TikTok gets blamed for a lot. If TikTok is the youngest sibling of the dysfunctional social media family, it would definitely take the role of scapegoat. And look, don’t get me wrong, as I wrote last week, I think a lot of things about TikTok suck — namely, its lack of transparency over its payments to creators, content moderation decisions, algorithmic priorities, etc. However, as we saw with the March 2023 TikTok congressional hearing and the ongoing state-level government bans against TikTok, politicians love to blame TikTok for the rise of what they deem as “anti-American” beliefs. It’s the perfect red-scare red herring to distract from their problems.
With growing tensions and protests over the U.S.’s involvement with Israel, TikTok is receiving a lot of blame from politicians for having malintent with its algorithmic priorities on the conflict — despite there being inconclusive data and questionable logic to support that claim.
Last week, there was a major controversy over a group of TikTokers who were re-circulating Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America.” In the letter, Bin Laden justifies the killing of Americans due to the United States’ role in perpetuating violence in the Middle East and specifically, its support of Israel. These TikTokers said the letter “opened their eyes” to the role the U.S. has in global conflict.
That said, many of these TikTokers seemed to caveat that they did not believe Bin Laden’s violence, antisemitism, and homophobia were justified. More importantly, the letter was circulated among a relatively small subsection of creators on TikTok. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell pointed out, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, there were only 274 videos with 1.8 million cumulative views mentioning #lettertoamerica. By TikTok’s standards, that is quite small — for comparison, the Post reports that in a recent 24-hour period, #skincare got 252 million views and #anime videos got 611 million views. But, on Wednesday evening, #lettertoamerica did go viral. Why?
Journalist Yashar Ali made a compilation of these #lettertoamerica videos in an X thread, and the thread went viral in the media world, accumulating over 40 million views. The tweet led Google searches on the letter and views on the TikTok videos with #lettertoamerica to skyrocket. And on Thursday, TikTok banned the hashtag. (TikTok has a clear policy against videos made in support of terrorist groups.) By then, the Post reported that videos on TikTok with #lettertoamerica had gained over 15 million views.
Still, despite Twitter/X making the story go viral, TikTok faced the majority of the public backlash for the trend. Many GOP politicians renewed their call for a TikTok ban following the news, saying the platform was an “espionage” tool designed to take down the U.S. government and promote anti-Israel views...
– Grace Stanley, Newsletter and Features Editor
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