No, TikTok (Probably) Isn’t Anti-Israel

Republican lawmakers pounding the well-worn TikTok ban drum are using flaming hot tensions over the conflict in Israel to try, once again, to knock the app offline. The new line of attacks, based on shoddy data analyses, claims TikTok is boosting anti-Israel content in order to brainwash a generation of gullible one-day terrorist sympathizers.

“It would not be surprising that the Chinese-owned TikTok is pushing pro-Hamas content,” Tennessee Senator and TikTok ban advocate Marsha Blackburn told NBC News this week. Florida senator Marco Rubio echoed that point during a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity where he emphatically claimed TikTok had become a “cesspool” of misinformation surrounding the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

“It’s actual brainwashing,” Rubio added.

Those views are largely in line with the thoughts of Missouri senator and fellow TikTok ban supporter Josh Hawley, who colorfully described the massively popular video-sharing app as a “Chinese spy engine” and “purveyor of virulent antisemitic lies.”

So why now? The renewed Republican focus on TikTok stems in part from a widely viewed Twitter thread posted last week by former Tinder executive Jeff Morris Jr under the banner: “The TikTok War: Why High School & College Kids Are Getting The Wrong Information about Hamas & Israel. In one of the tweets, Morris showed an image comparing the total views of posts on the app with the hashtag #standwithpalestine versus #standwithisrael. At first glance, the numbers are shocking. Views of the pro-Palestinian hashtag topped 2.9 billion compared to just 207 million views tied to the pro-Israeli position. Morris cited this as hard evidence that, “Israel is Losing the TikTok war.”

But those figures only tell a tiny fraction of the story. For starters, the hashtag data Morris cites dates back three full years which provides little meaningful insight into how TikTok users are reacting to the most recent escalation of violence. The hashtag comparison figures appear far less eschewed once the search period for results is narrowed to just US users in the past 30 days. With those filters applied, Gizmodo found the #standwithisrael hashtag received 46 million views. By contrast, #standwithpalestine, received notably fewer impressions with 29 million views during that same time period.

TikTok users on both sides of the issue have spoken out recently claiming, with little evidence, that they have been subject to shadowbans for posting about the conflict. A group of Jewish TikTok creators sent the company an open letter on Wednesday claiming posts from prominent Jewish creators about Israel often see engagement of less than 1% from accounts that follow the creator. On the pro-Palestinian side, filmmaker and activist Thomas Maddens, was reportedly among a growing chorus of figures convinced TikTok and other social platforms are reducing their reach.

TikTok executives have testified that they did previously reduce the visibility of some political topics but claim they no longer do so. A spokesperson for TikTok recently doubled down on that point during an interview with Al Jazeera where they said the company “does not moderate or remove content based on political sensitivities.” For the public, it’s almost impossible to know whether or not supposed shadowbans are actually a fluke or the result of targeted suppression. This lack of clarity is partly why researchers and lawmakers have called for greater algorithmic transparency from social media companies across the board.

There are also plenty of other more benign reasons why users on TikTok could lean more pro-Palestinian without corporate brainwashing getting involved. For starters, average users on TikTok tend to skew younger than other rival platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Younger people generally view Israel’s policies less favorably than older generations. That general observation was born out in a recent Pew Research poll where just 56% of US adults between 18 and 29 years old had a favorable view of Israel’s government compared to 78% of adults over the age of 65.

Usage of TikTok has also grown rapidly in the Middle East and Gulf countries in recent years. Users in those countries are also likely to hold views sympathetic to Palestinians for reasons obviously beyond TikTok’s influence. As for influencing young users’ opinions, social media and misinformation experts acknowledge platforms may play some role in influencing young users’ perceptions of the world but note it’s virtually impossible to tell just how much with any real certainty.

“It would be odd if TikTok consumption was not having an effect on younger people’s perceptions of the war,” University of Washington Center for an Informed Public Research Scientist Mike Caulfield told Gizmodo. “I don’t think there’s any doubt it has an impact. But it’s a long leap from there to claiming that this is due to specific suppression of content. There are just so many other possibilities.”

TikTok fires back against ‘misinformed commentators

TikTok responded to the rising criticisms with a blog post on Thursday addressing what it called “misinformed commentators” who are mischaracterizing its work to prevent antisemitism and other hate speech. The company said, since the start of the conflict, it has already removed 925,000 videos in the region for violating its policies around violence, hate speech, misinformation, and terrorism. Those takedowns included the removal of videos that promote Hamas, which the US government designates as a terrorist organization. TikTok similarly said it has removed more than 24 million fake accounts globally from its platform since October 7.

TikTok went on to address Morris’ sloppy hashtag comparison, which TikTok referred to as “unsound analysis.”

“Over the last few days, there has been unsound analysis of TikTok hashtag data around the conflict, causing some commentators to falsely insinuate TikTok is pushing pro-Palestine content over pro-Israel content to U.S. users,” TikTok wrote. “That’s simply false. In fact, since Oct. 7 in the U.S., the hashtag #standwithisrael has gained 1.5x more views than #standwithpalestine.”

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The right-wing focus on TikTok’s supposed bias against pro-Israeli content sits within arm’s reach of a deeper, more malicious conspiracy: TikTok, operating at the behest of the Communist Chinese government, is actively undermining American values and brainwashing American kids. Wisconsin Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher spelled that theory out explicitly in a guest post this week on Bari Weiss’ Free Press where he singled out TikTok as the reason why “young Americans Support Hammas.”

Gallagher, who coined the dramatic term “digital fentanyl” to refer to the social media site, warned of TikTok tweaking its algorithms to “censor information and influence Americans of all ages on a variety of issues.” These anxieties about the Chinese government’s manipulation of social media have served as fuel for around half a dozen failed efforts to ban the app federally.

“In the best-case scenario, TikTok is CCP spyware—that’s why governments have banned it on official phones,” the congressman wrote. “In the worst-case scenario, TikTok is perhaps the largest scale malign influence operation ever conducted.”

Gallager went on to advocate, once again, for a wide-scale ban of the app, shrugging off criticism from legal experts, the ACLU, and dozens of other civil liberties organizations who say doing so would amount to a brazen violation of creators’ First Amendment rights.

“TikTok is used as a scapegoat, and there’s a lot of villainizing young people,” digital strategist Annie Wu Henry, a digital strategist and consultant for political campaigns said when asked about the recent data in an interview with The Washington Post.

Mike Caulfield of the University of Washington said focusing this obsession with the way social media platforms could influence users to believe certain opinions potentially misses a more concerning point. Rather than brainwash hapless readers into adopting a position, social media platforms often steer users clear of content that could test the limits of their current beliefs.

“I’m more struck with the way these platforms can serve to eradicate self-doubt,” Caulfield told Gizmodo. ‘The ways in which they foreclose someone coming to a more complex understanding, or acknowledging the reasonableness of a competing perspective as we all become curators of a firehose of evidence that seems to show the unquestioned righteousness of our position—whatever side we’re on—that’s the piece I’m worried about most.”

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