This article is the latest in our ongoing series about technology bans in Pakistan. Read about the country’s ban on Tinder here.
In a short video uploaded to TikTok, an older Punjabi man engages in a classic form of political humor: Using clips ripped from one of his speeches, the man pretends to be talking with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. “How long have you been asking poor people [for money]? asks the man. “I’ve been collecting money for 30 years!” bellows Imran Khan.
“Asking all these poor people, didn’t you ever feel embarrassed?” the man asks, as an emoji of a middle finger hovers near his shirt collar. “I’ve never been embarrassed collecting money!” Khan responds. The man then yanks his hair as a comedic “doink!” sound effect plays, indicating to his audience that Khan’s response is the punch line.
The video is one of the countless ones like it on Pakistani TikTok. Over the past three years, the Chinese video app became a sensation in the country, where it has been downloaded more than 40 million times and had 20 million active users — that is, at least until earlier this month, when authorities in the country banned it. Pakistan was hardly the first country to take such a step: In the United States, as tensions rose between Washington and Beijing this summer, President Donald Trump moved to block TikTok by means of a series of executive orders, one of which has now been halted by a federal court. India also recently banned TikTok, along with dozens of other apps made by Chinese developers, a decision that came after conflict erupted along the two countries’ shared border.
But Pakistan’s TikTok ban is not like the others. Unlike India and the United States, Pakistan’s dependence on China is nearly absolute: Beijing’s investment in the struggling country is valued at more than $87 billion. In Pakistan, banning TikTok isn’t about geopolitics or protecting user data from the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, it’s part of a wider wave of censorship.
As TikTok and China’s international reputations soured, Pakistani authorities were given the perfect opportunity to crack down on new social media platforms, which have provided millions of citizens with opportunities for free expression. Banning the apps has set the stage for stringent internet control in a country where traditional media censorship has long been the norm.
Pakistani authorities justify the TikTok ban by arguing it’s about the country’s moral image. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a bureaucratic arm of the government responsible for all sorts of media censorship, said it blocked TikTok for hosting “immoral/indecent content.” And while it’s true that TikTok and apps like it are sometimes home to images many deem out of line with Pakistan’s strictly Islamic vision of itself, the app was available for years before the government chose to act.
In July, Pakistani authorities announced that the popular livestreaming app Bigo, another Chinese product, had also been banned. The decision came soon after India blocked a slew of Chinese platforms, and the timing suggested a familiar tit for tat between the two nations: We can ban things too. But a few weeks later, Grindr and Tinder were also banned in Pakistan, along with a handful of other dating apps. Amid a wave of global backlash against social media platforms, these actions barely raised an eyebrow internationally, unlike when, a decade ago, Pakistan tried blocking YouTube and Facebook. This time around, there’s been no slap on the wrist from censorship watch groups or Western diplomats because, well, everybody’s doing it.
Perhaps there’s less of a commotion because TikTok memes and dances appear trivial in the wider scheme of censorship in Pakistan. It ranks 145th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index. The same communications authority that banned TikTok has also happily pulled the plug on live news shows when the discussion became too critical of the regime. Journalists who cover controversial subjects have been abducted, sometimes in broad daylight. Newspapers that speak poorly of certain institutions find themselves suddenly without ad buyers. In that environment, is an app for dance memes really that important?
In a word: yes. Maybe now more so than ever. In recent years, as cheap smartphones have become available to Pakistan’s lower and middle classes, the state has tightened its grip on newspapers and traditional media. Public debates, even on university campuses, are frowned upon. Four years ago, a prominent activist was gunned down after hosting a discussion with dissidents.
In the absence of more traditional alternatives, social media platforms have supplied the civic spaces Pakistanis so desperately need. On sites like Twitter and Instagram, political discussions about controversial topics, like military power or women’s rights, now occur daily. And it’s not just the country’s elites who are leading them — it’s laborers, maids, shopkeepers. On TikTok, some of the most viral videos were created by rural villagers, who produce content that reflects their lived reality. They have filmed everything from local wedding traditions, like waving a chicken around a newly married couple, to fantastical skits that transform their simple surroundings. In one clip, two kids pretend to be snake charmers, using a light bulb, an electrical cable, and a metal spoon.
My first experience on TikTok was in 2018, when I was working as a newspaper stringer in Pakistan. Opening the app felt like accessing a world I rarely encountered, even on trips to the countryside. Pakistani society is intensely stratified. Classes might rub shoulders in their day-to-day — a driver and the businessman he works for, a shopkeeper and his wealthy customer — but their worlds are otherwise wholly separate. When TikTok became popular in Pakistan, it was the first app to reflect the country as a whole, its many dialects, ethnicities, and classes all on one For You page.
Seeing itself represented was an empowering experience for a class of Pakistanis that has historically been excluded from the mainstream media, which often caters to the upper-middle-class. Its voices are not the ones you hear on the nightly news or in the op-ed pages of newspapers. But on apps like TikTok and Bigo, a villager could have the attention of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, an audience vastly different than any available on TV.
This new audience might have been viewed as benign by the government if TikTok users were just posting dance videos, but Pakistani political culture has a rich tradition of humor and sarcasm that was ripe for the platform. One Punjabi TikToker, for example, posted a series of videos mocking some of Prime Minister Khan’s most fiery speeches (he’s been known to go berserk at the podium). Another features a Khan doppelgänger pleading with a Covid-19 patient to keep calm, using audio from a speech the prime minister gave at the height of the crisis in which he instructed his countrymen not to fear the virus. In the clip, the patient bounces out of his deathbed and tells Khan, “I think now might be the time to panic!”
TikTok gave Pakistan’s underclass a platform for dissent that authorities couldn’t control. Shutting down a TV segment is easy for a state that keeps its thumb on established media. But a viral meme mocking Pakistan’s response to Covid-19 doesn’t have an editor the authorities can intimidate or a network they can pressure.
So, for now, the solution is a familiar one for Pakistanis. Outright blocks aren’t likely to faze a population accustomed to jumping over state-erected hurdles. A 40-year ban on Bollywood movies couldn’t stop them from devouring pirated films, and the concept of a VPN won’t be new to many people in the country. There will be another TikTok, and if the ban is anything like Pakistan’s others, the original one might even return.
So far, Pakistan’s TikTok ban hasn’t triggered mass protests or civil unrest, though on Twitter mourners continue reposting the app’s most iconic videos. Some Pakistanis are fearful that more censorship is to come. For now, banning TikTok, as well as Tinder, Bigo, and other apps, serves as a signal from the state to a class of Pakistanis who have just begun finding their digital footing: We’re watching.