Efforts by US to Crack Down on TikTok Spark Backlash Against Israel

Washington — The initial backlash came quickly.

Within hours of last week’s vote in the House of Representatives approving legislation that could lead to a ban of the popular TikTok app in the United States, anger and outrage poured onto multiple social media platforms.

Some of the anger targeted U.S. lawmakers who supported the bill. Some focused on China.

And a number of social media accounts, some with large followings, put the blame on Israel and pro-Jewish groups in the United States.

“A foreign government is influencing the 2024 election,” Briahna Joy Gray posted on X.

“I’m not talking about China, but Israel,” added the former national press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.


Jake Shields, a former mixed martial arts fighter who has used social media in the past to share his views on transgender issues, blamed the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

“The ADL said Tiktok Is a threat to Israel,” Shields posted on X. “AIPAC the Israeli lobby gave Dan Crebsahaw [sic] millions of dollars Now Crenshaw fights to ban TikTok.”

And journalist Glenn Greenwald said on X that the TikTok legislation gained momentum only after “Bipartisan DC became enraged so many Americans were allowed to criticize Israel” using the TikTok app.


Other posts and videos were quickly shared across other major platforms, including TikTok and Facebook.

U.S. officials contacted by VOA said the rush by some social media users to blame Israel or Jewish groups was not a surprise.

“Unfortunately, there are antisemitic people in America who will blame Israel and the Jewish people for anything, even Congress banning a Chinese-controlled app,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement to VOA.

“Their love for TikTok is no coincidence; it’s a tool used by the Chinese Communist Party to sow division and weaken our nation,” said Rubio, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a supporter of the legislation. “We can debate Middle East policy, but we must not tolerate hate or allow Communist China to manipulate our discourse.”

The FBI, which has warned repeatedly over the last several months both about the danger of TikTok and about a rising tide of antisemitism across the country, declined to comment, pointing to comments made by Director Christopher Wray at congressional hearings earlier this month.

“Americans need to ask themselves whether they want to give the Chinese government the ability to control access to their data, whether they want to give the Chinese government the ability to control the information they get through their recommendation algorithm,” Wray told House lawmakers during the annual Worldwide Threats hearing last week.

“When it comes to the algorithm and the recommendation algorithm and the ability to conduct influence operations, that is extraordinarily difficult to detect,” Wray added.

Researchers who track influence operations on social media, while wary, tell VOA that they have yet to see evidence that the spread of conspiracy theories blaming Israel or Jewish groups for the TikTok legislation is part of a concerted campaign.

“The period after 10/7 [Hamas terror attack on Israel] made clear that antisemitic conspiracies can spread rapidly across TikTok just by the nature of the platform’s algorithm, so no external coordination would be required as an explanation,” said Ben Dubow, president of Washington-based Omelas, which uses a combination of data collection, artificial intelligence and experts to track and analyze online disinformation and influence operations.

Dubow did not rule out the possibility that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, could be giving the anti-Israel and antisemitic posts more play if the Chinese government thought it might be helpful.

“The scant research available on TikTok’s algorithm often suggests ByteDance privileges content favorable to CCP [Chinese Communist Party] policy goals,” he said.

Omelas also found the conspiracy theories received some attention from other media outlets, including Russia-controlled RT and Qatar-based Al Jazeera.

“We’re seeing a few posts from RT and Al Jazeera tying the renewed push for a ban to TikTok’s role in the spread of ‘anti-Zionism’ in response to October 7,” Dubow said. “But none tying it explicitly to AIPAC and ADL.”

Geoff Roth, a professor of practice and journalism at the University of Houston, agreed the surge of social media posts echoing the Israel-TikTok narrative appeared to be “more organic.”

“The Israel conspiracy theory, as I like to put it, just seems to be coming from people who in general post stuff that is anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian,” he told VOA.

“It comes from different sides of the political spectrum,” Roth said. “But I think there’s people on both sides of the political spectrum that have a lot of anti-Israeli sentiment because of what’s going on in Gaza.”

Roth also noted that the theory tying the TikTok legislation to Israel and Jewish groups, while possibly the most prominent, is not the only narrative that gained traction following the bill’s passage in the House.

“There’s the narrative of security and concerns about the [Chinese]Communist Party and whether or not that [the legislation] is justified,” he said. “And then sort of the more far out things out there like, this is a Republican plot to get younger voters to be against Biden because if Biden signed it into law, he’s going to lose votes from younger people.”

One account on X pushing the Republican plot theory called the TikTok legislation “another trick.”

A second X account added, “I’d wager Republicans who just voted for a TikTok Ban will rename it the ‘Biden Ban the moment he signs it and within weeks that will be the official name and all anyone remembers.”


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