Huge uptick in TikTok during Nepal lockdown

Neighbouring India has banned it, the United States and Australia are about to do the same, but here in Nepal TikTok use has soared in the five months since the COVID-19 lockdown was announced.

The Chinese-owned app has taken Nepal by storm, with young people using its 15 second design for an explosion of creativity, and online businesses signing on to promote products ranging from fashion to food. Former royal couple Paras and Himani Shah’s daughters Purnika and Kritika who do mainly dance videos are a hit on TikTok with a massive following.

Two weeks after the lockdown in March, Bharat Pokhrel, a doctor in Kathmandu started to use TikTok, posting videos of himself and his little sister. Four months later, he has over 13,000 followers and 400,000 likes for his videos, answering medical questions about COVID-19 from viewers.

“I am surprised how much of them have genuine medical concerns. In Nepal this is a huge shift because patients do not always open up and share their actual problems or habits,” says Pokhrel. 

Because of the restriction on transport, many Nepalis have been using Tiktok as a form of telemedicine – especially for sensitive mental health issues. The lockdown has led to an increase in mental health problems and suicide cases throughout the country.

“I noticed mental health is a major issue, and many people seek to consult from me via email provided in my bio,” Pokhrel adds. 

However, TikTok is more popular among young people showing off their creativity through short video clips of dance routines, lip-synching, branding through influencers, or point-of-view videos – all done with a wide range of editing gimmicks. 

While the TikTok ban in India was more of a tit-for-tat for the deadly border clash in Ladakh in May, and in the US and Australia it is ostensibly driven by privacy concerns, the underlying reason is the phenomenal rise of the app by a non-Silicon Valley company. With over 800 million active users and 2 billion downloads worldwide, it is the only non-US tech giant in the top five.

TikTok, owned by ByteDance, a Chinese app developer, lets users publish a 15-second or 60-second video, and had seen widespread use in India. Even before the lockdown hit, TikTok already had 600 million active users in India, 44% of the population, and making up over a quarter of the total downloads worldwide. 

There has been criticism of the ban in India, where most users were using it to engage and network, and had empowered the youth among the minorities targeted by the state. However, it was also welcomed by an older section of the population where anti-China sentiments ran high after the Ladakh clash.

Indian ISPs like Airtel, Vodaphone and Idea blocked TikTok app from its Google Play Store and Apple Store since 29 June, and some tech savvy users switched to proxy servers with a foreign IP. However, some mobile carriers have cracked down on VPN use. After the ban, Tiktok has been partially replaced with the LA-based company, Thiller with has seen 30 million downloads in India since June.  

There is anecdotal evidence of young people in Indian town on the Nepal border like Jogbani, Siliguri, Raxaul, Sunauli and Rupedhia using Nepali data SIM cards to access TikTok, although telecom companies do not have statistics to show a significant increase in SIM sales or data use.

Parakram SJB Rana in Kathmandu has been a TikTok user since December 2019, but started posting more frequently after the lockdown. The fashion and lifestyle vlogger has over 20,000 followers, with each video having an average of 50-60,000 views.

“I felt that this was the perfect time for me to do fun stuff on TikTok because I have time to kill,” said Rana, whose TikTok videos include funny skits, voiceovers, and videos with family members. He says engagement on TikTok are higher than other social media platforms he uses.

“The is a way more interaction, which is surprising because I have half the number of followers in TikTok compared to Instagram,” said Rana, who makes a living out of blogging on Instagram.  “TikTok is different as it has a way of reaching out to more people. You can easily swipe on videos of people you are not following in your For You Page.” 

In the For You page, one can view videos of people they are not following, making it easier for people to gain more interaction and views. Curtis Waters, a Nepali-born singer, was able to promote his songStunnin’ using TikTok, which went viral worldwide, and now, has over 50 million streams on Spotify.

Mamta Siwakoti started using TikTok a month into the lockdown as a form of entertainment and would post dance videos, something she otherwise did not have time to do. She said: “TikTok provided me a platform to dance for 15-seconds to a minute, and the easy interface lets me record it and have the audio available for me,” she said. 

Siwakoti, who is a lawyer, saw some doctors using TikTok for medical advice, so she started using her platform to spread legal awareness to her viewers. Her first video on how to become a lawyer in Nepal got an astounding 173,000 views. Another video on the legal age of marriage also went viral. She pointed out that underage married women may face problems if they want to file for divorce or report domestic violence. 

Just like with other social media TikTok can also be toxic, and Siwakoti faced a backlash for that post and was accused of promoting divorce. Some viewers have also commented that she should become a bar-dancer instead of a lawyer because of dancing videos. 

“What makes TikTok more popular is the easy interface where you can have the audio, video, and editing on the app itself,” she said. 

Furthermore, after the lockdown, social media has been the only method to connect many Nepalis with family and friends in the country and around the world. Social media is no longer considered just unproductive entertainment, and screentime is actually a communication necessity. Internet use has increased 35% in the past four months of the lockdown with Ncell selling special offers for TikTok users.  

“Before the lockdown, spending a lot of time on social media would be frowned upon as an idle past time, but now even the older generation understands the importance of social media,” she adds. While 41% of TikTok users are aged 16-24, many people older are also using this app to publish content. Dance videos and lip-synching Indian tv reenactments are popular among all age groups. 

Anish Tamang is a body painter and TikTok makes up a majority of his make-up and make-up transformation videos. Unlike other social media platforms that he is active on, Tamang says that the exposure on TikTok is higher. 

“It’s been a year since I started using TikTok,” said Tamang. “Viewership has increased in all my social media platforms, and because of the lockdown.”

While TikTok has given many people a platform to demonstrate their creativity, Alex Shiwakoti, who had been on the platform for over two years before ByteDance merged with Musically, says he also gets trolled more for his dances, skits and POV videos.  

“During this lockdown, I experienced a lot of negative comments in Tiktok, which sometimes makes me want to stop using it,” admitted Shiwakoti. “But it is such a great way to reach my audience, I rarely used to interact with people but TikTok changed that.” 

In Nepal TikTok is not immune to hate comments, predatory behaviour to younger users, bullying, mature content, and addiction that plagues other platforms. Despite this, TikTok looks like it is here to stay. 

Says physician Bharat Pokhrel: “In a nutshell, it has been a learning experience, an entertainment medium, and a way to reach out to the people from different parts of the country with useful advice during the pandemic.”

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