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Critics renew calls for a TikTok ban, claiming platform has an anti-Israel bias

The perceived performance of pro-Palestinian content on the platform depends on how you parse TikTok’s data.
The TikTok app on a phone on Oct. 29, 2023.
TikTok has previously faced calls for a ban. The idea is getting fresh attention amid the Israel-Hamas war.Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Members of Congress, conservative activists and wealthy tech investors are renewing calls to ban TikTok in the U.S., arguing that the most popular content related to the Israel-Hamas war on the app has a pro-Palestinian slant that is undercutting support for Israel among young Americans

TikTok has been the target of criticism for years because of its Chinese ownership and concerns about government control over the app, a relationship that both Democrats and Republicans say is a threat to the personal data of U.S. users. 

Now, critics allege that TikTok is using its influence to push content that is pro-Palestinian and contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests. The claims about TikTok’s promotion of pro-Palestinian content are anecdotal, and they have been bubbling up on the social media platform X, in statements to the media and on conservative media outlets such as Fox News

TikTok said the allegations of bias are baseless. 

Ultimately the perceived performance of pro-Palestinian content on the platform depends on how you parse TikTok’s data. Historic trends internationally show more interest in the popular hashtag #standwithpalestine than #standwithisrael. Looking at hashtag data only from the U.S. over the last 30 days, pro-Israel content has been performing at pace, if not better, than some popular pro-Palestinian content. 

The renewed calls for a ban took off after Jeff Morris Jr., a tech venture capitalist and former executive with the dating app Tinder, wrote a series of posts on X last week. In his viral thread, Morris wrote about a “TikTok War” in which high schoolers and college students are getting the “wrong information” about Hamas and Israel. Information about the Israel-Hamas war has become highly contentious and polarized across social media, including on TikTok.

Morris’ thread had over 9 million views Tuesday, according to X’s public metrics. 

“When I engaged with one post on TikTok supporting opposing views, my entire feed became aggressively anti-Israel,” Morris wrote. His experience aligns with reporting about how TikTok’s algorithmic function — which has drawn controversy — works: Engaging with a topic signals to the app that similar content should be served to the user.

Morris also posted a screenshot of suggested hashtags generated by searches of the terms “Stand with palestine” and “Stand with israel” via TikTok’s search bar. The hashtag “standwithpalestine” had 3.4 billion views worldwide as of Tuesday night, while “standwithisrael” had 313.6 million views worldwide — a more than 10-to-1 ratio. 

“Israel is losing the TikTok war by a longshot,” Morris wrote. 

Morris did not respond to a request for comment.

The hashtag figures Morris referred to included view counts calculated from the last three years — the beginning of TikTok’s available data — including a major surge in activity during the May 2021 Israel-Hamas conflict. 

A more constrained search on TikTok’s hashtag metrics discovery tool — using data only from the last 30 days — shows that pro-Israel hashtags in the U.S. may be receiving the same, if not more, attention on the app, bringing the claims of favoritism into question.  

According to the metrics tool, over the past 30 days, #standwithpalestine was used on 9,000 videos with over 27 million views in the U.S. During the same period in the U.S., #standwithisrael was used on 5,000 videos with over 43 million views. The hashtags #supportpalestine and #supportisrael were evenly tied in the U.S. over the past 30 days, with both being used on about 1,000 posts with 6 million total views each.

It’s not clear what forces have contributed to the view difference in particular hashtags or whether they are representative of the platform as a whole. 

One possibility has to do with generational divide. Various polls have shown that younger people are more evenly divided between support for Israelis and Palestinians, while older people are more supportive of Israelis. According to TikTok’s hashtag data, almost 60% of the people using #standwithpalestine are 18 to 24, while 42% of the people using #standwithisrael are 35 and older. A Pew study last year found that 67% of teenagers in the U.S. said they have used TikTok and that 16% of American teens said they use it constantly.  

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., was among the people who reshared Morris’ thread on X. A longtime critic of TikTok who has sponsored legislation to ban the app, he alleged that it was a “Chinese spy engine” and a “purveyor of virulent antisemitic lies.” 

TikTok disputed the claims in a statement. 

“Our Community Guidelines apply equally to all content on TikTok and we strongly reject any of the baseless claims to the contrary. We’re committed to consistently enforcing our policies to protect our community,” the company said in an emailed statement. 

