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Israel-Gaza war sparks debate over TikTok’s role in shaping public opinion

THE Israel-Gaza War has once again placed TikTok at the center of heated controversy over the risks and power of the globally dominant social media app, with critics saying the popularity of pro-Palestinian videos on the app is evidence further that the app should be banned in the United States.

But TikTok creators and social media experts say the reality is more nuanced: An app with more than a billion users worldwide, including 150 million in the United States, is intended to offer multiple facets to major debates, especially when positions are sharply divided. by age.

Former dating app Tinder executive Jeff Morris Jr. went viral on social network X over the weekend by highlighting a data point he said clearly showed that “Israel is losing the TikTok war”: videos with the hashtag “#standwithpalestine” had 2.9 billion views, while “#standwithisrael” videos only had about 200 millions.

To longtime critics of TikTok like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who The claim offers further evidence that the app, owned by China-based tech company ByteDance, is a covert propaganda engine designed to manipulate American teenagers to benefit Chinese geopolitical goals — in this case, Rubio said, to ” minimize…Hamas terrorism.”

Morris’ claim, based on data spanning the past three years, was complicated by more precise TikTok data from the past 30 days, roughly the period since the Hamas attack in Israel on October 7, which showed that “#standwithisrael“The videos were viewed 46 million times in the United States compared to 29 million views for “”#standwithpalestine.”

Another pro-Palestinian hashtag, #FreePalestine, had a considerably larger audience than both, with 770 million views in the last 30 days in the United States, according to TikTok data. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Both pro-Palestinian hashtags include videos that are fiercely critical of Hamas and are most popular, according to TikTok data, in majority-Muslim countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, where Palestinian support has long been pupil.

TikTok hashtags offer a limited and imperfect insight into public discourse; many people use them to criticize the position they are referring to or in hopes of attracting viewers to unrelated content.

And there is no clear rule for the balance of ideological debate on any social media platform, including TikTok. The app is a global platform used in virtually every country and language, and Muslims are one of the largest religious groups in the world.

Annie Wu Henry, a digital strategist who consults for political campaigns and organizations on TikTok, categorically rejected the idea that TikTok was brainwashing Gen Z users into believing in a specific ideology. “TikTok is being used as a scapegoat, and there are a lot of young bad guys,” she said.

TikTok, like Facebook and YouTube, bans videos or comments promoting Hamas under its rules against extremist groups. The company says it does not influence opinions on the platform based on the interests of the Chinese government or any other, and some videos expressing support for both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide have been shared and viewed millions of times.

But TikTok’s recommendation system makes it difficult to know why certain videos go viral, and critics have long argued that the opaque algorithm could be used to suppress political causes the company doesn’t like. Creators of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian videos have voiced these suspicions in recent weeks as to why their videos are not receiving the level of online engagement they expect.

A group of Jewish TikTok creators posted a open the letter “Dear TikTok” calling on the company to strengthen its security and content moderation systems, saying the app “failed to monitor and guide public discourse to ensure the platform does not become a permanent cesspool of indiscriminate and aggressive anti-Semitism” .

The letter also claimed that “posts from prominent Jewish creators about Israel” saw “less than 1% engagement from accounts that follow the creator.” The organizers provided no data to support this claim.

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Aidan Kohn-Murphy, founder of Gen-Z For Change, a liberal activist group and creator whose posts have criticized both the Israeli war effort and anti-Semitic extremists, said he was not asked to sign the letter and that he would not have signed it. he was asked. But he said he agreed with her basic sentiment and had dealt with death threats and hateful comments himself. “TikTok still fails to protect creators, counter misinformation, or combat hate speech of any kind,” he said. “However, I disagree with how the letter characterizes content critical of Israel, most of which is accurate and peaceful. »

He also said he disagreed with the idea that TikTok inappropriately influences young people’s beliefs. “Young people on TikTok hear directly what Palestinians are saying and see with their own eyes the evil that Israel is committing,” he said. “What some adults see as brainwashing is actually a youth-led grassroots movement for Palestine. »

Because TikTok’s audience is younger: half of its audience in the United States is under 25 — some TikTok creators suspect that Palestinian support on the app is a reflection of a years-old division in the United States over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Pew Research Center survey In 2014, four years before TikTok launched in the United States, young Americans were more likely to blame Israel than Hamas for the violence that devastated the Gaza Strip, where 2 million Palestinians have lived under Hamas control since 2007.

Another bench investigation Last year, 10,000 American adults saw a similar divide, with Americans under 30 viewing the Palestinian people more favorably and the Israeli government less favorably than all other age groups.

TikTok hashtag data appears to reflect this trend. Of videos broadcast in the United States over the past 30 days, about 59 percent of viewers for #standwithpalestine and #freepalestine videos were aged 18 to 24, compared to 42 percent for #standwithisrael.

Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian users are expressing frustration with how misinformation and hate speech has spread on TikTok and other platforms. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, said it was limited in its ability to closely track videos promoted by TikTok’s algorithm, but had seen some “deeply disturbing” videos go viral , including false claims that Hamas massacre at a music festivalwhich was supported by video evidence, was falsified or exaggerated.

Yael Eisenstat, director of the group’s Center for Tech and Society, said in a statement that TikTok has been “very receptive to our concerns and responsive when we report violating content, and we continue to work closely with their leadership team to solve these problems. .”

Pro-Palestinian creators express many of the same suspicions as their Jewish counterparts in the “Dear TikTok” letter, saying they have seen their online engagement plummet. Some creators have increasingly used coded words and special spellings, known as “algospeak”, hoping to prevent their posts from being flagged, removed, or removed by an algorithm.

Younis Alzubeiri, a student and content creator in New York, said he all but stopped posting about the conflict on TikTok because the videos failed to attract many views.

“It didn’t reach anyone,” he said. “I’ve seen people have their accounts and videos removed for posting about Palestine, TikTok will call that hate speech. I think (creators) are really afraid to express themselves. There aren’t many Muslim content creators willing to speak out because they are petrified of the opportunities they might lose.

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Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh, a creator whose Instagram account has 5 million followers, @Muslim, which reports on news from a Muslim perspective, said it has seen some Palestinian creators face intimidation and threats. He noted that some videos were made to mock Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrikes.

Morris did not respond to requests for comment. Her thread on Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) shared the thread and said“Good old TikTok: Chinese spy engine and purveyor of virulent anti-Semitic lies. »

Conservatives outraged by TikTok were joined by well-known voices from Silicon Valley. Sam Lessin, a technology investor and former Facebook executive, said in a widely shared online post on Sunday that TikTok should be banned because it “allows terrorist propaganda to spread inside the United States.”

But Noor Tagouri, a pro-Palestinian creator and founder of At Your Service, a company that produces documentaries and podcasts, said the sharing of pro-Palestinian content on TikTok suggests that Gen Z viewers are not content to imitate what they see on their feeds. .

“This idea of ​​brainwashing doesn’t ring true at all,” she said. “People are simply witnessing what is happening and choosing to defend humanity and life.”

The broader understanding of TikTok is complicated by the fact that the platform is designed to show people what it expects to see. Sophie Zucker, a Jewish comedian and content creator in New York, said she was “surprised to hear people think this is so pro-Palestinian,” and that her own feed had a huge mix.

“Maybe because I’m 30, I’ve seen a lot of kids younger than me talking about free Palestine and people older than me being a little more conservative and supporting Israel,” she said. declared. “Then I see a lot of baking videos and stuff that I like to watch.”

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