Is TikTok Really Boosting Pro-Palestinian Content?

politicians-tiktok-palestine.jpg Pro-Palestinian protest in San Francisco - Credit: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News/Getty Images
politicians-tiktok-palestine.jpg Pro-Palestinian protest in San Francisco - Credit: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News/Getty Images

As war rages on in the Middle East, with more than 1,200 Israelis killed in a terrorist attack by Hamas and more than 11,000 Palestinians killed as a result of the Israeli army’s retaliatory attack on Gaza, U.S. politicians are focusing on the real enemy: an app where you can post dance videos and makeup tutorials for how to dress up as Sexy Tobias Funke.

Concerns over TikTok purportedly boosting pro-Palestinian content over pro-Israeli content have been percolating for the past few days, with Rep. Mike Gallagher penning an essay for the Free Press calling the app “digital fentanyl made by China” and accusing it of “brainwashing our youth against the country and our allies” by promoting “pro-Hamas” content. While the Biden administration has admitted it’s monitoring which content is promoted on the app, things went a little farther in last week’s GOP debate, with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saying that TikTok was “polluting the minds of American young people” with “anti-Semitic, horrible stuff that their algorithms were pushing out at a gargantuan rate.”

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In many respects, this is an old argument. The claim that TikTok poses a national security threat has been touted by the GOP for years, with former President Donald Trump frequently threatening to ban the app or force its sale. (Federal judges blocked the Trump White House’s attempts to do so in 2020.) Yet concerns about the platform have resurfaced due to the Israel-Gaza conflict, making this the latest example of the GOP trying to get the app banned.

In response to Gallagher’s essay and similar claims made by the GOP, TikTok published a Nov. 2 blog post strongly denying that it was actively pushing pro-Palestinian content. The post also stated that TikTok would employ more moderators who speak both Arabic and Hebrew to prevent the spread of content promoting “violence, hate, and harmful misinformation.” As evidence that the platform does not have a pro-Palestine bias, TikTok pointed out in its post that within the United States, since the massacre on Oct. 7, the hashtag #StandWithIsrael had gained 1.5 times more views than #standwithpalestine: 46.3 million, as opposed to 29 million. (Currently, these numbers are 52 million views for the #StandWithIsrael hashtag, as opposed to 40 million views for #StandWithPalestine.)

But these metrics are somewhat misleading, as internet culture writer Ryan Broderick pointed out in a recent edition of his newsletter Garbage Day. For starters, these are far from the only hashtags being used by people posting about the conflict (and many may be posting without using hashtags at all). Further, if you consider the amount of discourse surrounding the conflict in the Middle East in light of the sheer volume of content on the app, the above numbers are actually pretty miniscule. (Broderick compares the popularity of such discussions to the conversation around last summer’s #GirlDinner trend, which has 2 billion views; another comparison would be #gta6, the hashtag used for the much-anticipated next installment of the video game Grand Theft Auto, which has 8.4 billion.)

It’s also worth noting that while #StandWithIsrael may have slightly more views within the United States than #StandWithPalestine, there are twice as many videos under the #StandWithPalestine hashtag (14,000) than the #StandWithIsrael hashtag (6,000) posted within the past 30 days. Though this data, of course, only applies to one specific hashtag, it would seem to show that while there has certainly been more pro-Palestine content posted on TikTok over the past month, it is not getting significantly more views, indicating there are no nefarious mechanisms afoot pushing the hashtag.

The concerns over whether pro-Palestine content is being “promoted” on TikTok over pro-Israeli content also seem to fundamentally misunderstand the mechanisms by which TikTok’s algorithm works. Unlike how social media platforms have historically operated, TikTok’s For You page delivers a highly curated stream of content targeted specifically at an individual user, based on what types of videos they have engaged with previously. Indeed, the TikTok algorithm essentially operates as a confirmation bias machine, continuously feeding content that is largely aligned with the user’s political perspective. With this in mind, it stands to reason that while one user may routinely be getting fed protest videos and footage of bombings in Gaza, another user may not be seeing any content of that nature on their page at all. While it’s difficult to assert this definitively, given TikTok’s lack of transparency around its algorithm, if TikTok is “pushing” politically oriented content, it is likely only doing so toward those who are actively seeking and engaging with it.

Some allege that it’s going in the opposite direction, with many pro-Palestine activists alleging that TikTok has gone out of its way to suppress their content via shadowbanning (i.e., deprioritizing or hiding content from the search function) or outright removal. TikTok has denied this, telling Al Jazeera that the company “does not moderate or remove content based on political sensitivities,” only if it violates specific community guidelines.

That’s not to say, however, that there is no potentially problematic or violent content on TikTok altogether, or that there isn’t, as Christie puts it, “anti-Semitic, horrible stuff” that exists on the platform. TikTok itself has admitted to this in its blog post, saying it has removed more than 425,000 videos that violated its community guidelines on this subject, particularly relating to its policies prohibiting violence and misinformation. It’s also undeniably true that while pro-Palestinian messaging obviously does not automatically equate to anti-Semitic messaging, there are instances where the boundaries between the two become collapsed. The discourse that can potentially arise from such gray areas can have dangerous implications for diaspora Jews in general, as evidenced by the fact that anti-Semitic incidents have reportedly gone up by 388 percent since the Hamas massacre.

But even if there was an overwhelming preponderance of pro-Palestinian content on the app — which, again, there does not seem to be — that wouldn’t be particularly surprising. Among the young people who comprise a good chunk of TikTok’s user base (about 36 percent, according to Statista data), public opinion on the conflict skews overwhelmingly pro-Palestine. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, only 32 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds support the Israeli military’s reaction to the Hamas massacre, as opposed to 58 percent of respondents aged 50 or older. Youth alignment with the pro-Palestine cause is so strong that the majority of Democrats under 45 (65 percent) have said that they disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the conflict, according to a recent AP-NORC poll, which some pundits have speculated may possibly affect his chances at reelection in 2024.

This shift in public opinion poses a huge issue for the Israeli military, according to Rebecca Stein, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University and author of Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine. Historically, before the advent of social media, the Israeli military had much more input in the international media narrative about their operations. “Over the course of the last 15 years, as digital infrastructures spread within the occupied Palestinian territories, the monopoly of the Israeli military over the media narrative about their operations has shifted dramatically, in ways that cause the Israeli military considerable anxiety,” she says.

As Rolling Stone reported in 2021, the IDF has long tried to counter shifts in public perception of the conflict by using platforms like TikTok, posting soldier thirst traps, and dabbling in internet trends such as ASMR. With the latest conflict, however, it has changed tack, at least on TikTok, posting much more straightforward “operational updates,” as Stein puts it, rather than leaning into “the IDF brand of youth cool, which they have worked so hard to foster over the last decade.”

“There’s an anxiety about competing with the scale of the images of death and destruction that are coming out of Gaza,” she says. “The Israeli military is looking at all these images produced of civilian death and destruction, and they’re very anxious. They’re asking themselves, how can we win public opinion that can compete for the attention of international viewers?” Part of this strategy, Stein says, has involved the release of the GoPro footage taken by Hamas terrorists during the Oct. 7 massacre (which was screened at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on Wednesday and drew protests from pro-Palestinian activists).

Right-wing politicians’ anxiety over TikTok specifically certainly seems to be a byproduct of this generalized fear that the Israeli government is losing the information war. But in raising concerns about TikTok’s role in fostering antipathy toward Israel, they seem to lose sight of the fact that the issue is much, much larger than one specific platform — or even social media in general.

Update Nov. 13, 10:52 a.m. EST: This story has been updated with further information about pro-Palestinian content on platforms other than TikTok.

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