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#115 The Osama bin Laden TikTok Panic
He is not becoming Gen Z's Noam Chomsky
You are reading Understanding TikTok. My name is Marcus. I am an Internet researcher at HAW Hamburg, investigating TikTok. I should rather prepare some slides for MISDOOM 2023 – The 5th Symposium on Multidisciplinary International Symposium on Disinformation in Open Online Media happening in Amsterdam next week where i will present together with my stellar colleagues from University Münster on: Hijacking #Pride: How right-wing actors in Germany tried to piggyback on the pride-movement to spread patriotic and anti-queer narratives on TikTok.
But Osama bin Laden has been trending on TikTok. Well in fact. Not really. Let me guide you through the case…
📝 A letter to America (2023, calendar week 46)
In the last couple of days Osama bin Laden (founder of pan-Islamist militant organization al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people) of all people became an alleged TikTok star due to a manifesto (Letter to the American people) he published in 2002.
In fact “this was never a real thing on TikTok. Even though it has since snowballed into a full on moral panic” (Garbage Day).
A small number of TikTok users found a letter written by bin Laden and published by the Guardian in 2002 and thought that—despite it being full of antisemitic garbage and Islamic-fundamentalist nuttery—the late terrorist and al-Qaida leader made some good points in critiquing American foreign policy (Slate).
The Guardian made the unusual move Wednesday (Nov 15) to delete the 21-year-old letter written by Osama bin Laden from their site after several TikTokers urged followers to read the al Qaeda leader’s missive (The Wrap). Yes, we have a name for that: #Streisand.
A TikTok spokesperson told the Washington Post that only 274 videos used the hashtag on Tuesday (Nov 14) and Wednesday (Nov 15) before “tweets and media coverage drove people” to it. Videos with the #lettertoamerica hashtag [ by Wednesday night] had been seen about 2 million times — a relatively low count on a wildly popular app with 150 million accounts in the United States alone (Washington Post).
On Thursday Morning (Nov 16) 1:08 AM Yashar Ali, described by the LA Times as "part investigative journalist, part gossip columnist," posted a compilation of just eight such videos on his Twitter/X account, which is followed by over 700,000 people. His post went viral (currently 40.3M views) and finally cemented the idea of a trend on TikTok, where Gen Z reportedly worships Osama bin Laden in large numbers, among some journalists who still enjoy using the platform (Die Zeit).
Early Thursday (Nov 16), a search for #lettertoamerica showed videos with 14.2 million views. That is not very on TikTok! By midday, as TikTok sought to block the content, searches on the site for “osama bin laden,” “bin laden letter” and “osama letter” and the hashtag #lettertoamerica yielded no results on the “videos” tab of TikTok, though some videos were still viewable with some digging (New York Times). 17 hours(!) after the viral Yashar Ali tweet, TikTok Policy announced on X that: Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism.
Since then many videos have been deleted making it nearly impossible to get a detailed overview in retrospect as Ej Dickson and others have pointed out while a shortened and wrong narrative (The TikTok kids love Osama) will live on and fuel the moral panic around social media and platform usage. And it is already exploited: The Bin Laden Letter Is Being Weaponized by the Far Right (Wired).
The story has morphed from what should have been a weird curiosity … into a full-blown national scandal with dumb-dumb headlines getting written about it (Ryan Broderick, Garbage Day)
The case shows that even after around 15 years of experience with social media, many people still find it difficult to classify the actual relevance of the topics that are discussed there. (Titus Blome, Die Zeit)
People who don't use TikTok can't understand the decentralization and personalization of TikTok (Scott Nover, Slate)
[The Bin Laden letter] became popular much in the way that posts from accounts like @LibsofTikTok do, by giving users license, via a video ripped from elsewhere, to drop their inhibitions and rage out a little bit (John Herrman, New York Mag)
📯 What else
📌 Percentage of TikTok users who get their news from the app has nearly doubled since 2020 according to Pew (PEW)
📌 A TikTok Watermelon Filter Raising Money for Gaza (Time)
📌 JazzTok: Creativity, Community, and Improvisation on TikTok (D. Bondy Valdovinos Kaye)
📌 The lie of “deinfluencing” (Vox)
📌 TikTok was slammed for its pro-Palestinian hashtags. But it’s not alone. (Washington Post)
📌 Spotify users can save songs they hear on TikTok directly (Techcrunch)
📌 TikTok Is the New TV (Wired)
📌 Nepal to ban TikTok, alleges damaging social impact (Reuters)
Thanks for reading. Feel free to share. Speak soon.