This article was originally published on 7iber in Arabic. SMEX provides this translation.
Social media platforms and other communication services have been banned in Jordan on several occasions. Clubhouse was banned during the period of the “sedition” trial, Facebook’s live broadcasts were blocked during the popular protests rejecting the dissolution of the Jordanian Teachers Syndicate, and WhatsApp voice calls were blocked for competing with the telecom companies’ services.
The latest ban targeted TikTok after truck drivers in Maan organized protests and strikes over rising fuel prices. Four months ago, 4.43 million users in Jordan lost access to TikTok after the Public Security Directorate imposed a “temporary suspension.” Jordan is the first Arab country to ban TikTok completely.
The application has been under a series of attacks from Western countries, the latest being TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew’s hearing before the US Congress on concerns about the Chinese government’s access to data. The US, Canada, Britain, New Zealand and Australia (so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners), France, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, European Union institutions, India and Taiwan have all banned TikTok from government devices over what they call “security concerns.”
Pakistan and Afghanistan have banned it for “ethical reasons,” while the Jordanian government justified its decision by explaining in a statement how TikTok is “misused by some” and that the “platform failed to address posts inciting violence and chaos.” In a TV interview, the Minister of Government Communications, Faisal Al-Shboul declared that the government adopts the “European experience in dealing with social media.
To this day, TikTok is banned in Jordan, and the engagement of its ordinary users and content makers has changed. Some tried to circumvent the ban by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), while others stopped using the app completely.
“Nothing Compares to TikTok”
Ayat, a 37-year-old lab technician and mother of two, spent at least three hours a day watching TikTok’s quick cooking, entertainment, and social experiments videos. Ayat describes the app as “the villain,” adding that she was “unable to take [her] hands off the phone.” She believes the app is user-friendly, provides diverse content, and is responsive to users’ preferences.
“There are people who play with flour and shampoo, just like there are people who post political and religious content,” she says. After the ban, Ayat followed her favorite “TikTokers” on Snapchat, which she thinks is the closest to TikTok in offering spontaneous content, although she admitted, “nothing compares to TikTok.”
According to Abdullah Tahhan, who creates sarcastic content and has 5.9 million followers, TikTok provides more opportunities to reach followers than other platforms. Tahhan recalled the first video he posted on the platform that got 800 views, explaining that this number gave him a “boost” and encouraged him to keep on posting “on the only application that provides shooting, designing, editing, and publishing options in one place,” according to Tahhan.
The young content creator does not consider that the ban restricted access to his videos, as only 25% of his followers were from Jordan. However, it changed his content in two main ways: first, he created videos that didn’t rely on language to express his ideas, allowing him to reach and engage with audiences in other countries. Second, he focused more on other video platforms. Since the TikTok ban, Tahhan has invested in publishing YouTube Shorts, which helped him increase his channel’s followers from around 400K to 1m in a record time.
“The Ban Affected My Income”
TikTok content creators make money mainly through Lives, as followers send them “Gifts” after activating the profit feature. Saba Shamaa, content creator, has diverse content with videos of her singing, cooking, doing experiments, taking on challenges, etc.
She has 2M followers and refuses to go on Lives to make money because of “celebrities’ behavior in Lives,” as they are ready to do anything as long as they are getting paid, even if they show “inappropriate behavior that might damage their reputation and the app’s reputation,” says Shamaa.
“My videos used to reach millions; I believe this loss is greater than the financial one,” says Saba, who limited her application use to a few minutes a day after she used to spend around six hours a day creating content. She went from posting three videos a week to posting “trends” or short coverages when traveling. She saw the number of views dropping from millions to 300K to 500K views only.
Before the ban, Saba considered TikTok a platform that supported her fame and content even outside the application itself. Last year, Saba posted a video of her singing a famous foreign song on TikTok. The video reached 15 million views, and she received more than 60K new followers on Instagram, which indirectly enhanced her chances of being contacted for advertising partnerships with brands.
Saba lost an advertising contract she had signed before Ramadan, stipulating publishing videos on TikTok and using a specific filter that she would design with the company’s logo, slogan, or colors of its visual identity, pushing her followers to try it.
It is what TikTok calls “branded effect” ads. “The ban affected my income,” says Saba, as the ban reduced the application’s use in Jordan, where she had most of her followers.
“VPN ruins the device”
Nihaya, a 50-year-old mother of three, started using TikTok during the Covid lockdown period. It was a way to entertain herself and overcome all the difficulties she went through psychologically after her sister’s death. “My daughter used to stand in front of the mirror and act weird; I thought she was crazy.” However, it is the little girl who encouraged her mother to do a daily live stream on TikTok and tell popular stories. Nihaya reached 23K followers in less than two years, during which she did hundreds of Lives. Still, she stopped using the application after the ban and the difficulty of connecting to a VPN that some use to circumvent it. “It won’t work to have followers and not post Lives,” she says.
Nihaya says that “VPN ruins the device” and makes it “heavy.” Ayat, Saba, and Tahhan agree with Nihaya. While on VPN, the application crashes, the battery drains faster, and internet consumption increases.
As for Muhammad, a 26-year-old employee at an automobile company, he pays for the $10 VPN subscription that allows him to connect to TikTok with the least hassle. The ban did not affect Muhammad’s use of TikTok. However, it made it more difficult to use, forcing him to connect to private networks and continuously use a power bank.
Muhammad believes that he cannot stop using TikTok and that other applications do not replace it; he spends at least three hours a day on it. He thinks he would continue renewing his subscription to the paid VPN application, as this gives him access to some video games and video calling applications banned in Jordan.
“How is it my fault that they banned the application?” The official justification for the TikTok ban does not seem convincing to Muhammad, as he considers that the official authorities cannot generalize the ban but should instead deal with hate speech and incitement posts separately on TikTok, just like they do on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Finally, TikTok’s parent company, the Chinese “ByteDance,” declared in mid-January that it was in talks with the Jordanian authorities to lift the ban. It deleted over 310,000 videos, around 86% of which received no views, as “the teams would continue working on appropriate measures against any content that violates the guidelines.”
However, it seems that these measures were not enough to lift the ban in Jordan, as the head of the Anti-Cybercrime Unit, Major Abdulhadi Al-Tahat, said in a television interview that TikTok won’t be back unless it adheres to Jordanian norms and laws.
“7iber” had tried but failed to get approval to conduct a press interview with the Public Security Directorate’s Anti-Cybercrime Unit on updates about the talks between the company and the Jordanian authorities.
Last March, Jordan submitted a proposal for a guiding draft law for Arab countries, regulating the use of communications platforms and removing “illegal” content, including content that disturbs “societal peace and incites terrorism, crime, violence, and extremism.” It suggested the regulation of digital broadcasting platforms and a follow-up on their content, imposing penalties on violating social media platforms, such as financial penalties and temporary bans until violations are resolved.