TikTok’s guidelines ban content from “violent political organizations” such as Hamas, and the company says hateful ideologies, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, have no place on its platform, despite reports from the last year that it struggles to catch some extremist content. TikTok said in a statement that it removes content that promotes Hamas. 

On Monday, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a longtime critic of TikTok because of its ties to China, renewed her call for a ban in a statement. 

“It would not be surprising that the Chinese-owned TikTok is pushing pro-Hamas content,” Blackburn said. Hamas, the organization that rules Gaza, has been designated a terrorist group by numerous governments, including the U.S. 

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

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a separate statement that he believes TikTok has spread foreign propaganda and needs to be banned. 

“For quite some time, I have been warning that Communist China is capable of using TikTok’s algorithm to manipulate and influence Americans. We’ve seen TikTok used to downplay the Uyghur genocide, the status of Taiwan, and now Hamas terrorism,” Rubio, who is Vice Chairmain of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. 

In 2020, a TikTok executive testified in front of British lawmakers that the company no longer censored political topics but that previously it had suppressed content related to “the Uyghur situation” — referring to a Muslim minority in China

It’s not clear what content the senators were referring to as promoting Hamas in their statements. Blackburn’s office cited an article on Semafor reporting that some videos on TikTok “downplay Hamas’ attack on Israel.” Rubio’s office did not respond to a follow-up question asking for more detail. 

TikTok has also received the opposite criticism: that it has been too heavy-handed in removing some pro-Palestinian content. Last week, the government of Malaysia, a majority-Muslim country, warned it could take action against TikTok and Meta for blocking such posts, an allegation that the two companies denied

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the renewed push for a TikTok ban among critics in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict was more about shutting down pro-Palestinian voices than national security. 

“TikTok has plenty of issues due to their relationship with the Chinese government, but allowing speech about Palestinian human rights is not one of those problems,” Mitchell said in a phone interview. 

“Certain political voices love free speech and hate cancel-culture, until they hear speech that they don’t like and want to cancel speech that they don’t like — especially when that speech is about Palestinian human rights,” he said. 

Yael Eisenstat, Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Tech and Society, said in a statement that the ADL, which is devoted to fighting antisemitism, has “seen deeply troubling videos that have gone viral.”

“There’s been numerous videos suggesting that the Hamas massacre at the Supernova music festival in Israel was fabricated or exaggerated. One post had more than 1.8 million views,” Eisenstat said. “There’s still limited availability of data for civil society, but we hope that will change soon. The good news is that TikTok has been very receptive to our concerns and responsive when we flag violating content, and we are continuing to work closely with their leadership team to address these issues.”

Nearly every social media company has struggled with controlling misinformation and Hamas content since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, but until recently, TikTok avoided much scrutiny and had been characterized as responsive to emerging issues by disinformation and hate speech experts.

But the discourse on all social media platforms around the war has become deeply contentious and polarized after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, which killed more than 1,400 people and led to more than 200 people being taken hostage, as well as the Israeli counteroffensive that has killed more than 8,000 people, according to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health. 

TikTok has continued to be among the most popular social media platforms in the U.S. despite a yearslong political debate over its future. President Donald Trump tried to ban it by executive order in 2020 but failed in court. The Biden administration has also weighed a ban for national security reasons but instead has tried to negotiate an agreement with TikTok to assuage government concerns

But the idea of banning TikTok over its propaganda potential has gained supporters, including more venture capitalists from the tech industry. 

Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager who previously called for a list of Harvard college students whose student organizations signed anti-Israel statements, has since walked back his desired targeting of individuals in favor of calling to ban TikTok, saying the platform was responsible for the “TikTok generation” viewing Hamas’ attack as justified.

Sam Lessin, a general partner at Slow Ventures and a former vice president of product at Facebook, called in a statement Sunday night for an immediate TikTok ban. Lessin, whose wife, Jessica Lessin, is the founder and CEO of the tech news outlet The Information, published his statement on The Information’s website.

“We made a big mistake to not ban TikTok when Trump opened the issue in 2020,” he wrote. “The fact that we didn’t ban (or force US ownership and control) of Tiktok in the US is coming home to roost and allowing terrorist propaganda to spread inside the US and driving real physical danger and violence to US citizens — not just words.”

Lessin did not respond to a request for examples of “terrorist propaganda” he has seen on TikTok or any examples of its causing violence to people in the U.S.