Roast, rage, jealousy, cringe. Who'll have the last laugh in YouTube vs TikTok's online 'class wars'?
A recent record-breaking video by a popular Indian YouTuber — CarryMinati — sparked off a battle online.
And this is what happened.
Ajey Nagar, who goes by the screen name of CarryMinati, wasn’t ready for this. Quite clearly. The popular, 20-year-old YouTuber had just uploaded a video curiously titled "YouTube vs TikTok — The End" that was on course to become "India's most liked non-music video on YouTube". A legion of fans or “Carry Army” that he had closely cultivated over the last four years, with his famous "roasts" were looking forward to this video, so much so that once uploaded, they devotedly “liked” his video for days after it was originally posted. The numbers only kept increasing. Unofficial numbers said 80 million or 8 crore "views", proof of Nagar's soaring popularity, and serious numbers for anyone tracking YouTube metrics.
Little did Nagar realise that YouTube would take his record-shattering video down a few days later. For violation of its terms of service, more specifically those around harassment and bullying. In an emailed statement to ET, a YouTube spokesperson said, “We have strict policies that prohibit harassment on YouTube, including using malicious insults based on intrinsic attributes such as sexual orientation. We quickly remove content that violates these policies when flagged by our users.”
Nagar did not respond to ET's detailed questionnaire about his roast, the takedown of his video and its aftermath.
The intrigue about what exactly triggered the takedown continued — but the chatter around India’s growing content creator community was that Nagar had allegedly used slurs like “ meetha” and “ pari” to describe a TikTok creator and the subject of his now-infamous “roast”. He said, “Mithai ke dukaan par le kar jaunga Rs 200 mein bik jayega” (I will take you to the sweet shop and sell you for Rs 200).
This phrase in the video is believed to have offended the LGBTQ+ community for being transphobic or homophobic, and owing to mass reporting from some gay rights activists and NGOs, YouTube had no choice but to take it down. One such group — Yes We Exist - claimed credit for the video being taken down, posting on their Instagram page, “Thank you, everyone, for reporting the homophobic video by Carryminati. Thanks to @youtube and @youtubeindia for hearing the voice of the LGBTQ+ community and for realising the damage caused by these slurs.”
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Thank you everyone for reporting the homophobic video by YouTuber Carryminati. Thanks to @youtube @youtubeindia @sundarpichai for hearing the voice of the LGBTQ+ community and for realising the damage caused by the use of homophobic slurs. This deletion will hopefully send out a strong message to all creators that “YouTube does not allow homophobic and transphobic content”. We hope that YouTube continues to improve its policy enforcement and strives to keep the platform free of transphobia, homophobia, hate speech, bullying and harassment. Cheers people! ❤️
Once the video got taken down, it got only popular, given the way the internet works. Nagar, who had about 11 million subscribers before that video, saw that count rise to 18.8 million. His fans had virtually captured real estate on “trending topics”, with nearly eight to ten (of the 20 it allows) hashtags devoted to Carryminati, including some like #JusticeForCarryMinati.
Noor Siddiqui, a casting director for social media influencers says, “CarryMinati (Nagar) was very abusive and it is against Indian culture. But we find that kind of language in Hindi movies too. YouTube should not have taken down the video.” Another former TikTok creator adds, “Carry was abusive, but was logical. People love him. Whereas Amir Siddiqui was idiotic and illogical.”
And thus began what some described as a “culture war” among India’s content creators, with elements of the digital right-wing piggybacking on what one creator describes as the “Justice for Carry brigade” to seek a ban on TikTok. At first, this would involve a “rage-filled” effort to down-rank TikTok’s rating on the Google Play Store from 4.5 stars (on 16 May) to 1.2 stars on (21 May). Google has since begun working on cleaning up the organised abuse.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson said, “Play Store ratings enable users to provide helpful feedback about their experiences with apps and content, for the benefit of others to make informed decisions. When we learn of incidents of spam abuse, we review and take corrective action to remove inappropriate ratings and comments.”
Other actions followed. Some began unearthing problematic TikTok videos, and posting them on other platforms while reporting them to authorities such as the National Commission for Women (NCW). One of those videos belonged to the brother of Amir Siddiqui — the trigger for Nagar’s roast — depicting an alleged “acid attack”. Faizal Siddiqui has since been de-platformed by TikTok. Other videos, several complaints said, were “promoting rape” and vulgarity, besides even depicting alleged “love jihad”, and others even depicting deliberate animal abuse — a cat hanging from a fan or a dog being thrown into a river — all for the sake of “engagements.” TikTok has since removed the videos.
