Sex, Likes and Video Chat Apps: The Dark Side of Monetary Rewards

The internet is home to some of the most provocative, suggestive and sexual content one can think of. But, little did we know that such content has slowly pervaded into the app world where regular video chat applications like Bigo Live and Like play a major role.

A recent report by The Economic Times highlighted apps like Bigo and Like for allowing provocative and explicit content on their platform. It’s an issue which had gone unchecked for a while and now has opened a can of worms for its stakeholders.

What many consider a source of entertainment, these video chat apps have been a boon purely because of their incentive-based revenue model and also because of access to cheap data plans.

But how does explicit content land up on these platforms despite companies claiming they keep a stringent check? What can be done to ensure such content can be checked?

Also Read: Indian youth prefer dating apps over matrimonial sites: Survey

What Are Video Chat Apps?

Today, you go online and search for 'video chat apps' and you'll find dozens of options. But, it's only after you start using these apps you find their dark side. Take Bigo Live for instance. Bigo Live is available in more than 150 countries and has more than 200 million downloads worldwide of which 60 million are from India.

Almost half a million users are active daily on Bigo Live creating video content, some of which do raise a lot of eyebrows.

Video chat apps offers content creators the option to post short clips and even live-stream from the comfort of their living rooms. Since it's a very basic setup, all you need is a decent internet connection and a smartphone.

In terms of the interface, it also allows multiple users to chat at the same time.

Since this is an open for viewing platform, the content you create is accessible to millions of users. Similar video chat apps are Like, Vigo Video and Meme.

Content For Cash

Most of the content I saw on the platforms is created by amateurs with rudimentary production levels. A lot of the content involves young girls and women lip syncing popular Indian sound tracks while others take the route of comedy to lure viewers.

However, there is another segment of viewers which dives towards the raunchier and more explicit side of content.

As reported by The Economic Times, a broadcast showed a woman on a bed in a nightdress with around 2,080 people viewing the feed, sending across virtual gifts and making demands of a sexual nature.

Another channel was quoted showing a woman wearing a white nightgown lip-syncing to a provocative Bollywood song.

While surfing through the app, such provocative content doesn’t immediately hit you in the face. Most of it depends on what you are searching for.

Most of these apps have search engines based on trending hash tags and browsing history. So, if you are looking for raunchy content on these apps, you are bound to find it.

However, there are times when such content pops up on the home page without even having searched for related content and that’s the worrying sign.

Since most of the content creators are remunerated handsomely based on the number of virtual gifts, likes and shares they receive, they figure that sex is the best way to lure the crowds.

If that’s not enough, these apps also send users provocative notifications like “A sexy girl is awaiting you, go to Match her!”

The Quint spoke to Apar Gupta, director at Internet Freedom Foundation, on how such content ends up on such video platforms despite the company claiming to have strict laws against the same.

"I think it’s happening because of the incentive model that these apps have built, but it goes much more largely as the question to the company itself in terms of enforcement of the policy. A lot of times the enforcement is lacking and if it’s not there, then the platform itself will gain a reputation for a certain form of content and a certain kind of a service." - Apar Gupta, Director, Internet Freedom Foundation

Filtering vulgar and explicit content on a social media platform is no cake walk and requires high-end infrastructure at the back end. Social media giants like Twitter still battle this evil on their platform to date.

Speaking to The Quint, Bigo Live said that it is majorly dependent on AI to track vulgar content on its platform. However, there is a flip side.

"Our AI accounts for the majority of content filtering. We have a 99 percent success rate in keeping illegal content off our app. However, we are dealing with human beings, who are able to create different permutations of vulgarity and explicit content that has not yet been “learned” by our AI.  " - Bigo Live Official

Vulgar content isn’t the only questionable content on these video apps. Some of the broadcast channels also stream Hollywood and Bollywood movies on these apps which by law is illegal.

Hollywood movie Pacific Rim 2 being live-streamed on Bigo Live. 

What Drives Content?

It’s just not the fame aspect that drives people to create innovative content on these video chat apps. Just like YouTube, content creators on these video chat apps receive incentives in the form of money for the content they create.

