TikTok, the Political Scapegoat

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TikTok gets blamed for a lot. If TikTok is the youngest sibling of the dysfunctional social media family, it would definitely take the role of scapegoat

And look, don’t get me wrong, as I wrote last week, I think a lot of things about TikTok suck — namely, its lack of transparency over its payments to creators, content moderation decisions, algorithmic priorities, etc. However, as we saw with the March 2023 TikTok congressional hearing and the ongoing state-level government bans against TikTok, politicians love to blame TikTok for the rise of what they deem as “anti-American” beliefs. It’s the perfect red-scare red herring to distract from their problems.

With growing tensions and protests over the U.S.’s involvement with Israel, TikTok is receiving a lot of blame for having malintent with its algorithmic priorities on the conflict — despite there being inconclusive data and questionable logic to support that claim. 

Last week, there was a major controversy over a group of TikTokers who were re-circulating Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America.” In the letter, Bin Laden justifies the killing of Americans due to the United States’ role in perpetuating violence in the Middle East and specifically, its support of Israel. These TikTokers said the letter “opened their eyes” to the role the U.S. has in global conflict.

That said, many of these TikTokers seemed to caveat that they did not believe Bin Laden’s violence, antisemitism, and homophobia were justified. More importantly, the letter was circulated among a relatively small subsection of creators on TikTok. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell pointed out, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, there were only 274 videos with 1.8 million cumulative views mentioning #lettertoamerica. By TikTok’s standards, that is quite small — for comparison, the Post reports that in a recent 24-hour period, #skincare got 252 million views and #anime videos got 611 million views. But, on Wednesday evening, #lettertoamerica did go viral. Why? 

Journalist Yashar Ali made a compilation of these #lettertoamerica videos in an X thread, and the thread went viral in the media world, accumulating over 40 million views. The tweet led Google searches on the letter and views on the TikTok videos with #lettertoamerica to skyrocket. And on Thursday, TikTok banned the hashtag. (TikTok has a clear policy against videos made in support of terrorist groups.) By then, the Post reported that videos on TikTok with #lettertoamerica had gained over 15 million views.  

Still, despite Twitter/X making the story go viral, TikTok faced the majority of the public backlash for the trend. Many GOP lawmakers renewed their call for a TikTok ban following the news, saying the platform was an “espionage” tool designed to take down the U.S. government and promote anti-Israel views.

While it’s true that #freepalestine hashtags are currently outperforming #istandwithisrael hashtags, there’s no evidence to suggest this has anything to do with a pro-Palestine stance from TikTok itself. The more convincing argument is that TikTok’s demographics skew young (half of users in the U.S. are younger than 25) and it’s just a fact that young people are more likely to disagree with the Israeli government’s actions.

This sentiment predates TikTok’s rise. Four years before TikTok’s launch in the U.S., a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 29% of 18 to 29-year-olds blamed Israel for the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip. For those above 65 years old, only 15% blamed Israel. Nowadays, according to a recent NBC News poll, the viewpoints have remained fairly similar. For those 18 to 34 years old, 37% said they viewed Israel in a negative light, whereas only 12% of those above the age of 65 had a negative view.

Still, it’s not only politicians who are scapegoating TikTok for young people’s opinions, it’s creators too.

Earlier this month, a group of 43 Jewish creators and celebrities like Sacha Baron Cohen and Amy Schumer published an open letter asking TikTok to improve its safety tools, adjust the algorithm’s priorities, more rapidly address physical threats on Jewish creators, and moderate in a way they deem is more “fair.” (Their definition of fair is questionable. For example, they want anyone who deems the massacre in Gaza to be a “genocide” to have their content removed — despite even top scholars disagreeing over this topic.) Those influencers followed up on their letter by confronting TikTok executives in a heated call on Wednesday, accusing the platform of promoting anti-Israel sentiments.

Not surprisingly, accusations of unfair content moderation and algorithmic biases are being raised by Pro-Palestinian creators as well. They allege they are being shadowbanned across multiple platforms, including TikTok. Creators are using “algospeak,” aka code words and symbols, to try to prevent their content from being suppressed.

Users should be able to know when and why content has been “heated” or “shadowbanned.” TikTok is indeed very opaque with its algorithmic prioritizations and content moderation decisions, which has no doubt caused immense stress among creators dealing with hate online, particularly at a time when Jewish and Muslim creators are dealing with a horrific rise in Antisemitism and Islamophobia. More transparency about how TikTok moderates hate speech would be a wise move, as well as an investment in resources for those dealing with harassment and threats online.

The same should be said for all platforms. Twitter/X and Elon Musk in particular are getting criticism this week for failing in this department. All platforms that use recommendation algorithms tend to reward the loudest, most click-provoking posts, which inevitably leads to extremist content being rewarded. There needs to be some more checks and balances.

But the reality is that young people have unprecedented access to witness the horrors of violence overseas through social media. We are watching and hearing first-hand accounts of violence from citizen journalists and content creators, in a way unlike any other generation has seen before. As the first generation to fully grow up on social media, most Gen Zers have been witnessing this kind of footage of global violence since we were kids.

Furthermore, we have little faith in the institutions that surround us. Institutions that understand little about how we operate and communicate. That’s why we increasingly turn to creators, news commentators, podcasters, TikTokers, YouTubers, and so on to provide and contextualize information in a way that legacy media cannot. Even if it does take a hit to our mental health or lead some of us down dangerous pipelines.

All of which is to say, the TikTok algorithm may exploit our deepest flaws, but it did not create them. Though I critique TikTok for its treatment of creators and lack of transparency, at the end of the day, it’s not entirely TikTok’s fault that your kids aren’t alright. It’s hardly responsible for everything that is wrong with America. It just makes for an easy target when you don’t want to take a look in the mirror.

What is your experience on TikTok? Email [email protected] to clue us into our next big story.

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