It didn’t end there, descending to targeted harassment, cyberbullying of creators, mostly those on TikTok by Nagar’ fans and other elements “venting out their frustration”, including rape threats, which ET has reviewed over the course of reporting. Amidst all this, Nagar too received a death threat from actor Ajaz Khan.
A TikTok spokesperson, in response to ET's detailed questionnaire, said, "At TikTok, we are motivated by a deep sense of responsibility to the community and driven to build a product deserving of creativity. This commitment is reflected in our community guidelines, which anchor our content moderation efforts that we strengthen constantly to address the dynamic environment."
ET spoke to over two dozen people for this story — including popular current and former content creators on YouTube and TikTok, talent management agencies, members of the right-wing, and platforms. A vast majority of them spoke on a condition of strict anonymity for a variety of reasons — ranging from retribution from platforms to loss of livelihood to the nature of their work.
The class war
This so-called fight within India’s creator system, according to consensus, is effectively an inherent class war, which has gradually built up over the past 12-18 months — when both TikTok and its creators started gaining popularity and acceptability among Indian internet users. It wasn’t spelt out in the clearest of terms. Until now.
Among the upper and middle echelons of the content creator ecosystem — the YouTubers as they are known today, there was a collective feeling that while they had to slog and build their fan following over four to five years, while these TikTok creators would virtually emerge overnight and amass a similar number of followers with what they’d call “cringe” content, and that they wouldn’t have to work hard for it. And among the vast consumers of India’s digital content, there is a likelihood of overlap between platforms.
This is notwithstanding the fact that YouTube creators privately acknowledge: that TikTok has truly democratised content creation, lowering entry barriers. Anyone, from anywhere, could become a “star”. With that one video — just about anything. “Of course there is some kind of jealousy and classism among YouTubers. They feel that these people who aren’t working hard are becoming famous overnight,” says Dhruv Rathee, the popular Indian YouTube creator, in a telephonic interview. “What is happening here is a reflection of the society itself. Of course, there is a class hierarchy,” he adds.
And thus began these “roasts” of TikTok videos on YouTube — a content format that has gained mainstream acceptance over the last year. “At the end of the day, it is a status game. It’s about telling their fans, “I am better than this person.” It’s great for viewers. It became mainstream to sh** on TikTok, it became a trend. Look at TikTok videos and make a roast on them,” says the first popular creator quoted earlier in the story. “The three factors here are jealousy, cringe and popularity,” he adds.
At the heart of this class war, is what has been defined as “cringe” content. There isn’t, and perhaps, will never be a consensus on what constitutes cringe, given how subjective and open to interpretation it is, but popular creators on both platforms agree that TikTok is overwhelmed with it, as much as 60% according to two popular creators.
“Cringe is a subjective term. Bollywood is cringe for Hollywood. YouTube is cringe for Bollywood. TikTok is cringe for YouTube. Where does this end? And it’s not like there’s only cringe on TikTok. It’s not a platform-specific problem. YouTube, as I know, is flooded with cringe. Where does this stop?,” says a Mumbai-based person who manages several TikTok stars, on a condition of anonymity.
“Cringe, in my view, is any content that does not make sense,” says one Mumbai-based creator with over 2.5 million followers on TikTok, before adding, “In the sense that a lot of these videos promote some behaviour that is weird, irrational, that is not normal, and tend to be overdramatic.” Another Kolkata-based creator describes “cringe” as “unfunny”. She quotes an example of a video featuring a female creator which simply depicted her as “putting lipstick and coming in front of a mirror”, which managed to rake in over 600 million views and 2.3 million likes on TikTok.
But “cringe”, as subjective as it may sound, some creators say, is also what the platform rewards. “It’s a dirty trap,” says a former TikTok creator who was removed from the platform after he raised concerns about the quality of content there, specifically in its ‘For You’ section. He adds, “In the sense that a person always remains hopeful and makes videos. Luck is more important than talent on TikTok. I guess Rakhi Sawant would have had more followers (on TikTok) than Shabana Azmi.”
