place an outright ban on the platform, at least one other African nation—Senegal—has suspended TikTok to stem public unrest.

In August, after Senegalese government dissolved its main opposition party and detained its leader, the West African country suspended TikTok to stop violent protests and malicious messages.

It is not only in Africa that TikTok is facing scrutiny. Other countries—including India—have banned TikTok or placed some form of restriction on the platform for reasons stronger than moral grandstanding: data privacy.

Data fears

TikTok has been banned in India since 2020–for national security concerns—but the personal data of Indian citizens who once used TikTok remain widely accessible to company employees even three years later.

Beijing-headquartered company ByteDance owns TikTok. Its data centre, where all user data for the platform is stored, is also located in China. Since the app started gaining prominence in 2019, scrutiny has grown over data privacy. Some governments fear that their citizens’ data might be accessible to the Chinese government due to China’s national intelligence laws.

Articles 7 and 10 of China’s National Intelligence Laws require all registered businesses, including platforms like TikTok, to hand over any necessary information to the Chinese government.

While TikTok, even as recently as March 2023, has denied allegations claiming that it is sharing user data with the Chinese government, many worldwide are not convinced.

Tiktok is prohibited on government-owned devices in the US over security concerns stemming from its ownership. Photo: AA 

In December 2022, the U.S. banned TikTok on all government-owned devices. Shortly after, in February 2023, the European Commission banned its staff from using TikTok on their work phones and computers. Since then, several other countries, including Canada, France and Denmark, have followed suit.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informed the country’s lawmakers that Beijing could weaponise data collected via the social media app TikTok.

In 2022, a leak of internal emails at TikTok alleged that employees at the company had used the app to spy on journalists by tracking their physical movements via IP addresses. Incidents like this raise concerns even among political leaders.

The overall aim of the alleged data usage by TikTok is believed to be for security, political and economic benefits of China.

Exaggerated concerns?

Even with national security and data privacy at the forefront of TikTok restrictions, some still believe the threat TikTok poses is exaggerated.

“These are legitimate concerns, overblown but legitimate. TikTok collects as much data as any social media platform," This is generalised fear over China. Still, I haven't heard anything actionable at this point," said Dr. Clifford Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

TikTok's potential advertising reach is reportedly higher in Northern Africa compared to Southern Africa. Photo: Others 

Amid the growing scrutiny and ban, TikTok is now shifting its focus to users in Africa, which has a booming social market.

While the platform highlighted Africa as a key growth market with at least 35 million users, it has yet to invest much in the African market. African creators can only earn money from TikTok through influencer marketing. The platform does not pay African creators for their content as in other regions.

On August 24—the same day Somalia’s TikTok ban came into effect—the platform announced that it would set up an office in Kenya, its first in the continent.

After a meeting with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew over the petition to ban the platform, Kenyan President William Ruto announced that Chew had agreed to set up an office in Kenya and employ more Kenyans for its content moderation team.

The social media company has repeatedly denied any breach in its operations worldwide.

In March 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chou appeared before the U.S. Congress to explain how TikTok uses its data, once again denying that China has accessed or can access user data from TikTok. The security concerns are there, but the evidence is not; it is all still hypothetical.

TikTok may be at the forefront of social media scrutiny. Still, concerns are raised about other social media companies facing similar watch, including Meta, Twitter and Telegram.

In Africa, though, governments still need to be more concerned with national security than upholding their respective communities' moral values.

The author, Timi Odueso, is a Senior Editor at TechCabal news platform.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

TRT Afrika