After coming under fire for its links to China, TikTok is again under the spotlight in the United States amid claims that the popular video app is pushing young people to support Palestinians and Hamas.
In recent weeks, powerful politicians, including senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio and House Representative Mike Gallagher, have reiterated calls for a ban on TikTok, citing the app’s alleged bias towards anti-Israel and anti-Jewish content.
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“While data security issues are paramount, less often discussed is TikTok’s power to radically distort the world picture that America’s young people encounter. Israel’s unfolding war with Hamas is a crucial test case,” Hawley said in a letter to US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday.
Hawley cited a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll in which 51 percent of Americans aged 18-24 said that Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel could be justified by Palestinians’ grievances, in contrast to older Americans who overwhelmingly back Israel.
“Analysts have attributed this disparity to the ubiquity of anti-Israel content on TikTok, where most young internet users get their information about the world,” Hawley said.
Rubio said last month that TikTok was among a number of platforms that had become “cesspools of [pro-Hamas] misinformation and indoctrination” and a vehicle for “brainwashing”.
TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has long been in the crosshairs of US lawmakers over claims that the app promotes Beijing’s agenda, including by suppressing content on sensitive issues like Taiwan and the repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Democrats and Republicans introduced several bills aimed at banning or restricting TikTok, but those efforts have stalled due to free speech concerns.
Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, TikTok’s influence has been thrust back into the public arena amid scrutiny of the prominence of pro-Palestinian content.
Last month, American venture capitalist Jeff Morris Jr wrote a lengthy series of posts on X alleging that the app’s algorithm was corrupting young people by swaying them from the traditionally pro-Israel stance of most Americans.
Morris Jr expressed alarm that the hashtag “#standwithpalestine” had three billion views, compared with 200 million for “#standwithisrael”.
“When I engaged with one post on TikTok supporting opposing views, my entire feed became aggressively anti-Israel,” he said, adding it was as if he was “told to see this war with Israel being the evil side”.
“Because the TikTok narrative is now so anti-Israel, the engagement flywheel encourages creators to support that narrative because it’s getting the most attention, and creating anti-Israel content helps them increase their following.”
TikTok did not provide a comment when contacted by Al Jazeera but has previously stated that it “stands against terrorism” and removes hateful and violent content.
TikTok said in a statement last week that it had removed more than 925,000 videos in the conflict region for “violating our policies around violence, hate speech, misinformation, and terrorism, including content promoting Hamas”, and millions of more posts globally.
TikTok’s publicly viewable user data suggest a greater affinity for the Palestinian cause among users in the US, although pro-Israel content is also popular on the site.
In the 30 days leading up to November 8, about 6,000 posts with 55 million views used the hashtag #standwithisrael, whereas some 13,000 posts with 37 million views used #standwithpalestine.
The hashtag #freepalestine dwarfed both, being featured in 177,000 posts with 946 million views.
None of the hashtags about the conflict cracked the top 100 over the period, during which the app was dominated by content related to Halloween, a meme about Ohio, and the film adaption of the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s.
Globally, pro-Palestine content overwhelmingly dominated with #freepalestine and #standwithpalestine racking up 11 billion and one billion views, respectively.
“TikTok needs to get more serious about content moderation,” Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Governance Studies Center for Technology at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera.
“Disinformation is being spread through videos on its platforms and inflaming public tensions on all sides of the issue. It needs human moderators who check the authenticity of the videos and make sure blatant lies are not being spread.”
In the US, the tilt towards pro-Palestinian content appears to reflect a generational shift that has been under way since well before the Israel-Hamas war.
In a 2022 survey by Pew Research, 61 percent of Americans aged 18-29 years said they viewed Palestinian people either “very favourably” or “somewhat favourably”, compared with the national average of 52 percent.
When asked the same questions about Israelis, 56 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds said they viewed them favourably versus the average of 67 percent.
The rise in pro-Palestinian sentiment has been an especially fraught issue on university campuses, where divestment and boycott campaigns directed at Israel are popular.
The Anti-Defamation League reported 665 “anti-Israel incidents” on campuses from June 2022 to May 2023 and has expressed concern about a “growing, radical movement to place opposition of Israel and Zionism as core elements of college life”.
Last month, student groups at Harvard University sparked a backlash after releasing a letter saying that Israel was “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” due to its treatment of the Palestinians.
Three law students at Harvard and Columbia University who signed the letter lost job offers following the controversy.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that while there are legitimate concerns about TikTok, the prominence of pro-Palestinian content on the platform is not among them.
“It is nothing short of hypocritical for politicians to want to restrict access to a social media platform because it dares to allow people to freely express their support for Palestinian human rights in a way that other social media platforms do not,” Mitchell told Al Jazeera.
“Young people have also been exposed to the world and receive their news directly through social media in many cases – not through the filter of mainstream media,” he added.
“Therefore, if you have young people growing up for 10 years learning about Palestine directly from the victims of these continuous human rights violations, it’s no surprise that people are more sympathetic to the Palestinian people.”