For the past month, TikTok has tried to assure business leaders, influencers, and Jewish organizations that it isn’t promoting anti-Israel or antisemitic speech on its platform. CEO Shou Chew has reportedly met with executives at Tinder, Facebook, and the Anti-Defamation League, among others, to discuss moderation and misinformation, while its head of operations held a private video call with more than a dozen Jewish TikTokers and celebrities, including Sacha Baron Cohen and Amy Schumer, during which Cohen accused the app of “creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis.”
The meetings came after weeks of accusations by lawmakers that TikTok was pushing pro-Palestine videos into users’ For You pages, quietly indoctrinating America’s young people against the state of Israel. TikTok has denied these claims, writing that the hashtag #standwithisrael had received 46 million views in the US between October 7 and 31, making it one and a half times more popular than the hashtag #standwithpalestine, which received 29 million views. Still, a group of mostly Republican Congress members who have long called for the US to ban TikTok have used the war to re-air their grudges against the app. “TikTok is a tool China uses to spread propaganda to Americans, now it’s being used to downplay Hamas terrorism,” wrote Senator Marco Rubio on X, formerly known as Twitter, in November.
To claim that TikTok is intentionally spoon-feeding pro-Palestine videos to young people is to misunderstand what TikTok is, who uses it, and what those people are already more likely to believe. Of TikTok’s estimated 150 million US monthly active users, about 60 percent are between the ages of 16 to 24, and another 26 percent are between 25 and 44. It is an app dominated by young people, and young people happen to sympathize with Palestine.
Before the Hamas attacks on October 7, Americans were already beginning to side more with the Palestinian cause, but this year for the first time, Democrats say they are more sympathetic to Palestinians (49 percent) than Israelis (38 percent), according to a Gallup survey from spring 2023. Support for Israel is lowest among younger Americans, with 42 percent supporting Palestinians and 40 percent supporting Israelis. The war exacerbated that difference: From mid-October to mid-November, support for Palestine among young voters jumped from 26 percent to 52 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Though most Americans still support Israel (a recent NPR poll showed 65 percent of adults saying that the US should show public support for Israel), the divide is growing, causing large rifts within cultural institutions and the administration under President Biden, who has continued to send weapons to Israel.
It’s no surprise, then, that pro-Palestine videos have shown up on many people’s For You pages. About a third of adults under 30 regularly consume news on the app, and the war has been by far the biggest news story in the world for the last two months. Instead, many have accused TikTok of platforming hate speech, conflating good-faith critiques of Israel with hatred of Jews. The US has even aimed to codify this false equivalency: On December 5, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”
While instances of both antisemitism and Islamophobia have skyrocketed on the internet and in real life in the wake of the Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s subsequent ongoing siege of Gaza with at least 15,000 Palestinians dead, they do not make up the majority of conversation-driving content about the war online. Many of the pro-Palestine videos that have gained viral traction are calls for justice or critiques of Zionism and occupation, including from Jewish people (and one who grew up in a settler community in the West Bank himself). There’s this eight-minute video about the creation of Israel and how Jewish American attitudes about the country were shaped, this video on how Americans can combat hopelessness in the face of injustice, and this thoughtful Reel on why being queer and pro-Palestine is not the same as “chickens for KFC.” Millions have tuned into Gazans on social media, including journalist Hind Khoudary, photographer Motaz Azaiza, and Bisan Owda, the 25-year-old filmmaker documenting her daily fight to stay alive.
Many people have used the Israel-Hamas war as impetus to read more about the US’s history in the Middle East, and in November a handful of people on TikTok posted their reactions to former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America,” which details the reasons why the terrorist group opposes the US and why it conducted the 9/11 attacks. Those in the videos didn’t praise bin Laden’s actions, but they did say it made them view American Middle East policy more critically, as Vox’s A.W. Ohlheiser and Li Zhou wrote in their explainer on the controversy. When an influencer tweeted the videos on X, a moral panic erupted around supposed terrorist rhetoric going viral on TikTok, despite the videos never having received all that many views to begin with.
Instead of considering the popularity of pro-Palestine content to be a bellwether for young people’s attitudes, people in power continue to blame the platforms themselves, using the fact that TikTok’s parent company is based in China as evidence it’s pushing leftist propaganda.
This is ironic, considering the amount of pro-Israel propaganda flooding online spaces since the war began. Graphic, disturbing ads produced by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been inescapable on YouTube and X in the last two months, with some even showing up on children’s video games like Angry Birds (the organization has said they have “no idea” how they ended up there). In October, the government ministry spent $1.5 million on the ad campaign, which included videos showing soldiers, terrified families, and blurred violent footage, according to Reuters, as well as one featuring unicorns and black text that read “40 INFANTS WERE MURDERED IN ISRAEL BY THE HAMAS TERRORISTS (ISIS). JUST AS YOU WOULD DO EVERYTHING FOR YOUR CHILD. WE WILL DO EVERYTHING TO PROTECT OURS. NOW HUG YOUR BABY AND STAND WITH US.”
Which social media posts count as hate speech or grounds for serious repercussions seems to be determined by whether the poster supports Israel or Palestine. Melissa Barrera was let go from the Scream movie franchise after posting an Instagram story in support of Palestinians that some argued invoked an antisemitic trope. Susan Sarandon was dropped by her talent agency for her comments at a pro-Palestine rally. Several journalists and editors have been fired from their jobs for their posts in solidarity with Palestine — or, in one case, for sharing a satirical article from The Onion.
Meanwhile, Amy Schumer posted and later deleted a cartoon in which pro-Palestine protesters held signs that said things like “Free Gaza, kill a Zionist” and “Stab Jews for Allah.” Sarah Silverman posted an Instagram story that supported Israel’s decision to cut off Gaza’s electricity and water supply. Julianna Margulies went on a rant against Black people who “have been brainwashed to hate Jews” and queer people who support Palestine. None of them have lost work due to their posts.
That the American establishment is far more likely to punish people with pro-Palestine views is indicative of the ways it is out of touch with what many people believe. The Israel-Hamas war is a far more morally complex one for most Americans than, say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when pretty much every powerful person or brand shared posts supportive of Ukraine. Many people are now learning for the first time about the history of Palestine and the Nakba, and evolving opinion is causing generational rifts among Jewish families. For a long time in America, the idea that people (and by extension companies) were unequivocally supportive of Israel was a given. There has been an underlying belief that to support the Israeli government’s actions is somehow an obvious moral choice, one that only an ignorant or hypocritical person would refuse to buy into.
The Israel-Hamas war has changed that, at least on social media. For anyone who spends time on these platforms, pro-Palestine voices are everywhere, and they’re not going away. (The sentiment is so popular that even white supremacist groypers are pivoting to pro-Palestine content, though this has little to do with Palestinians and is instead a common strategy among the worst people on the internet who flood social media with topical clickbait, much of it fake, graphic, or sensationalist.) Celebrity stans spam celebrities’ comment sections with Palestinian flags. Dozens of the most famous people in entertainment and more than 400 members of Biden’s own staff have called for a ceasefire. Videos showing tens of thousands around the world marching for Palestine are going viral. Online, sentiments have clearly shifted. Whether that message can be heard by the existing establishment is still up for debate.
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