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TikTok Exposed Youth to Genocide in Gaza — Is That Why Electeds Want It Banned?

Vocal proponents of a TikTok ban are among the top recipients of donations from the pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC.

Social media platforms have offered Palestinians the ability to document and share their stories with mass audiences across the world. For younger people in particular who sympathize with Palestinians, apps like TikTok have been ways to gather news and spread information.

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On March 13, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act by an overwhelming 352 to 65 margin. If legislated, it would ban the hugely popular TikTok social media app in the U.S., where it has 150 million users — unless its owner, the Chinese tech company ByteDance, sells off TikTok within six months to a buyer not “controlled” by a “foreign adversary.” The U.S. Senate could take up the TikTok bill soon, and President Joe Biden has said he’ll sign it into law.

While U.S. geopolitical and economic competition with China is the underlying driver of the ongoing attacks on TikTok, another factor has emerged: its role in spreading news about the plight of Palestinians amid Israel’s monthslong assault on Gaza that has killed over 33,000 people and wounded over 76,000. Key backers of the TikTok ban have, with little evidence, openly criticized the app for being “anti-Israel.”

Truthout spoke to several tech experts and Palestinian organizers about the TikTok bill. They stressed that social media platforms have offered Palestinians the ability to document and share their stories with mass audiences across the world. For younger people in particular who sympathize with Palestinians, apps like TikTok have been ways to gather news and spread information. All this comes even as social media platforms — TikTok included — have been accused of flagging and repressing pro-Palestinian content.

“For so long, a Palestinian narrative has been censored in the mainstream media,” says Sandra Tamari, a Palestinian organizer and the executive director of Adalah Justice Project, a Palestinian-led advocacy organization based in the U.S. Now, amid horrific violence, “it’s Palestinians in Gaza narrating their story.”

The Forces Behind the TikTok Ban

The effort to ban TikTok in the U.S. is not new. Former President Donald Trump, amid years of anti-Chinese racist baiting, issued an executive order in August 2020 to ban “any transaction by any person” in the U.S. with TikTok owner ByteDance. The order invoked the “spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China” as a “national emergency.” Ultimately, a federal judge blocked Trump’s TikTok ban in December 2020.

Paris Marx, author and host of the popular “Tech Won’t Save Us” podcast, told Truthout that U.S. efforts for global dominance over China in the tech sector are driving the attacks on TikTok as well as other measures, including blocking Huawei telecom technologies and restricting Chinese access to U.S. chip technology.

All this amounts to “a broader approach by the U.S. government to try to restrict the Chinese tech sector” and “reduce its access to international markets and ability to compete with U.S. tech companies,” says Marx. The TikTok ban, says Marx, is part of a broader effort to protect U.S. corporations against “Chinese competitors that, in some cases, are matching or even out-innovating some of the things that American tech companies are doing.”

Marx says alarmist narratives about China accessing Americans’ user data through TikTok or the Chinese Communist Party manipulating algorithms are “based on falsehoods or are inaccurate,” with “very little reporting to suggest any of that is true.” The spread of pro-Palestinian content on TikTok, says Marx, is now being used “as a justification to keep pushing this agenda forward.”

“There’s this idea that exists in the minds of some American lawmakers that China is puppeteering the algorithms and showing people content that goes against American interests,” Marx said.

In recent months, numerous politicians and Zionist groups have expressed alarm over TikTok, alleging that it has an anti-Israel bias and conflating that with antisemitism. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey), cosponsor of the TikTok bill, posted on social media that “China-owned TikTok has been pushing antisemitic, anti-Israel, anti-American, and pro-Hamas content” and “is a propaganda machine to influence Americans.” Other members of Congress — such as Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois), Ritchie Torres (D-New York), Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) — have made similar statements supporting the TikTok ban.

In claiming that TikTok is fueling “anti-Israel” and “pro-Hamas” content, elected officials are aligned with major Zionist organizations. Last fall, Jonathan Greenblatt, president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was recorded saying, “we really have a TikTok problem, a Gen-Z problem,” and groups like the Jewish Federations of North America and the Republican Jewish Coalition have applauded the TikTok ban.

Notably, some of the most vocal proponents of the TikTok ban — like Gottheimer, Torres and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin), who sponsored the TikTok bill — are among the top recipients of donations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), though AIPAC has not made any statements about the TikTok bill.

“A Site of Struggle”

The popularity of pro-Palestinian context on TikTok and other social media platforms isn’t explained by the manipulation of technology, Marx said, but rather the underlying political reality of opposition to Israel’s assault on Gaza.

“Young people have much more empathy and compassion for what is happening in Palestine and in Gaza than lawmakers and many people in the media do,” Marx said, and they’re “sharing the stories that are coming out of Gaza across social media, whether it’s TikTok or [X, formerly known as] Twitter or Instagram.”

