It's Not TikTok
Maybe we need to hit reset on some of the Israel-Gaza discourse.
Hey everyone. Parker here.
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Jake Tapper interviewed Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) on CNN earlier this week. Among other things, they discussed the ongoing war in Gaza. Here’s how the conversation went, immediately following a graphic on the screen citing a New York Times/Siena College poll1 that shows 72% of registered voters between the ages of 18-29 as disapproving of President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict [bolded emphasis mine]:
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You’ve been very vocal in your full support for Israel. I see the Israeli flag behind you in your office there. You’ve been very clearly arguing that Hamas bears responsibility for the tragedy of what’s going on in Gaza. Why do think so many younger people, especially in your party, see it differently?
JOHN FETTERMAN, U.S. SENATOR: I really don’t know. I do know that a lot of people are getting their perspective from TikTok. And I think if you’re kind of getting your perspective on the world on TikTok, it’s going to tend to be kind of warped or not reflective of the history and actually the way things absolutely are. And what is very clear is that Hamas started this, and they actually broke the ceasefire. And they attacked and murdered babies, children, women, attacked a music concert and everything. It’s outrageous. From now on, it’s been very clear that Israel would very much want there to be peace, but they’ve made it very clear that after October 7th, that’s just not possible so long as Hamas is allowed to exist.
I understand the impulse to take the Principal Skinner approach to learning about something a younger generation does and declaring that “no, it’s the children who are wrong,” but is that helpful?
I don’t think so, and I really don’t understand the impulse among some elected officials and political commentators to sneer at them about it. This seems especially odd from a senator whose 2022 campaign relied heavily on social media, so much so that the New York Times published a glowing profile of Annie Wu Henry, Fetterman’s 2022 “TikTok Whisperer,” that included a section labeled “Trust Young People.”
What a 180!
But this post isn’t about Fetterman. Not really, at least. This post is about a narrative that a number of politicians and pundits have latched onto about TikTok.
Earlier in the year, there was a renewed interest in banning TikTok. Pew Research Center found that in March, half of Americans supported banning the app (50% supported a ban, 22% opposed, and 28% were unsure). Since then, support for banning the platform has cratered, with support for a ban dropping to 38% (27% now oppose and 35% are unsure). This is just a wild guess, but I think the decline in support for a ban at least partially has to do with the lack of a convincing argument for it. In March, calls to ban TikTok were related to vague fears about privacy and national security on the basis of it being a Chinese-owned app. Now, those who are still pushing for a ban have pivoted to arguing it should be banned for being biased against Israel (if biased algorithms were reason enough to ban an app, social media wouldn’t exist, generally), as Fetterman’s criticism nods to. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) wrote a piece forand herwebsite titled, “Why Do Young Americans Support Hamas? Look at TikTok,” arguing that the app is “digital fentanyl made by China” that is “brainwashing our youth against the country and our allies.”
There’s no proven basis for these claims of bias. At Rolling Stone, EJ Dickson has a great piece addressing the question of whether or not TikTok somehow has an anti-Israel bias. There’s no evidence that TikTok itself is prioritizing pro-Palestinian content over pro-Israeli content.
At Vox, Rebecca Jennings writes:
To claim that TikTok is intentionally spoon-feeding pro-Palestine videos to young people is to misunderstand what TikTok is, who uses it, and what those people are already more likely to believe. Of TikTok’s estimated 150 million US monthly active users, about 60 percent are between the ages of 16 to 24, and another 26 percent are between 25 and 44. It is an app dominated by young people, and young people happen to sympathize with Palestine.
Before the Hamas attacks on October 7, Americans were already beginning to side more with the Palestinian cause, but this year for the first time, Democrats say they are more sympathetic to Palestinians (49 percent) than Israelis (38 percent), according to a Gallup survey from spring 2023. Support for Israel is lowest among younger Americans, with 42 percent supporting Palestinians and 40 percent supporting Israelis. The war exacerbated that difference: From mid-October to mid-November, support for Palestine among young voters jumped from 26 percent to 52 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Though most Americans still support Israel (a recent NPR poll showed 65 percent of adults saying that the US should show public support for Israel), the divide is growing, causing large rifts within cultural institutions and the administration under President Biden, who has continued to send weapons to Israel.
It’s no surprise, then, that pro-Palestine videos have shown up on many people’s For You pages. About a third of adults under 30 regularly consume news on the app, and the war has been by far the biggest news story in the world for the last two months. Instead, many have accused TikTok of platforming hate speech, conflating good-faith critiques of Israel with hatred of Jews. The US has even aimed to codify this false equivalency: On December 5, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”
In other words, TikTok is just a reflection of the world around us. No, that doesn’t mean it’s free from hate and antisemitism. There’s plenty of that on TikTok, just as there’s plenty of it on X, Facebook, YouTube, and every other social platform. Part of the backlash to TikTok is, as Jennings noted, “the conflation of good-faith critiques of Israel with hatred of Jews.” If I had to guess, anti-Israel sentiment is on the rise among TikTok users because every day they’re getting glimpses of the horrors taking place right now in Gaza.
