Pro-Palestinian protest in California.

Anti-Semitism on TikTok may hasten blocking of the app in the US

The uncontrolled spread of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic content on TikTok since the October 7 Hamas attack has united most members of Congress around the need to block it. The Biden administration is trying to stop its activities, but legislatures are having trouble passing laws against it

TikTok has faced this danger before. At the end of his term, former U.S. President Donald Trump worked to ban the activity of the Chinese-owned app in the U.S., efforts that ultimately failed due to his loss in the 2020 elections and the inept manner in which they were implemented. Although the Biden administration revived these efforts (it banned the installation of TikTok on phones issued to federal employees and bipartisan bills to block the application reached the congressional desk), these failed due to the chronic dysfunction of the US legislature.
But now the blocking of TikTok is again on the agenda, and this time the danger to the application, which has 150 million active users in the US, is greater than ever. Because this time an issue has been found that unites most members of the American Congress: the uncontrolled spread of anti-Israeli, sometimes anti-Semitic, content on the platform since the murderous terrorist attack by Hamas on October 7.
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הפגנה פרו פלסטינית ב אוניברסיטת קליפורניה
הפגנה פרו פלסטינית ב אוניברסיטת קליפורניה
Pro-Palestinian protest in California.
Since October 7, all social media platforms have been dealing with an influx of fake news, graphic content, and anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda. X (formerly Twitter) may be more notable for its inability to deal with this content, but TikTok is equally criticized. This, against the background of the widespread use of the platform by young people, and the Chinese ownership that raises suspicions that are not without foundation for a bias on behalf of the government against Israel. In the immediate response to the attack, China contented itself with a bland statement that did not condemn the brutal massacre, and later President Xi Jinping condemned "all violence against civilians", without specifically naming Hamas or its actions.
The Bin Laden letter incident did not help the platform's situation either: last week, a letter written by arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden in 2002 went viral through videos of young TikTok users, in which he criticized the U.S. and its support for Israel and expressed his hatred for Jews. The creators treated the letter positively, with one of them declaring that it made them realize "that he had been lied to all his life." The tag #lettertoamerica quickly reached 14.2 million views, and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue identified 41 videos that praise the letter that reached 6.9 million total views, as of last week.
This event was probably the breaking point for the political establishment in the U.S. Nikki Haley, a leading contender in the primaries of the Republican Party, said that the spread of the letter on TikTok was the justification for blocking the application. According to the "Wall Street Journal", lawmakers said the letter, along with a slew of anti-Israel videos, should be a catalyst for new legislative efforts to block TikTok.
But the letter incident is only one event in a series of events that indicate the spread of anti-Semitic content on TikTok. It is difficult to obtain accurate information on the extent of this content in light of the platform's refusal to provide civil society organizations with access to the data. However, some researchers managed to form a worrying picture of the extent of anti-Semitism and incitement in roundabout ways.
At the beginning of the month, Calcalist revealed data analyzed by the Israeli company Humanz, according to which, in the first month since the terrorist attack, 7.37 million posts with pro-Israel tags were published on TikTok, while in the same period 109.59 billion posts with pro-Palestinian tags were published.
This week the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published an analysis of the use of anti-Semitic tags on TikTok, and in particular the word goyim (non-Jews). This word is blocked in TikTok search, because of its use by anti-Semitic users. However, the #goyim hashtag is not blocked, and according to the ADL’s analysis, posts using it have been viewed 3.8 million times. These include a long list of anti-Semitic content, for example a picture of an ultra-Orthodox man holding several wads of money with the caption "If hating goyim was a job".
ADL researchers also found that users manage to spread anti-Semitic content using a feature called Photo Mode, which allows users to create a slideshow of photos accompanied by music and effects. This feature allowed users to spread a host of anti-Semitic memes, bypassing TikTok's control mechanisms. Thus, for example, a photo that appeared on August 14, with an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew peeking out of the flags of the USA, Great Britain and the USSR, plus the claim that the Jews activated these powers in World War II, received 187 likes and 7,000 comments. "This is evidence that users are exposed to hateful content, such as anti-Semitic memes, whether TikTok's algorithm floods it or whether they seek it out," the ADL said.
In another analysis, investor Jeff Morris of venture capital fund Chapter One tried to reverse engineer the algorithm to understand the spread of inflammatory content among high school and college students. "One red flag was when I saw high school students in San Francisco who were aggressively anti-Israel, and I asked where they got their news," he wrote in X in late October. "Their protest took place right after the false headline in the New York Times about the Israeli bombing of a hospital. A bigger red flag was to see that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 believe that Hamas' actions were justified."
According to Morris, TikTok is the new search engine of Generation Z, and the main source of news for many young people. "When I responded to one TikTok post that supported an opinion contrary to mine, my entire feed became aggressively anti-Israel," he said. "When I examined the data, I saw that a significant portion of TikTok is controlled by anti-Israeli bot farms, paid users who comment/like/share - a significant portion of the payment comes from pro-Hamas organizations. Since TikTok's narrative is so anti-Israel now, the creators have an interest in supporting this narrative, because creating anti-Israel content helps them increase their number of followers." Morris's analysis, which has nearly 10 million views, was sharp enough to provoke a response from TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew. According to the Wall Street Journal, the CEO called Morris and claimed his analysis was flawed.
Behind the scenes, The Wall Street Journal reported, TikTok's content controllers struggled to balance removing anti-Semitic content with removing anti-Muslim content. According to sources, in the first days of the war, the focus was on removing anti-Semitic videos and comments. However, after TikTok began to notice that more celebrities and influencers support the Palestinians, it shifted its focus to removing anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim content. Against this background, the problem with TikTok became so acute that politicians began to accuse it of promoting pro-Palestinian content to incite Americans against Israel. Republican congressman Mike Gallagher claimed that TikTok is "brainwashing our young people".