Tamari notes that if antisemitism was a driving concern, backers of the TikTok ban would focus on X, which studies show is a hotbed of anti-Jewish conspiracies. X owner Elon Musk regularly attacks George Soros, a common target for coded antisemitism by the far right, and Musk’s recent endorsement of a clearly antisemitic X post provoked outrage. Notably, the ADL’s Greenblatt faced backlash when, just days after the antisemitic post, he praised Musk and his decision to ban phrases like “decolonization” and “from the river to the sea” from X.

The real concern over TikTok, says Tamari, is that it has allowed Palestinian voices to reach a mass audience. “People are hearing directly from Palestinians, and this is not something that they can censor,” she says. “They don’t have control over TikTok. It’s not owned by a U.S. company. It’s not beholden to U.S. interests.”

A 2021 study from an MIT computer science professor found that an “anti-Palestinian bias persisted disproportionately” across 33,000 New York Times articles. One scholar found that “less than 2 percent of the nearly 2,500 opinion pieces that discussed Palestinians since 1970” published in The New York Times “were actually written by Palestinians.”

Tamari notes that Palestinian journalists like Motaz Azaiza, Bisan Owda and Plestia Alaqad have broken through traditional media blackouts with their social media accounts. “They can turn the camera around and show the devastation,” she said. “They can talk to people and bring those stories directly to an American public, without editors that are saying no.”

Tamari says Adalah Justice Project’s social media accounts, including TikTok, have grown substantially during Israel’s war on Gaza. “We think that’s a very important site of struggle for narrative,” she said. “People are hungry for news and hungry to understand the context of why we’re here.”

Iman Abid-Thompson, director of advocacy and organizing at U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which provides resources and strategic support to the U.S.-based Palestine solidarity movement, says that her organization established a TikTok account a few months ago, particularly to reach younger people.

“You can’t talk about TikTok without talking about Gen Z,” said Abid-Thompson. “Younger people have turned to TikTok in a new way over the last couple of years, and we wanted to ensure that we, as an organization, had a voice there.” The Pew Research Center reports that 32 percent of U.S. adults from 18 to 29 years old “regularly get news from TikTok.”

Abid-Thompson says that “the issue of Palestine is really prominent” among Gen Z, which is now using TikTok and other social media to highlight and oppose the genocide in Gaza. Polls show criticism of Israel and sympathy with Palestinians steadily increased among younger people well before the current war in Gaza.

“A Double-Edged Sword”

However, even as pro-Palestinian content breaks through to a mass audience over TikTok, Abid-Thompson stresses that the social media is a “double-edged sword,” with repression, censorship and surveillance of pro-Palestinian voices and content. “TikTok is a really great platform for folks to share their insights and perspectives on, but people have been repressed on it for using hashtag Gaza or hashtag Rafah,” she said. “We saw the same thing happen on Instagram and [X].”

A December 2023 Human Rights Watch report notes, “Meta’s policies and practices have been silencing voices in support of Palestine and Palestinian human rights” during the war on Gaza, and the group documented “over 1,050 takedowns and other suppression of content” on Instagram and Facebook. Another February 2024 report also found that “Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices have been censored and suppressed across Meta’s platforms.”

Reporting from Al Jazeera and Vice has suggested that censorship and flagging of pro-Palestinian content also occurs on TikTok. Abid-Thompson says she posted a TikTok video with an image of a man carrying his dead son that was flagged for violence. “You have Israeli soldiers who post images of themselves in demolished homes, and they’re holding up lingerie of people that they’ve killed, and those images never get flagged for TikTok,” she said. “Yet on the other hand, we’re trying to post images of bulldozed homes or massacres or genocide, and our videos are getting flagged.”

A February 2024 New York Times investigation documented videos posted on social media by Israeli soldiers that show them “vandalizing local shops and school classrooms, making derogatory comments about Palestinians, bulldozing what appear to be civilian areas and calling for the building of Israeli settlements in Gaza.” TikTok only removed such videos after the Times contacted them; Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram, did not respond.

Studies also show that social media platforms ignore Islamophobic content. A 2022 report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that “Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube collectively fail to act on 89% of posts containing anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia” even after these were reported to moderators.

Despite challenges, Tamari stresses the importance of continuing to post about what’s happening in Palestine. “We’re nearly six months into this genocide, and we should use every tool that we have,” says Tamari. “Continue to post and continue to engage with posts that raise the issues that are facing the people of Gaza. We can’t be deterred.”

Ultimately, says Abid-Thompson, the TikTok ban is an intentional derailment and distraction from the conversation we really need to be focusing on: achieving a permanent and total ceasefire and an end to the genocide in Palestine.

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