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


The Israel-Gaza war has again placed TikTok at the center of a heated argument over the globally dominant social media app’s risks and power, with critics saying the popularity of pro-Palestinian videos on the app is more evidence that the app should be banned across the United States.

But TikTok creators and social media experts say the reality is more nuanced: that an app with more than 1 billion users globally, including 150 million in the United States, is destined to offer multiple sides to big debates, especially one where positions are sharply divided by age.

Jeff Morris Jr., a former executive at the dating app Tinder, went viral on the 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 had only about 200 million.

To longtime TikTok critics like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), that assertion offered further proof that the app, owned by the China-based tech firm ByteDance, is a secretive propaganda engine built to manipulate American teens for Chinese geopolitical goals — in this case, Rubio said, to “downplay … Hamas terrorism.”

Morris’s claim, which was based on data covering the last three years, was complicated by more precise TikTok data from the past 30 days, roughly the period since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack into Israel, which showed that “#standwithisrael” videos have been viewed 46 million times in the United States compared with 29 million views for “#standwithpalestine.”

Another pro-Palestinian hashtag, #freepalestine, had an audience dramatically larger than both of those, with 770 million views over the last 30 days in the United States, TikTok data show. But even that didn’t tell the whole story. Both pro-Palestinian hashtags include videos that are fiercely critical of Hamas, and they are most popular, according to TikTok data, in predominantly Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, where Palestinian support has long been high.

TikTok’s hashtags offer a limited and imperfect glimpse of public discourse; many people use them to criticize the stance they’re referencing or in hopes of attracting viewers to unrelated content.

And there is no clear rule for what the balance of ideological debate should be 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 world’s largest religious groups.

Annie Wu Henry, a digital strategist who consults for political campaigns and organizations on TikTok, sharply dismissed the idea that TikTok was brainwashing Gen Z users into believing any specific ideology. “TikTok is used as a scapegoat, and there’s a lot of villainizing young people,” 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 views on the platform based on the interests of China’s government or any other, and some videos voicing support for both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide have been shared and viewed millions of times.

But TikTok’s recommendation system makes it hard to know why some videos go viral, and critics have long argued that the opaque algorithm could be used to suppress political causes the company dislikes. Creators of both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian videos in recent weeks have voiced that suspicion as an explanation for why their videos aren’t receiving the level of online engagement they expect.

A group of Jewish TikTok creators on Wednesday issued an open “Dear TikTok” letter calling on the company to step up its systems for safety and content moderation, saying the app was “not monitoring and guiding public discourse to ensure the platform doesn’t become a permanent cesspool of indiscriminate and aggressive antisemitism.”

The letter also claimed that “prominent Jewish creators’ posts about Israel” had seen “engagement of less than 1% from accounts that follow the creator.” The organizers did not provide data to support the claim.

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Aidan Kohn-Murphy, founder of Gen-Z For Change, a liberal activist group, and a creator whose posts have criticized both the Israeli war effort and antisemitic extremists, said he was not asked to sign the letter and wouldn’t have signed it had he been asked. But he said he agreed with its basic sentiment and had dealt with death threats and hateful comments himself. “TikTok consistently fails to protect creators, counter disinformation, or combat hate speech of any sort,” 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 notion that TikTok was improperly swaying young people’s beliefs. “Young people on TikTok are hearing firsthand from Palestinians and seeing the harm that Israel is committing with their own eyes,” he said. “What some adults think is brainwashing is actually a grassroots, youth-led movement in support of Palestine.”

Because TikTok’s viewership skews younger — half its U.S. audience is younger than 25 — some TikTok creators suspect Palestinian support on the app is a reflection of a years-old divide in the United States over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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

Another Pew survey last year of 10,000 U.S. adults found 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’s hashtag data seems to reflect that trend. On videos in the United States over the last 30 days, about 59 percent of viewers for #standwithpalestine and #freepalestine videos were between the ages of 18 to 24, compared to 42 percent of #standwithisrael.

Both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian users voice frustration over 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 how closely it could track the videos TikTok’s algorithm promoted but that it had seen some “deeply troubling” videos go viral, including false claims that Hamas’ massacre at a music festival, which has been substantiated with video evidence, was faked or exaggerated.

Yael Eisenstat, director of the group’s Center for Tech and Society, said in a statement that TikTok had been “very receptive to our concerns and responsive when we flag violating content, and we are continuing to work closely with their leadership team to address these issues.”

Pro-Palestinian creators voice many of the same suspicions as their Jewish counterparts did in the “Dear TikTok” letter, saying they’ve seen their online engagement plunge. Some creators have increasingly used code words and special spellings, known as “algospeak,” in hopes of preventing their posts from being algorithmically flagged, removed or suppressed.

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

“It’s been reaching nobody,” he said. “I have seen people get their accounts taken down and videos taken down for posting about Palestine, TikTok will label it as hate speech. I think [creators] are genuinely scared of speaking out. There are not a lot of Muslim content creators willing to talk because they’re petrified of the opportunities they could lose.”

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Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh, a creator whose 5 million follower Instagram account, @Muslim, reports on current events from a Muslim perspective, said he has seen some Palestinian creators get bullied and threatened. He noted that some videos had been made mocking Palestinians who had been killed in Israeli airstrikes.

Morris did not respond to requests for comment. His thread on X, the social network formerly called Twitter, says the TikTok algorithm is “the reason we’re losing the information war with high school & college students” and has been viewed more than 9 million times. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Miss.) shared the thread and said, “Good old TikTok: Chinese spy engine and purveyor of virulent antisemitic lies.”

Conservatives outraged over TikTok have been joined by some well-known voices in Silicon Valley. Sam Lessin, a tech investor and former Facebook executive, said in a widely shared online post Sunday that TikTok needed to be banned because it was “allowing terrorist propaganda to spread inside the U.S.”

But Noor Tagouri, a pro-Palestinian creator and the 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 just mimicking what they see on their feeds.

“This idea of brainwashing doesn’t ring true at all,” she said. “People are just witnessing what’s happening and choosing to stand up for humanity and life.”

The broader understanding of TikTok is complicated by the fact that the platform is designed to show people what it expects they want to see. Sophie Zucker, a Jewish comedian and content creator in New York City, said she was “surprised to hear people think it skews so pro-Palestine,” and that her own feed has presented 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 skewing a bit more conservative and supporting Israel,” she said. “Then I see a lot of baking videos and whatever else I like to watch.”

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