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TikTok becomes vital weapon in Palestinians' digital war

As Twitter and Facebook suspended accounts supporting the Palestinian cause in the recent escalation, Palestinians turned to TikTok to mobilize international sympathy and fight the Israeli narrative.
SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Millions of Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause have posted videos with the hashtag #Free_Palestine on TikTok. The app, which is usually used for entertainment, promotes content based on geography.

A number of celebrities rallied behind the Palestinian cause, showing support online as Palestinians conveyed their messages and mobilized international sympathy by reporting events live for the entire world to see.

The Chinese application also had a major hand in spreading news about Sheikh Jarrah and the rest of Jerusalem due to the relative restriction of Palestinian content on other applications such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The virtual conflict heated up before the actual exchange of fire in Gaza, with the hashtags #SaveSheikhJarrah and #GazaUnderAttack reaching millions of users.

On May 19, senior defense correspondent for Israel Hayom Yoav Limor noted that there is a “huge and worrying gap” between the #GazaUnderAttack and #IsraelUnderAttack hashtags on social media.

On May 17, Israeli writer Micky Levy reported for Walla that the military confrontation between Hamas and Israel backfired as videos of people waving the Palestinian flag got hundreds of thousands of views worldwide. Palestinian videos documenting protests in mixed cities inside Israel also went viral.

Levy explained that TikTok groups related content, such as videos with Palestinian or Israeli hashtags.

Izz ad-Din al-Akhras, a social media researcher for the Quds News Network, told Al-Monitor that the Palestinians, most of them young people, used TikTok before the recent fighting for entertainment. But they quickly exploited the platform to support the Jerusalem cause and the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, as well as to gather Arab and international support and sympathy, he said.

Akhras added that Palestinians were publishing videos about what was happening in Jerusalem in Hebrew and Israelis would respond to them, creating a contentious back-and-forth on the platform. Later, when the war broke out in Gaza, they continued to report from the ground and attracted sympathy and international support, he continued.

“The TikTok algorithm allows information to spread more easily … and reach a large number of people, including very diverse audiences,” Akhras explained.

He pointed out that TikTok’s most important feature is the ability to deliver content to all users in the same geographical environment. He further explained that TikTok's algorithms quickly learn to recognize related content and present it to diverse audiences.

“The current escalation and the events of Sheikh Jarrah marked users' first effective use of TikTok to support the Palestinian cause,” Akhras said, adding that Palestinians were able to attract support from international figures such as Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, Bella Hadid and Roger Waters, who have publicly expressed their support for the Palestinian cause.

Akhras pointed out that the Palestinians used TikTok to report the news as it happened, with Palestinians inside the cities of Ramla and Lod covering the clashes between the Palestinians and the Israeli army. He pointed out that Palestinians resorted to TikTok after other social media platforms blocked their content, saying that TikTok interfered the least.

“One cannot deny that Palestinian content is sometimes restricted or blocked, especially when pictures of the bombings, destruction and victims are posted, but [TikTok] barely did that, compared to other platforms,” he said.

“Palestine has definitely won the war on TikTok because [Palestinians] support a just cause and present direct content, leading to millions expressing solidarity with it,” Akhras noted.

Iyad al-Rifai, director of a digital rights group called the Sada Social Center, told Al-Monitor, “A new method has emerged to support the Palestinian cause with content focusing on humanizing it: publishing short and impactful videos [to attract] great global sympathy.”

“Recently, Israeli [Defense] Minister Benny Gantz met with a number of officials at Facebook and TikTok, urging them to take quick measures to combat Palestinian content and remove any content that incites violence against Israel,” he noted.

“After the meeting, the Quds News Network's TikTok account was banned. TikTok may be better for the Palestinians than Facebook and Twitter, but no platform is entirely innocent of interfering in Palestinian content,” Rifai explained.

He pointed out that Israel is very disturbed by the world paying attention to Gaza because of these platforms, stressing that Palestinians were able to build on the digital momentum and recruit influencers in support of the cause. He added that at one point, tweets using Palestinian hashtags reached 8 million within an hour.

Rifai attributed this success to previous experiences in which Palestinians learned how to manage content on these platforms and bring together volunteers to help create appropriate content that does not violate the policies of those platforms, so accounts and posts are not blocked or removed.

Mohammed Abdel Wahab, a TikTok user from Gaza, told Al-Monitor that he had posted a number of videos of the bombing and destruction of Gaza, but the videos were deleted for violating TikTok policy. He said he now posts short videos commenting on the cause and uses abstract imagery rather than showing the violence directly.

Abdel Wahab added that TikTok remains the best social media platform for Palestinian content, and it showed during the recent escalation in Gaza.

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