The dark world of viral videos | India Today Insight
A sneeze was 16-year-old Karan Tripathi’s (name changed) ticket to fame. A student from Lucknow, Tripathi was eating Maggi when a series of sneezes caught him by surprise. His friend captured it all on video. On TikTok and YouTube, the video received a total of 20,823 likes and about 200 comments. Tripathi used to have only 90 followers on TikTok, but the footage of him helplessly wheezing into a bowl of noodles increased his following to close to 5,000. In school, everyone was talking about it. At home, his family WhatsApp group was bursting with compliments. “Nobody noticed me before. But even strangers in my colony wanted to be friends after the video,” says the school boy.
When the buzz died down a few days later, Tripathi tried again. He uploaded a video of himself dancing, a video of forced hiccups, a video of cycle spokes spinning in close-up—but no matter how quirky he tried to be, none of his subsequent videos made it to beyond 50 likes. In November last year, he came across a trending TikTok video of two men on a bike holding a gun. Rahul Dhangar, 18, and Kanhaiya turned digital heads for riding on a highway holding a katta (illegal countrymade gun) in Malhargarh in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh. Dhangar, only two years older to Tripathi, had 10,000 followers on TikTok. “I thought they looked cool. And brave,” says Tripathi, recounting the 10-second clip of the duo with a gun, wielding it casually in one hand as they drove. Tripathi was so intrigued by the masculine undertones of the video, he began posting videos of various guns taken off the internet on a daily basis. He didn’t know that Dhangar and Kanhaiya were subsequently arrested under the Arms Act for possession of an illegal weapon, based on their TikTok video. He didn’t think a simple video could land him into trouble either. “My followers liked the gun posts. They used to say we want to be a ‘man’, just like you. I liked it,” says Tripathi, whose account was closed down by his family last month after he had posted a total of 62 gun videos and complaints were raised in school by other parents. The boy now attends counseling for social media anxiety.
“School and college children often don’t realise the long-term implications of posting videos that are criminal or offensive. A criminal case against you can have consequences upon job prospects and character verification requests in the future. All because of a video,” says Hitesh Choudhary, superintendent of police, Mandsaur. It was the district’s cyber cell that came to know of the illegal gun in the video and tracked down Dhangar and Kanhaiya. “It might not seem a big deal, but if you are using illegal props or posting offensive content, it is a criminal act,” says Puneet Bhasin, a cybercrime lawyer. “When your world is consumed by a need for your video to go viral, content creators forget responsibility and rules.”
Anyone can be famous today
Last year, India accounted for 44 per cent (close to 323 million) downloads of TikTok, the Chinese short-form mobile video platform (a 27 percentage point increase from 2018). This despite the fact that the platform has found itself in the middle of several controversies involving accidental deaths, suicides and hate-mongering. Only months ago, the SkullBreaker challenge took off massively on TikTok. It involved two people tricking a third person into jumping up in the air and then kicking their feet to make them trip and fall. It led to severe injuries and one reported death. But the platform never intervened.
More recently, TikTok was back in the news last month for a shocking video depicting an ‘acid attack’ on a woman. The National Commission for Women had to ask for the video to be taken down. The video was created by a user by the name of Faizal Siddiqui, who has over 13 million followers. He can be seen saying, “Did the man you left me for abandon you?”, before taking a glass filled with an unknown liquid and throwing it on a girl. The video ends with the girl’s face changed—she has make-up depicting scars after the alleged acid attack.
Tik Tok responded to both the incidents in a statement, and said, “Keeping people on TikTok safe is a top priority and we make it clear in our Term of Service and Community Guidelines that clearly outlines what is not acceptable on our platform. As per the policy, we do not allow content that risks safety of others, promotes physical harm or glorifies violence against women. The behaviour in question violates our guidelines and we have taken down content, suspended the account, and are working with law enforcement agencies as appropriate.”
But calls for a ban on TikTok in India began trending on Twitter in the days following the video post, while the app’s ratings fell from 4.5 to 1.3. But there are other concerns. Closing down TikTok will not take away the need to post, which has built up over the past few years. To change the nature of digital content, one has to understand what drives people on to platforms like TikTok and change their awareness of what they are posting as well.