It doesn’t help to label people shocked and disgusted by the mass killing of civilians as “Hamas supporters,” as many TikTok critics have taken to doing. There are certainly a number of misguided and/or hateful people out there who do support Hamas, but it’s a gross overgeneralization to pretend as though this makes up anything close to a majority of Israel’s critics.
I was horrified by Hamas’ October 7th terrorist attack. Civilians are not legitimate military targets. What the people of Israel went through that day and every day since is truly unthinkable. I am also horrified by aspects of Israel’s response. Specifically, I am horrified by the killing of journalists, Israel’s “emphasis” on “damage and not on accuracy” in its bombing campaign that has killed thousands of Palestinians, and the dehumanizing way Israeli officials have talked about Palestinian civilians. This isn’t “taking a side,” this is saying that both military powers — Hamas’s fighters and Israel’s military — have engaged in some truly horrible acts. But just as my disgust over civilian casualties during the U.S.’s post-9/11 wars in the Middle East didn’t mean that I was a big fan of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, my disgust over the Israeli government’s handling of Gaza doesn’t mean I’m pro-Hamas (I am not2).
I don’t think it’s at all sustainable for elected officials to try to brush off the legitimate concerns held by their constituents by claiming they’ve been brainwashed by some evil Chinese app to think that civilian deaths are bad. Civilian deaths are bad, whether they’re the type that happened on October 7th or the type that happened in the month and a half since. Rushing to declare people trying to empathize with Palestinian civilians3
It’s impossible to tell how much of this TikTok bashing is based on a genuine belief that the app is secretly trying to “brainwash” American youth into opposing Israel in its war on Gaza and how much of it is just standard-issue ref-working to try to get TikTok to put its thumb on the scale to create an anti-Palestinian bias on the app. It doesn’t really matter, though, I suppose.
Banning the app would be a monumentally boneheaded move. Over at’snewsletter, Harry Pugh has painstakingly documented all the times politicians have “saved” kids from new technology. You won’t be shocked to learn that it doesn’t tend to work out the way the politicians think it will.
If we actually want to find a way forward, we need to have more discussions. Actual discussions. That’s just not happening right now. After actor and general dumbass Michael Rapaport tweeted, “Everybody Loves Douglas!!!” DouglasKMurray 🦾🇮🇱🦾🇮🇱🦾,” writer Wajahat Ali wrote back, “White nationalists, Islamophobes and antisemites really love Douglas Murray. Congrats, MichaelRapaport.” Did Rapaport respond with, “Uh oh, what don’t I know about this guy I’m cheerfully posing for a photo with?” No, of course not. He responded with this:
In what world is that productive? I’ve never seen Ali post anything antisemitic. But hey, he’s Muslim and he’s criticized Israel’s bombing of Gaza, so according to Rapaport, that means he must be a “Jew Hater.”
How are we supposed to resolve differences when that’s the jump people make? I get that this is Rapaport’s whole personality, but this was wild to see. Murray, criticism of whom will get you labeled a “Jew Hater” by Rapaport, has ranted about there being a “war on white people” and has said that acceptance of trans people, people like me, is “an end-of-empire discussion,” which is to say that it may lead to “the end of America.” Have you ever had your existence cited as a sign of the end of society? I have, repeatedly, and it really sucks. But hey, apparently you can’t even say that it’s a bad look to pal around with guys like Murray without getting screamed at by a guy who has convinced himself that anything short of unconditional support for a foreign military makes you a “Jew Hater.” Frankly, it’s offensive. Israelis and Palestinians both deserve peace, safety, and happiness. And criticizing a man who has argued that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition” shouldn’t result in someone screaming back at you that you’re antisemitic. These shouldn’t be controversial positions.
That’s it for me today. I’ll be back with a couple more editions of TPA before Christmas, but if you’re headed out of town before then, I want to say thank you for reading and supporting my work.
Breaking down the 72% number a bit: 45% of people between 18-29 believe Biden is too supportive of Israel, 6% think he’s too pro-Palestinian, and 22% think he’s got it “about right” (but disapprove of his handling of it, anyway).
I believe that every single person who played a role in planning or carrying out the October 7th attack should be brought to justice. I do not believe that Palestinian civilians who did not participate should be held accountable for the crimes of the criminal group running the country. It’s extremely frustrating when people hear that take and go, “Oh, so you think Israel should just disappear!?!?” Like… no. Of course not. It just shouldn’t wipe out Gazan civilians! This shouldn’t be difficult to understand.
By all means, if someone is openly praising Hamas or spouting actual antisemitic stuff, go ahead and tell them off. I’m not talking about those people here. I’m talking about more general concerns about what’s happening over there.