This also alludes to a divide among TikTok creators about the quality of content on their platform, which its all-powerful artificial intelligence-based algorithm decides. “I support Carry (Nagar) because of his talent. TikTok doesn’t want to show good things to society and does not promote genuine talent or even art. Of course, there’s a lot of good content on TikTok, but gets overshadowed,” the Kolkata-based creator adds. “There should be a greater emphasis on creators to create quality content. Everyone is doing the same thing, and creativity is on the decline, and this incentivises cringe-worthy content.”
All this also comes at a time when TikTok is making a concerted effort to attract more premium audiences to its platform, signalled by its recent hire of former Disney senior executive Kevin Mayer as its global COO.
“In India, TikTok, paid a lot of YouTubers to get on its platform. It was slowly working. It also got a bunch of stars to create content — the likes of Deepika Padukone for her movie promotion, Shilpa Shetty, Riteish Deshmukh and others,” says the popular YouTube creator quoted earlier, who adds that he’s also looking to engage with newer audiences on TikTok by hiring an editor who simply tailors his YouTube videos to a TikTok audience.
“The more slightly premium guys are on Instagram. But compared to a year ago, you will find a lot of TikTok trends on other platforms. A lot of international trends on TikTok get no hate. The inherent acceptance of TikTok is based on largely international trends,” he adds.
The TikTok spokesperson added, "We take pride in the range of the content categories on our platform and are heartened by diversity in our creator ecosystem. We will continue our ongoing efforts to complement the pluralism in Indian society with a platform that celebrates the nation's rich culture and bridge socioeconomic disparities."
Scherezade “Sherry” Shroff, a popular YouTube creator says, “Every platform is going to have problematic and good content. But people need to be held accountable for the content they post. And platforms need to enforce stricter rules & guidelines, just nip in the bud before it kicks up a storm.”
The money matters
Beyond content, there is an economic factor to these so-called class wars. Popular content creators, irrespective of platforms, have been in demand with brands — a phenomenon that has only scaled up significantly over the last few years, owing to their reach in India’s tier 2 and tier 3 cities. Conventionally, in the hierarchy that Rathee refers to, YouTubers have always enjoyed, and continue to enjoy a significant advantage.
And more so during this pandemic. “This could well be looked at as a commercial dispute finally coming to the fore. The commercial base has changed. Branded content, as a business, has done well during a pandemic,” says a senior executive at a leading Mumbai-based artist and event management company. “Our bookings have seen a 50-100% increase in the business month on month, as in more bookings pre-COVID plus month on month as of last year.” Digital, therefore, is in demand. “As advertising on print and TV has collapsed, some money will flow into digital,” the executive adds.
Over the last year, industry executives add, TikTok has seemingly featured in more and more conversations — specifically with FMCG and internet brands wanting to use its creators to reach their desired market. This includes a suite of soft-drink brands, e-commerce, fashion, and related brands. “Most brands have discovered it and devoted more money to it. Most brands which are digitally savvy, definitely devote some money to TikTok,” says the executive quoted above.
This could, at best, be a nascent phenomenon. Not enough to threaten YouTube’s creators. Not yet, at least. Rathee adds, “I don’t see it happening. The users there don’t have (and never will) purchasing power. It’s a shorter format, and after all one view on YouTube is worth more than one view on TikTok.”
While a TikTok creator’s earnings from brand collaborations pale in comparison to a YouTube creator, executives feel that the latter does feel threatened by the “odd Rs lakh s/he could’ve made instead of a TikTok creator,” whose audiences, in some cases, have strong overlaps. But the senior executive quoted earlier feels that this controversy will not have a significant impact on TikTok.
“We have seen downvoting in previous times too. Brands work for access. If TikTok continues to be there, TikTokers continue to be big, they will continue to be on the platform,” he says before adding, “Specific creators get de-platformed, usually also temporarily. And brands could drop both sides (TikTok and YouTube). That’s standard and for a few months. But if s/he keeps making content and reaching people, they won’t blink an eye before coming back.”
Taking a right-turn
Since the last year or so, TikTok has been at the crosshairs of India’s online right. Now and then, in its rabbit hole, there would be users who would flag problematic videos and post it on Twitter and other platforms in a bit to “expose the platform” and its allowance of “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu” content. More recently, TikTok was used by prominent creators to voice their opinion against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, when the issue had reached its zenith.
