How TikTok is Reforming Protest Against Exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

by Anwita Karanth, penultimate year L.L.B. student and student writer with the UCL Junior Lawyers Against Poverty Chapter

TikTok has been steadily revolutionising protest since 2020, when the BLM movement gained traction on the app, and continues to demonstrate its influence amongst the youth in current human rights affairs. TikTok’s newest human rights project focuses on the exploitation of miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (“the DRC”). Despite the severity and duration of the issue, which has been going on for many decades, this particular issue has gone largely unnoticed and unrepresented in the media, until it gained attention online.

Cobalt is one of the most important elements in use today, and is used extensively in almost all lithium ion rechargeable batteries. These batteries are present in phones, electric vehicles, computers, vapes and more, and the cobalt in the batteries comes almost exclusively from the DRC. The DRC has the world’s largest reserve of natural cobalt (48%), and accounts for 70% of the world’s cobalt production. Despite this monopoly of one of the most valuable resources, the DRC is still one of the poorest countries in the world, and the miners themselves bear the brunt of the penury.

The miners, who face long hours of physically strenuous labour each day, work in such harsh conditions and for such little money that it constitutes exploitation and modern-day slavery. Although the workers are dubbed ‘artisanal miners’ and marketed positively to the rest of the world, the term actually refers to the fact that the miner’s are self-employed and mine resources mostly by hand. Aside from the lack of job security this position provides, the independent employment of the workers means that they are not afforded any of the normal protections given to those employed by larger or industrial companies. The workers mine cobalt, a highly toxic chemical, by hand, with access to little to no safety equipment and no health or life insurance to fall back on. Mining is also a hazardous occupation due to the dust and grime, poor air quality, and danger of tunnel collapse, and leads to long-term health complications such as respiratory issues, organ failure, and cancer. The workers work long hours without breaks, which is very physically demanding, and leads to bone related conditions such as arthritis and poor bone density, especially as workers are extremely poor and cannot afford sufficient nutritious food. On top of the physical health implications, the stress and conditions of the labour can lead to mental health issues which further burden the workers.

Some miners are also mothers who are forced to bring their young children to work due to lack of alternative childcare, exposing them to the dust and grime of the mine sites. Mine sites have also displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, levelling villages and leaving the inhabitants homeless and stranded in the interest of pursuing even more mining. Many inhabitants have no choice but to work for the organisations which displaced them, having no other viable labour opportunities. Children are also frequently employed in the mines, leading to the rise of child trafficking by militant groups who abduct and sell the children where extra labour is needed. Although the workers are physically unencumbered by chains, these working conditions amount to modern-day slavery, which many major cobalt-consuming companies, such as Tesla, are aware of. These companies however continue to buy and export the unethically-obtained cobalt, and contribute to the massive and pressing violations of human rights.

So where does TikTok come in? Users of the social media giant are utilising the platform and so-called ‘cancel culture’ to spread awareness of the situation in the DRC, utilising infographics, pictures, and news-like videos to educate other users about the realities of cobalt mining. The situation in the DRC has recently taken the app by storm, eliciting many influencers to quit vaping, as vapes contain lithium-ion batteries, in solidarity with the miners and to reduce demand. As influencers quit, followers quit too, and the ‘popularity’ of the topic has seen it convince several young people to quit vaping, something which the health benefits of quitting have failed to do in the past. The attention it gained on the video-making app consequently resulted in an increase in media coverage, with major news sites such as the BBC commenting on the situation, and calling for change. However, despite the positive intentions behind such a protest, it is also worth noting that the very influencers whose livelihoods depend on platforms like TikTok contribute massively to overconsumption, including overconsumption of tech devices which rely on cobalt and other mined materials.

Whilst the power of online activism in effecting tangible change is precarious at best, it provides compelling evidence that the basis and methods of protest are changing. More and more activism is finding strong roots in social media, which amplifies issues of all shapes and sizes, and suggests that the nature of protest and news is adapting to reflect current trends, which may be a benefit for activism in the long run. However, relying on teenagers and online activism to carry forth protest as a whole is dangerous, as it requires an oversimplification of current affairs to fit the short-form format of social media. Important details are lost, and consumers cannot be relied upon to go and do the requisite research to form a grounded opinion, which leaves a gap in information and poses a threat to the trend of online activism. The key takeaway is not that TikTok is the new face of current affairs and activism, nor that it is the downfall of quality activism. As reliance on technology progresses, so must trends in activism and protest, so long as they are accompanied by sensibility and research. Although online activism has not been concretely linked to real legislative or policy changes yet, we can reasonably believe it may influence legislation and policy creation in the future, perhaps through online trends influencing CSR and ESG goals on a micro-level. Potential legislation or policy which implements safeguards will also have worldwide impact, as the mining companies are usually internationally-owned conglomerates, meaning that an international/cross-jurisdictional collaborative effort to change is the only way forward. For now, we can only theorise how social media can be used to support human rights protection, and hope to utilise trends properly to further that purpose.

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