December 6, 2023

Republican lawmakers are increasingly concerned about a tide of anti-Israel content on TikTok during the war with Hamas and they are renewing their push to ban the China-owned app, The Post has learned.

While TikTok is highly secretive about the algorithms that distribute millions of short-form videos on the app daily, there are some telltale signs of the disproportionate amount of anti-Israel content on the app versus videos favoring Palestinians.

For example, the top result for the search phrase stand with Palestine had been viewed nearly 3 billion times as of Oct. 26, while the top result for stand with Israel was viewed just over 200 million times, according to one analysis that went viral on X.

TikToks own data obtained by Axios showed a similar gap in the US, with more than twice as many posts using the hashtag #StandwithPalestine as posts with #StandwithIsrael over the last two weeks.

The trends have worried prominent GOP lawmakers and officials some of whom, like Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), have called for a nationwide ban on TikTok over concerns that the app functions as a spying and propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist party.

Blackburn told the Post that it would not be surprising that the Chinese-owned TikTok is pushing pro-Hamas content to serve Chinas agenda which has increasingly aligned with the interests of rival nations such as Russia and Iran.

The CCP benefits by destabilizing the Middle East and pushing the United States to put more manpower back into the region, Blackburn said. The United States needs to ban this app that steals and spies on American users.

The tidal wave of pro-Palestinian content intensified earlier this month on TikTok, whose base of more than 150 million US users primarily skews toward Gen Z and millennials.

Scrutiny over TikToks role in the Israel-Hamas war included a recent viral thread composed by Jeff Morris Jr., managing partner of the venture fund Chapter One, who argued that Israel and its allies are losing the information war with high school & college students on the popular app.

A massive gap in the visibility of hashtags suggests that TikToks algorithm was amplifying pro-Palestine viewpoints, according to Morriss research.

Morris could not immediately be reached for comment.

Because the TikTok narrative is now so anti-Israel, the engagement flywheel encourages creators to support that narrative because its getting the most attention and creating anti-Israel content helps them increase their following.

TikTok had managed to escape the federal limelight as of late, but the apps central role in public discourse around the Israel-Hamas war could once again put them in the spotlight.

Gallagher, who serves as chair of the House Select Committee on China, told The Post that TikTok has become ground zero for disinformation and pro-Hamas propaganda and warned TikTok parent ByteDances ties to Beijing have made it difficult to separate organic viral trends from China-backed bots or influence campaigns. 

We have zero visibility into whether the viral nature of this content is the result of user engagement, bot campaigns, or the CCPs covert influence, Gallagher said in a statement. All of this illustrates the fundamental problem with TikTok: it is an avenue for the CCP to covertly inject any message it wantsparticularly during a crisisinto the American bloodstream. We must act now to ban it.

Rubio noted that he has been warning that Communist China is capable of using TikToks algorithm to manipulate and influence Americans for quite some time. 

Weve seen TikTok used to downplay the Uyghur genocide, the status of Taiwan, and now Hamas terrorism; This is further proof that the app needs to be banned and treated for what it is: foreign propaganda, Rubio said in a statement.

Last March, Rubio asked FBI Director Christopher Wray point-blank whether China could use TikTok to drive narratives aimed at stoking division in America. At the time, Wray acknowledged that it was not only possible, but the FBI was not sure that we would see many of the outward signs of it happening, if it was happening.”

A TikTok spokesperson pushed back on the lawmakers’ concerns, stating “there is no basis to these false claims.”

“Our Community Guidelines apply equally to all content on TikTok and we’re committed to consistently enforcing our policies to protect our community,” the spokesperson said. “The content on TikTok is generated by our community, and recommended based on content-neutral signals from users, and is not influenced by any government.”

The company said it regularly takes action to remove bot networks targeting American audiences, including some that originate in China. The company also noted that it sponsored the Anti-Defamation League’s “Concert Against Hate” this week, where honorees included Holocaust survivor Tova Friedman and her grandson, Aron Goodman.

The demographics of TikToks youthful user base could be another factor in the disparity. Morris cited a Harvard University poll showing that 51% of Americans aged 18 to 24 believed Hamas was justified in carrying out terrorist attacks that killed more than 1,200 Israeli civilians.

Meanwhile, a recent Reuters poll found 20% of people aged 18 to 24 go to TikTok for news, up 5% compared to last year. At the same time, public trust in traditional news outlets has dwindled.

TikTok touted its efforts to combat the spread of misinformation, noting in a recent blog post that it has removed over 500,000 videos and closed 8,000 livestreams in the impacted region for violating our guidelines.

Even as TikTok defends its recent actions, others note that antisemitism is a longstanding problem on the platform. Well before the Hamas attack, Israeli leaders were warning TikTok was spreading anti-Israel propaganda. Other individuals, like an Israeli actor, say TikTok has simply removed their videos that show how brutal the Hamas terrorists are.

Earlier this month, the European Union demanded that TikTok and fellow social media giant Meta provide details about their efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech related to the Israel-Hamas war.

TikToks efforts so far have failed to satisfy critics, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who stated TikTok is bad for your brain, bad for your kids, and if you needed another reason to stay awayits filled with antisemitic propaganda.

The TikTok spokesperson also pushed back on allegations of rampant antisemitism on the platform.

“TikTok stands firmly against hateful ideologies, including antisemitism, which have no place on our platform, the spokesperson said. We remove this content immediately when we identify it.

Meanwhile, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, another advocate for a nationwide ban on TikTok, noted China has a demonstrated history of using TikTok for foreign influence campaigns that advance Communist Chinas geopolitical interests.

The average TikTok user is more likely to be exposed to content favorable to the CCP than other major social media platforms, and leaked documents previously showed that TikTok instructed moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Carr said in a statement. So it would not be surprising at all if the data show that the CCP has been using TikTok to influence public opinion on Israel and Hamas.

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