The posting and reading of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America” on TikTok recently and users’ selective sharing in parts have led to renewed calls for the Chinese company-owned app to be banned in the United States. The app reportedly has 150 million users in the U.S.
Bin Laden’s letter, now more than 20 years old and created a year after the deadly attacks on the United States, cites Israeli actions toward Palestinians and U.S. ties to Israel as justifications for the terrorist killing of more than 2,900 people on U.S. soil.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., said the TikTok app was “brainwashing our youth against the country and our allies” with “rampant pro-Hamas propaganda” and was “perhaps the largest scale malign influence operation ever conducted.”
Members of Hamas, which is based in the Palestinian territories, launched a series of coordinated attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 230 people hostage, according to official Israeli accounts.
Israel responded with a war on Gaza aimed at wiping out Hamas. Health officials there say the death toll has surpassed 13,000 after weeks of Israeli attacks.
The Washington Post pointed out that the number of videos on TikTok, owned by ByteDance and headquartered in Beijing, with the #freepalestine hashtag is much higher than those with #standwithisrael.
But Facebook and Instagram also show a similar gap, the Post reported. On Facebook, the #freepalestine hashtag is found on more than 11 million posts — 39 times more than those with #standwithisrael. On Instagram, the pro-Palestinian hashtag is found on 6 million posts, 26 times more than the pro-Israel hashtag, the Post reports.
TikTok said it had been unfairly singled out for criticism based on “misinformation and mischaracterization,” arguing comparing video hashtag counts was a “severely flawed” way to evaluate the app’s content. “Our recommendation algorithm doesn’t ‘take sides,’” the company’s statement said.
The Post writes that the “comparison also does not factor in the long-standing generational gap around people’s attitude toward the Israel-Gaza dispute. Fifty-two percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34, the age range most popular with TikTok, told a Quinnipiac University poll that they disapproved of Israel’s response to Hamas’s attack, the Post reported.
Both TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, ban content promoting Hamas, which the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and many other nations consider a terrorist organization.
TikTok said it has removed more than 925,000 videos for promoting Hamas or otherwise violating the app’s policies around violence, hate speech, misinformation, and terrorism between the Oct. 7 attack in Israel and the end of October.
Charlie Winter, a specialist in Islamist militant affairs and director of research at the intelligence platform ExTrac, told The Washington Post that some of the users sharing bin Laden’s letter were potentially focusing on parts that resonated with them while ignoring other parts promoting violence and religious hatred.
An organization called 9/11 Families United joined the fray without mincing words:
“We strongly encourage these Americans who are not old enough to remember the brutality of 9/11 to seek out reliable sources to educate themselves instead of forming their misguided opinions based on false TikTok videos. We also call on TikTok to stop allowing its platform to be used to promote terrorist propaganda,” it said in a statement.