So what makes platforms like TikTok so attractive? Social media content has shifted dramatically. Fame is a big reward now and users crave the digital fandom that accompanies a video going viral. “On Instagram, you have to look glamorous. That’s the only way to get attention. But that’s not TikTok—you don’t need money to be successful. TikTok largely remains apolitical in the country. It’s still a fun place to be,” says Vivan Marwaha, author of What Millennials Want.
Akash Senapaty, product head at M56 Studios, an agency that develops engaging digital experiences, adds, “The barrier to entry is low because production costs are low. You don’t have to have a great phone or access to great editing tools to play out your idea on TikTok. Compare this with YouTube, where content creators spend a lot of time on their videos—there’s a lot of work you have to put into the videos before your video blows up.”
The simple, collaborative and zero-cost route to instant greatness is a lure few can resist. Video-hosting platforms take the community culture of social media and merge it with the opportunities of the offline world. You can share footage of anything—from the mundane to the foolhardy—and it will be a talking point to connect with millions of daily users. “Having a viral video is something that satisfies most egos—to be admired and treated like a celebrity. What you might not be able to do offline—find millions of fans—you can easily do online,” says Aanchal Singh, professor of communication at Amity University. Such viral videos cut across ages (19-year-old ‘Lucky Dancer’ has close to 2.5 million followers and Akshay Patra’s videos of his elderly grandmother dancing crosses an average of a million likes each time); gender (Roii Jaan, a transsexual with 3.4 million likes, loves to dress up and post about her dreams); and traditional ideas of love (SKD Firoz shares updates on his gay partner to 6 million people), creativity (Ulhas Kamathe’s video of eating a chicken leg garnered him 78 million followers) and virtue (a video of two men beating a snake to death received 15,000 likes in a few hours).
Social media fame drives habit
Jyoti Singh, a 29-year-old former social-media addict from Bengaluru, recounts the days when she could not stop herself from posting about every thought or feeling she ever had. Sometimes she went 2-3 days without sleep, simply anticipating responses from her friends and colleagues. “I wasn’t in control. I knew this wasn’t good. Even when people would troll me, I would not stop. And when someone said they liked me, it would all be worth it,” she says.
Her story highlights two important factors: the desire to go to great lengths to post and the desire to post even when the experience is negative. It is important to note that several studies, including a 2018 paper by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, have pointed out that receiving a notification from a social media platform leads to increased levels of a chemical called dopamine in our brain. Dopamine strengthens anticipation and motivates us towards behaviour that will recapture something we found pleasurable. It is our brain’s way of prioritising things based on what made us feel good—the greater the pleasure, the greater the attention we will pay to it, and the more vigorously we will pursue it. This is the same manner in which addiction for food, drugs, sex, sports gambling and exercise works. Only now, it is for the number of social media likes we receive.
Now here is where it gets interesting—dopamine promotes two types of behaviours: goal driven and habit driven. A goal-driven behaviour is when I log on, post an article I want to share with friends and go back to work. But if I do it constantly, it becomes a habit. Habits enable us to act quickly in response to routine. For example, when you talk while cooking a familiar dish. Your brain has coded or remembered a sequence of behaviour and lets you repeat it without having to be aware of it. And that’s where the danger lies with social media. As we use it constantly, over a long period of time, it becomes a habit where we can act without awareness.
The fear of being forgotten
Now that we anticipate social media fame, how do we get it? You’ve reached a million followers with one video, what if the next one doesn’t do as well? The previously known fear of missing out has turned into the very real fear of being forgotten (also known as athazagoraphobia). “In this decade, everyone can get their 15 seconds of fame, but there is a difference between famous and infamous. For viral videos, many believe they have to be very unique or do trendy things. But there is no way to tell which video will go viral. What is clear is that most users are now in the business of selling themselves—opinion, product, fame, image—through videos,” adds Singh.
“The need for approval dumbs down that part of the brain responsible for logical thinking,” says Dr Nimesh Desai, psychiatrist and director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, New Delhi. “Social media has also hastened the time between sending out a message and the reciprocation of approval. You post a video, and you expect a certain response. When that response doesn’t come, you get frustrated and there is a sense of rejection.”
