TikTok was slammed for its pro-Palestinian hashtags. But it's not alone.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators hold placards during the "No on APEC" protest on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Meeting in San Francisco, California, on November 12, 2023. (Photo by Jason Henry / AFP) (Photo by JASON HENRY/AFP via Getty Images)

When congressional Republicans this month repeated their long-running calls for a nationwide ban on TikTok, they highlighted a data point they said was proof of the app's sinister underpinnings: The number of TikTok videos with the #freepalestine hashtag is dramatically higher than those with #standwithisrael.

That gap, they said, offered evidence that the app, owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, was being used to boost propaganda and brainwash American viewers.

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But Facebook and Instagram, TikTok's U.S.-based rivals, show a remarkably similar gap, their data show. On Facebook, the #freepalestine hashtag is found on more than 11 million posts - 39 times more than those with #standwithisrael. On Instagram, the pro-Palestinian hashtag is found on 6 million posts, 26 times more than the pro-Israel hashtag.

The consistency of pro-Palestinian content across social networks, whether Chinese- or American-owned, undercuts an argument that has become central to the latest wave of anti-TikTok rage in Washington: that the Chinese government is manipulating TikTok's algorithm to play up pro-Palestinian viewpoints and that the app, which has 150 million users in the United States, should be banned nationwide.

In an essay for a blog called the Free Press, Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who leads a House committee devoted to challenging China's governing Communist Party, said the app was "brainwashing our youth against the country and our allies" with "rampant pro-Hamas propaganda" and was "perhaps the largest scale malign influence operation ever conducted."

In last week's Republican presidential primary debate, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said TikTok was "polluting the minds of American young people" with "antisemitic, horrible stuff that their algorithms were pushing out at a gargantuan rate." Rep Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), a Democrat, said last week that the Justice Department should "monitor China's use of TikTok as a propaganda machine to influence Americans."

TikTok has said repeatedly that its recommendation algorithm and content rules are not influenced by the Chinese government, and TikTok's critics have provided no evidence beyond noting that the pro-Palestinian hashtag is found on more videos than the pro-Israel hashtag, based on TikTok's own data.

In a blog post Monday, TikTok said it had been unfairly singled out for criticism based on "misinformation and mischaracterization," arguing that bluntly comparing video hashtag counts was a "severely flawed" way to evaluate the app's content. "Our recommendation algorithm doesn't 'take sides,'" the statement said.

Hashtags offer a deeply limited and simplistic way to analyze the shape of social media conversations because users often add them to videos that are unrelated to the issue or seek to criticize the point they mention.

Comparing the views on the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian hashtags around the world, as TikTok's critics have done, does not take into account that many of the videos come from predominantly Muslim countries with high levels of Palestinian support or, as TikTok has argued, that the #standwithisrael hashtag is newer than #freepalestine and therefore has had less time to be added to people's posts.

The comparison also does not factor in the long-standing generational gap around people's attitude toward the Israel-Gaza dispute. Young Americans have consistently shown support for Palestinians in Pew Research surveys, including a poll in 2014, four years before TikTok launched in the United States. Fifty-two percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34, the age range most popular with TikTok, told a Quinnipiac University poll this month that they disapproved of Israel's response to Hamas's attack.

Looking at just the #standwithisrael and #freepalestine hashtags also fails to review the many other videos that use other hashtags, or none at all. In the United States within the past 30 days, videos with the hashtags #Israel and #Palestine have both received about 2 billion views. On TikTok in the United States within the past 30 days, #freepalestine has appeared on 233,000 posts, 38 times more than videos tagged with #standwithisrael.

The #Palestine hashtag was placed on 237,000 posts during that time period, about 50,000 more than #Israel, but the similarity in total views suggests that the average #Israel video was viewed more often, further undercutting TikTok critics' arguments. In its blog post, TikTok said the average #standwithisrael video received more views in the United States than the average #freepalestine video.

"Millions of people in regions such as the Middle East and South East Asia account for a significant proportion of views on hashtags," TikTok said in its post. "Therefore, there's more content with #freepalestine and #standwithpalestine and more overall views. It is easy to cherry pick hashtags to support a false narrative about the platform."

Both TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, ban content promoting Hamas. TikTok said it had removed more than 925,000 videos for promoting Hamas or otherwise violating the app's policies around violence, hate speech, misinformation and terrorism between the Oct. 7 attack and the end of the month.

Both companies have also been accused by pro-Palestinian supporters of skewing their content in favor of Israel - the opposite of what TikTok's critics have accused it of. TikTok said it has measures in place to prevent algorithm manipulation and "does not 'promote' one side of an issue over another." Meta said in a statement last month, "There is no truth to the suggestion that we are deliberately suppressing" voices.

When asked to comment on the fact that pro-Palestinian content was prevalent on most major social networks, not just TikTok, the app's critics in Congress said they still regarded it as especially risky due to its foreign origins.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who cited the pro-Palestinian posts on TikTok to claim that "TikTok is a tool China uses to . . . downplay Hamas terrorism," said in a statement Monday that national security officials regard TikTok as a "unique threat."

Gottheimer said in a statement that "it's clear that China is using TikTok as a propaganda machine to influence Americans" but offered no further evidence.

A person close to the Select Committee on the CCP, which Gallagher leads, said the trend of pro-Palestinian content being viewed more than pro-Israel content on social networks was concerning across the board but that Gallagher had only called out TikTok in his essay because of the committee's mandate to investigate Chinese influence. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Despite flaws in the hashtag comparison, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) cited the gap on the Senate floor on Wednesday when he requested unanimous consent to ban TikTok across the United States.

He pointed to protests in colleges and high schools after the Hamas assault and said: "Where are they being fed this propaganda? They're finding it on TikTok."

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Hawley's ban proposal was "McCarthyist paranoia . . . propagating hysteria and fear of subtle communist subversion from the People's Republic of China."

The idea "comes while the GOP simultaneously complains of liberal U.S. social media companies canceling and censoring conservatives," Paul said. "Without a hint of irony, many of these same 'conservatives' now agitate to censor viewpoints they don't like."

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