TikTok, Instagram, Facebook all show similar gaps in Israel, Palestinian hashtags

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When congressional Republicans this month reiterated their long-standing calls for a national ban on TikTok, they pointed to a data point they said was proof of the app’s sinister underpinnings: The number of TikTok videos with the hashtag #freepalestine is significantly higher than those with # stand against Israel.

That gap, they said, provided evidence that the app, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, was being used to promote propaganda and purge American viewers.

But Facebook and Instagram, TikTok’s US-based competitors, show a very similar gap, their data shows. On Facebook, the hashtag #freepalestine can be found on more than 11 million posts – 39 times more than those with #standwithisrael. On Instagram, the pro-Palestine hashtag can be found on 6 million posts, 26 times more than the pro-Israel hashtag.

The consistency of pro-Palestinian content across social networks, whether Chinese or American, debunks an argument that has become central to the latest wave of anti-TikTok rage in Washington: that The Chinese government is manipulating TikTok’s algorithm to play it up. -Palestine comments and that the app, which has 150 million users in the United States, should be banned throughout the country.

In an essay for a blog called The Free Press, Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin who heads a House committee dedicated to challenging China’s ruling Communist Party, said that the app was “brainwashing us against the country and our friends” with “rampant pro-Hamas propaganda” and was “perhaps the greatest work of malign influence ever carried out.”

In last week’s Republican presidential primary debate, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said TikTok was “polluting the minds of America’s youth” with “antisemitic, horrible stuff that their algorithms pushing out at a gargantuan rate.” Representative Josh Gottheimer (NJ), a Democrat, said last week that the Department of Justice “should monitor China’s use of TikTok as a propaganda tool to influence Americans.” “

TikTok has repeatedly said that the Chinese government does not influence its recommendation algorithm and content rules, and TikTok’s critics have not provided any evidence beyond noting that the hashtag pro-Palestine found on more videos than the pro-Israel hashtag, based on TikTok’s own. data.

In a blog post on Monday, TikTok said it had been unfairly singled out for criticism based on “misinformation and mischaracterization,” arguing that it was a “deeply flawed” way to compare video hashtag counts for app content evaluation. “Our recommendation algorithm does not ‘take sides,'” the statement said.

Hashtags offer a very limited and simplistic way to analyze the nature of social media conversations because users often add them to videos that are unrelated to the issue or trying to make the point they are making. to criticize.

Comparing the reactions to pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian hashtags around the world, as TikTok’s critics have done, ignores the fact that many of the videos come from predominantly Muslim countries with high levels of Palestinian support or, as TikTok has argued. , that the hashtag #standwithisrael is newer than #freepalestine so less time has been added to people’s posts.

The comparison also ignores the generational gap that has existed for a long time about people’s attitude towards the Israel-Gaza conflict. Young Americans have consistently shown support for the Palestinians in Pew Research surveys, including a 2014 poll, four years before TikTok launched in the United States. Fifty-two percent of voters between 18 and 34, the age range most popular with TikTok, said in a Quinnipiac University poll this month that they disapproved of Israel’s response to the Hamas terror attack .

The Israel-Gaza war prompts a debate about TikTok’s role in shaping public opinion

Looking at just the hashtags #standwithisrael and #freepalestine also fails to review the many other videos that use other hashtags, or none at all. In the United States within the last 30 days, videos with the hashtags #Israel and #Palestine have both received approximately 2 billion views. On TikTok in the United States within the last 30 days, #freepalestine has appeared on 233,000 posts, 38 times more than videos tagged with #standwithisrael.

The hashtag #Palestine was posted on 237,000 posts in that period, about 50,000 more than #Israel, but the same in total views shows that the average #Israel video was viewed more often, which ‘ furthering the arguments of TikTok’s critics. In its blog post, TikTok said that the average #standwithisrael video received more views in the United States than the average #freepalestine video.

“Millions of people in regions such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia account for a significant proportion of comments on hashtags,” TikTok said in its post. “So, there’s more content with #freepalestine and #standwithpalestine and more overall views. It’s easy to choose hashtags to support a false narrative about the platform.”

Both TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, ban content promoting Hamas. TikTok said it removed more than 925,000 videos for promoting Hamas or violating the app’s policies on violence, hate speech, misinformation and terrorism between the October 7 attack and the end of the month.

Both companies have also been accused by pro-Palestinian supporters of tweeting their content in favor of Israel – contrary to what TikTok’s critics have accused. TikTok said it has measures in place to prevent algorithmic manipulation and “does not ‘promote’ one side of an issue over another.” Meta said in a statement last month, “There is no truth in the suggestion that we are suppressing voices on purpose”.

When asked to comment on the prevalence of pro-Palestinian content on most major social networks, not just TikTok, the app’s critics in Congress said they were still seeing it. as particularly dangerous because of its foreign origins.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who called the pro-Palestinian positions on TikTok to application “TikTok is a tool that China uses to … reduce the terrorism of Hamas,” a statement on Monday said that national security officials see TikTok as an “unprecedented threat.”

Gottheimer said in a statement that “it is clear that China is using TikTok as a propaganda tool to influence Americans” but did not provide additional evidence.

A person close to the Select Committee on the CCP, which Gallagher leads, said the trend of pro-Palestinian content being viewed more than pro-Israel content on social networks was a cause for concern. in general, but Gallagher had only called out TikTok in his social media. essay because of the committee’s mandate to investigate China’s influence.

Despite flaws in the hashtag comparison, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called the loophole on the Senate floor Wednesday when he asked for unanimous approval to ban TikTok across the States. United.

He pointed to protests in colleges and high schools after the Hamas attack and said: “Where are they getting this propaganda? They are finding it on TikTok. “

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called Hawley’s ban proposal “McCarthyist paranoia… spreading hysteria and fear of a crazy communist revolution from the People’s Republic of China.”

The comment “comes as the GOP simultaneously complains about liberal US social media companies shutting down and censoring conservatives,” Paul said. “Without irony, many of those same ‘conservatives’ are now struggling to censor scenes they don’t like. “

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