Who’s Afraid of a Meme?


Pakistan’s TikTok ban is not like the ones in other countries. TikTok gave Pakistan’s underclass a platform for dissent that authorities couldn’t control.

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.

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