However, unlike YouTube, some of the content creators on Bigo Live are on a payroll and are trained in the art of content creation.

"Bigo Live provides lessons to our official content creators. On top of that, we also teach things like how to position the camera, lighting and other small techniques that viewers usually take for granted. We generally pay around $1,000 (Rs 68,000 approx) for our average 1st-tier content creators. However, this amount is determined based on factors like popularity, type of content and virtual gifts received." - Bigo Live Official

It seems the so called official content creators have to meet a certain criteria. Seemingly, most of the official broadcasters are young women who have an “Attractive voice” and are able to do “healthy flirting” and find topics to talk about “love and relation” (sic). This is some of the criteria mentioned in a LinkedIn post six months back.

Speaking to The Quint, Bigo Live said that it does not recruit by the standards mentioned in the newspaper report. It claims the company’s official broadcasters are held against high standards that are in accordance with Indian law.

Any violations of the law are met with a swift and immediate ban.

However, it's clear what the bait is and what content other amateurs look towards to drive revenue to their channel.

It has been observed that many women broadcasting live videos do request viewers to like their videos and send them virtual gifts in order to boost their feed.

It gets ugly when some women ask viewers to send money via digital wallets (often Paytm) for doing something sexual in nature.

Videos indicate that participants on the Bigo Live app are willing to strip in exchange for money!

Since anybody can log in using fake ID’s and also users on these platforms are identified by numbers, it’s tough to track down offenders if any.

But, as much as the platform is to be blamed for this, does the person making the content need to bear any of that blame?

"It’s not proper to blame the people who are creating the content. If a company is itself incentivising its content production and is heavily involved in the curation and selection of the creators, I think the principle blame does rest on the company and the product rather than the people who are the creators. " - Apar Gupta, Director, Internet Freedom Foundation

A deep dive into these apps gives you a fair idea that most of the content creators on these apps are from tier-2 and tier-3 cities.

There have been certain incentives towards creation of content which are putting women who lack agency power and economic resources to indulge in work that is often closely associated with pornography.

According to a report in The News Minute (TNM), the remuneration on these platforms can go up to Rs 5 lakh and for that kind of money, women on these chat apps might be compelled to do things they usually would be uncomfortable with, or are even illegal in nature.

Most of the content creators are usually young adults who may lack the amount of awareness and ethics that goes into content production for social media. They may not be able to make an informed decision. Since there are no meaningful checks they can be easily exploited.

The Need For Regulation

In terms of regulating content, these video apps primarily depend on technologies like AI and facial recognition.

According to Bigo Live, AI accounts for a majority of the bans on explicit content and nudity. There is also human intervention where the questionable content is flagged to a 24/7 monitoring team to determine the level of violation and subsequently impose a penalty.

However, TNM also reported that it encountered some pornographic content on the Bigo Live app which wasn’t taken down. Of the 23 reports than had been filed for obscene content, only three of them were taken down at the end.

This puts a big question mark on the kind of monitoring and filtering the company’s AI and internal team conduct.

So, what role can the government play in this?

"The government should not usually get into issues of content, but I think this is broadly also opening up a very contentious debate to what extent should the Indian society liberalise its content laws on the production of pornographic content." - Apar Gupta, Director, Internet Freedom Foundation

According to Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 67 and 67A of the Indian IT Act, any publication and transmission of sexually explicit material is punishable by law. The punishment is up to five years in prison and a fine of Rs 10 lakh.

Surprisingly, there haven’t been any cases reported to date.

Children At Risk

There have also been concerns about under-age users being on the platform not only as content creators, but consumers as well. Since explicit content is freely available on these apps there’s no doubt that children are being exposed to it.

Since these apps are popular among the youth its clear that young children with cellphones would want to create video content and share it with the online community. However there needs to be a strict check and adult supervision on what kind of content the children are creating and viewing at the same time.

These apps might claim to have established a “safe ecosystem” for children, but since voyeurism is prevalent on apps like these, it’s always safe to keep young children away from these platforms.

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