The pressure is higher amongst those hired specifically for their ability to produce viral content, those whose living depends on going viral. “It used to be difficult to ask brands to hire social media influencers as ambassadors. But now, with the kind of online following one sees for individuals, many brands ask on their own for an influencer; some companies even have influencer trading—the cheapest influencer with the most followers gets the contract,” says Deepak Sakhuja, head of digital influencer marketing agency Ripple Links. Brands can spend anything between Rs 50,000 and Rs 10 lakh per influencer. For many, the pressure of creating constant viral content is akin to being a movie star, but without an offline professional support system. “I remember spending six hours one day just waiting to see how many likes my video would receive. It only got 200; the last video had got over 10,000. I was under pressure by a cookware company to get minimum likes. It was all I could think about, even at night,” says Akruti Banerjee, 35, a TikTok food blogger. Banerjee quit all social media a year ago. “I started to see the world in terms of what is viral and what is not. It obstructed my ability to function as a real-life person. Social media fans move on so quickly, you do not know what can happen after the initial excitement fades. The pressure to stay relevant is intense.”
The danger of habit-driven behaviour that cannot result in assured rewards is not just heightened anxiety and pressure, it is increasingly becoming a question of life or death. Researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, found that about half of the 259 reported global selfie deaths and accidents between 2011 and 2017 occurred in India. This year, it is TikTok and failed attempts to create viral videos that have been claiming lives the most. According to the TikTok Death Tracker, 33 of the world’s top 40 TikTok deaths since 2018 have happened in India.
There is no official record of the total number of deaths in India—it is not a separate category under the National Crime Records Bureau. But examining the few reported and recent cases throws up an alarming pattern. For example, on March 3, a 22-year-old man in Haryana’s Dharamgarh village climbed an electricity pole, which had a warning sign on it, to pose for a video. He was charred to death. In January, an army officer’s son in Bareilly begged his mother to borrow a gun so that he could shoot a video with it. He shot himself accidentally and died. “There is already no line between the virtual and the real world. For most, they’ve blurred into one world,” says Dr Upasana Chaddha, a Delhi-based counsellor. “People used to see images of others and want the same life, also known as the fear of missing out. But now we have shifted to the fear of being forgotten.”
Habits take time to break, but they can be broken. “Social media platforms aren’t the only control and preventive mechanism we should have,” says Dr Mahendra Sharma, professor of clinical psychology at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences), Bengaluru. “Most counseling in schools and colleges focuses on treatment of social media addiction. Preventive counseling is equally important.” At NIMHANS, mindfulness and digital detox are popular programmes that see people of all ages coming in. “We are in the world of viral videos, which cost next to nothing to make and can garner instant fame,” says Dr Desai. “But this leads to an internalised sense of being ‘somebody’ and the user would not want to go back to being ‘nobody’.”
Even as the number of Indians uploading videos continues to rise and a study in January by the Gurugram-based CyberMedia Research shows that an average Indian spends 1,800 hours a year looking at a phone screen, there are many online who are pushing for social media awareness. Hashtags like SitForSomething, StaySafeOnline, TakeAMoment took off last year and were promoted not by social media intermediaries but users themselves. Neha Mathur, who runs the page WhiskAffair and has around 90,000 followers, says, “I take a break every few months and just go off social media. I do actively spend time on growing and engaging with my followers, but I consciously try to back away when the pressure gets too much.”
A digital detox is more than just a 21st century term. It is necessary, especially now that the Covid pandemic demands us to go digital for schooling, work and even personal celebrations. Taking time away from social media will reduce the anticipation of fame or approval. This goes a long way in improving individual awareness and control. In the same way that someone addicted to food can eat an entire pizza without realising, those becoming habituated to social media can post without reserve, thought or sensitivity. While social media platforms themselves have to be much more accountable for the content they host, the anxiety and compulsion that drives certain behaviours can only be reduced through individual action. Plenty of research, including an ongoing study by a team at Harvard University, points to the positive impact of mindfulness, leading to a healthier relationship between people, society and the digital space.
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