Is TikTok responsible for Gen Z's hostility toward Israel and Jews?

An increasing number of young people get their news from the social media platform, which is dominated by pro-Palestinian content and misinformation about Israel

Last week, with bipartisan support, the United States House of Representatives voted to force the sale of TikTok, the video-sharing platform owned by ByteDance, a company under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, to non-Chinese owners, or face a ban in the U.S.

The loss of TikTok would have little to no impact on the lives of most mature Americans. But TikTok users are overwhelmingly young, and many are addicted to the platform for a spectrum of reasons — including, for many influencers and small businesses, their own financial benefit.

It is widely acknowledged that TikTok is a powerful force in shaping adolescent users’ self-perceptions and beliefs. The platform’s influence has been plausibly linked to devastating consequences for individuals, but also to the “mass formation” of unhealthy cultural trends.

TikTok’s algorithm is designed in such a way that the more people use it, the more focused, and often extreme, the content in their feeds tends to become.

New York teenager Chase Nasco threw himself in front of a train two years ago. His parents believe his despair was linked to TikTok bombarding him with over 1,000 unsolicited videos involving suicide and violence.

A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that 63 per cent of kids aged 13-17 use TikTok. Nearly half said they use TikTok “several times a day” or “almost constantly.”

A couple years ago, the Center for Countering Digital Hate set up several TikTok accounts based on 13-year-old profiles. In under three minutes, one of the accounts was fed content related to suicide. Within eight minutes, another received content on eating disorders.

Hamas’s Oct. 7 pogrom in southern Israel has revealed another pernicious trend on TikTok. Four weeks into the Gaza war, American venture capitalist Jeff Morris Jr. wrote a series of posts on Twitter, expressing alarm that the hashtag “#standwithpalestine” had three-billion views, while “#standwithisrael” only had 200 million.

“When I engaged with one post on TikTok supporting opposing views, my entire feed became aggressively anti-Israel,” he wrote, adding that it was as if he was “told to see this war with Israel being the evil side.”

Globally, pro-Palestine content dominates TikTok. In one 30-day period, #freepalestine racked up four-billion views, while the Arabic hashtag for “Palestine” received seven billion.

Jewish and Israeli employees at TikTok feel threatened. In early December, some of them told Fox Business that their work environment has become increasingly toxic since Oct. 7. They allege that their colleagues have openly expressed antisemitic and anti-Israel views on their internal messaging platform, Lark, and that TikTok’s 40,000 moderators have allowed antisemitic misinformation to proliferate.

These concerns were laid out in an open letter signed by more than 40 Jewish TikTok creators and celebrities, who claim the app “is not safe for Jewish users.” English actor Sacha Baron Cohen characterized the platform as having created “the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis.”

According to the Fox Business report, multiple screenshots from Lark show “the unabashed celebration by multiple TikTok employees, including those based in the U.S., of Hamas’ barbaric (Oct. 7) acts.” Fox concluded that these screenshots “support claims that those working as moderators for the short video-sharing app not only cheat the site’s algorithm to boost anti-Israel posts but also purposely turn a blind eye to obvious misinformation and disinformation.”

In its defence, TikTok claims the volume of pro-Palestinian videos on its platform just means that teens are more sympathetic to that cause than previous generations. It isn’t wrong. Gallup found that from 2011 to 2014, 51 per cent of millennial Democrats sided with Israelis over Palestinians. But between 2019 and 2023, that dropped to just 35 per cent.

Gen Z tends to be even more anti-Israel. In a recent Leger survey, a plurality of Canadians answered “Jews” to the question of who has been hardest hit by “expressions of hate” in the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre, an opinion that corresponds to objective evidence. But among those aged 18-24, nearly 63 per cent said Muslims were the victims of an “increase in hateful comments.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that many of them get their news from TikTok. A September survey from the Pew Research Centre found that nearly a third of Americans aged 18-29 regularly turn to the social media platform to get their news.

All things considered, it’s fair to ask: is TikTok the chicken or the egg in the global spike of Gen Z hostility toward Israel and Jews? We’ll be better placed to answer that question if the TikTok bill passes the U.S. Senate, and then hopefully forces TikTok to be passed to politically neutral and accountable hands.