During the early days of the lockdown, multiple WhatsApp forwards advocating the boycott of Chinese products, including popularly used apps, were in circulation. Needless to say, it had to with the virus’s origins in Wuhan. TikTok was the biggest of them all. And in some ways, the easiest to sell, owing to its wide popularity. In parallel, hashtags seeking a ban on TikTok were trending on Twitter. In some cases, for a few days in a row. Several TikTok videos were flagged, when the controversy around the Tableeghi Jamaat Markaz in New Delhi blew up.
The supposed reason: A fair chunk of TikTok’s top creators is from the Muslim community, thus giving the right, a rallying point. To be sure, there are popular individual, right-wing TikTok creators on the platform, with several videos showing people lip-syncing popular dialogues of prime minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, while mocking opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi. Other videos include videos in support of the RSS and other affiliate organisations of the ruling party.
“We have nothing to do with CarryMinati (Nagar). But we do have issues with TikTok allowing content that is Islamist, and in some cases also anti-India,” says a leading digital right-wing ideologue on a condition of anonymity. “We also found anti-Hindu content and what can be described as violent, political content,” he adds.
The ideologue also pointed to TikTok’s widely-reported censorship of what it considers anti-China content — the Dalai Lama, Tibet, and issues the Chinese government considers contentious. While some of these concerns are global, another factor that could have propelled the right’s approach towards TikTok is their lack of intent or effort in leveraging the platform, for what it is. The ideologue adds that while they do seek a government ban on TikTok, the larger goal is to “make an economic impact.” He says, “Once the rating goes down (on the Play Store) it will impact creators on the platform, and later brands will think twice before roping them in.”
Shivam Shankar Singh, data analyst and political consultant says, “They’ve tried, but they haven’t figured out what works on TikTok. The medium requires a lot of creativity and originality for things to go viral. Like Twitter and Facebook, it’s much easier to get artificial boosts and they built a system for that long ago, which morphed into genuine traction.”
They could well be playing catch up. The ideologue concedes that the digital right should have had a strategy in place for platforms like TikTok. The right is also belatedly making inroads into Instagram, another platform popular with millennials. “What is likely is, they’ll eventually go and co-opt TikTok stars who already have a following and traction rather than trying to build their own. A large part is that they aren’t able to crack the code on TikTok,” Singh adds. An anti-China sentiment becoming a key theme — not just in India globally, he adds, is a contributing factor. “But there are a lot of Chinese apps and products.”
Need for responsibility
One of the side effects of the controversy highlighted the pitfalls of online fan culture, and how it works. The inherent tribalism, and the “inordinate power” these content creators wield in India’s digital content ecosystem. “Carry Minati (Nagar) is the Salman Khan of this ecosystem. There’s a lot of overlap. Chances are that if you are a fan of some other creator, you are also a Carry fan. That’s the power he wields.”
Privately, some of India’s leading YouTube creators feel that Carry may have crossed the line. A representative of one such creator says, “While we are proud that the video was on the verge of breaking YouTube records, not for a minute have we endorsed the content in the same.”
But the repercussions, especially on popular creators across platforms, have been immense. Complaints of mass cyberbullying, comment-bombing with hateful and sexually explicit messages, and rape threats to female creators have followed since this controversy broke out. Some have been stunned into silence. Others are “too shattered to speak for no fault of ours” from the resultant cyberbullying.
ET has seen and reviewed screenshots of several rape threats and sexually explicit direct messages sent to some creators on Instagram. A YouTube video of a leading TikTok star has been disliked more than 2 million times, again, breaking a YouTube record of sorts. “For no involvement of his, this creator has been dragged into this controversy. His Instagram profile saw nearly 50000 hateful comments in the aftermath,” says the person who manages the TikTok star in question.
Which is why, Shroff believes, every creator must have a personal filter, and needs to be more responsible. “They need to think personally. Each creator, before making his/her video must think of a younger family member. Will they watch it? Is it age-appropriate? That is the best judge.” And platforms must enforce. “There must be repercussions for hate and inappropriate content. The takeaway from all this could be that more platforms will take hate seriously — from both the creator and the fans' side,” she adds.
Editor's Note: The original copy said 80 million or 8 crore likes. That is incorrect. It is 80 million or 8 crore views. However, the video was on course to become the most liked non-music video, as clarified by CarryMinati in his post after the video was taken down. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.