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The TikTok controversy over Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” defined


This week, movies that includes former al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s 2002 missive “Letter to America” have been posted to TikTok, main a large swath of politicians, households of 9/11 victims, and influencers to sentence customers creating the clips — and the app itself.

The story goes like this: TikTokers are “going viral” for sharing bin Laden’s arguments, and that’s renewing calls to ban the app and feeding a latest concern that TikTok is indoctrinating Gen Z with pro-Hamas propaganda. The difficulty is, that story’s not totally true. Whereas some TikTokers actually have been posting movies urging others to learn the letter and getting modest views, these movies solely made up a “tiny, tiny nook” of TikTok, as Jason Koebler, one of many earlier reporters to dig into the movies, defined in a put up on X.

The controversy over the movies is a reminder that, typically, an ethical panic stems from a kernel of reality, one that’s faraway from its unique context and coated in hyperbole. The panic over the letter is simply the newest in an extended line of those kinds of social media-driven scares in regards to the risks of the web, which tended to create a false sense of frenzy. Did any youngsters in any respect movie themselves consuming Tide Pods for views? Positive. Was it a wildly fashionable pattern amongst Gen Z teenagers again within the day? No. The identical goes for final yr’s panic about youngsters baking NyQuil in hen with a purpose to go viral on TikTok.

What makes this TikTok panic particularly potent, nonetheless, is a mixture of components. There’s bipartisan help amongst US politicians to limit or ban TikTok as a nationwide safety danger. In a listening to earlier this yr, lawmakers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew over the app’s ties to China (TikTok’s guardian firm, ByteDance, is a Chinese language firm). And though TikTok says that the typical age of its 150 million energetic customers within the US is 31, the platform retains a deep affiliation with youth tradition. This makes it the perfect breeding floor for nervousness about what The Kids are as much as on-line.

In the meantime, bin Laden is a determine that elicits sturdy feelings — particularly within the West — for his function within the 9/11 terror assaults and the shadow the resultant struggle on terror solid on American life. One of many issues the letter touches on, and one of many issues the movies targeted on, is Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. The letter cites Israeli actions towards Palestinians, and the US’s allyship with Israel, as justification for al-Qaeda’s assaults on the US. Within the wake of Hamas’s assault on Israel and Israel’s struggle on Hamas, these feedback seem to have taken on new efficiency for some TikTok customers. As NBC Information studies, many who’ve mentioned the letter haven’t stated that they help bin Laden’s actions and his perpetration of the September 11 assaults, however notice that it has made them view the US’s overseas coverage within the Center East extra critically.

It appears doubtless that statements, tweets, and articles expressing outrage about TikTok personalities praising the letter went extra viral than any of the movies in query. No matter how this story really started, we’re all being attentive to it now.

The outrage over the bin Laden “Letter to America” TikTok movies, briefly defined

As with many tales about viral traits, the unique supply of curiosity within the bin Laden letter is unclear. The Washington Publish famous {that a} small account on TikTok had posted one of many earlier movies on Monday, although its reporters write that Google search curiosity within the missive had been rising for days earlier than movies in regards to the bin Laden letter started to flow into on social media.

In line with the Publish, TikTok movies with the hashtag #lettertoamerica had been seen about 2 million occasions as of Wednesday night, a quantity the publication described as a “comparatively low” determine given the 150 million accounts on the app within the US. On Wednesday evening, social media influencer Yashar Ali posted a compilation of those posts on X that was seen 38 million occasions, per the Publish. Ali has a massive, numerous, and politically well-connected following on X, giving his posts large attain. Following his put up, TikToks with this hashtag had been seen 14.2 million occasions as of Thursday morning.

With all these views got here backlash. The White Home criticized these creating, watching, and sharing the movies: “There may be by no means a justification for spreading the repugnant, evil and antisemitic lies that the chief of Al Qaeda issued simply after committing the worst terrorist assault in American historical past,” Andrew J. Bates, a deputy White Home press secretary, stated in a press release to the New York Occasions. “Nobody ought to ever insult the two,977 American households nonetheless mourning family members by associating themselves with the vile phrases of Osama bin Laden.”

Slate author Fred Kaplan was amongst the media consultants and political observers who believed that those that are sharing the letter could also be doing a selective studying that disregarded different provisions, together with its broader “assault on the fashionable secular world,” justification for violence towards civilians, and antisemitic statements. Far-right lawmakers — lots of whom backed former President Donald Trump’s efforts to ban the app — have additionally seized on the unfold of this letter to attempt to reignite criticism of TikTok and requires a ban. As a result of the app is owned by a Chinese language guardian firm, some lawmakers have raised considerations that it could possibly be used to amplify anti-American content material and propaganda, an allegation TikTok has denied.

In response to this outrage, the Guardian, which had hosted an English translation of the letter since 2002, eliminated it from its web site, citing the shortage of background offered. The Guardian famous in a press release that the letter was “broadly shared on social media with out the complete context. Due to this fact we determined to take it down and direct readers as a substitute to the information article that initially contextualized it.”

For his half, Ali — in addition to CNN correspondent Donie O’Sullivan — disputes the implication that his video was the only reason behind this subject’s virality. TikTok has additionally pushed again towards the concept the bin Laden movies went viral in any respect, whereas additionally taking down movies selling the letter noting that these movies violate “guidelines on supporting any type of terrorism.”

“The variety of movies on TikTok is small and studies of it trending on our platform are inaccurate,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe added in a press release to NBC Information. “This isn’t distinctive to TikTok and has appeared throughout a number of platforms and the media.”

What’s within the “Letter to America”

The 2002 letter tries to reply the questions of why al-Qaeda is opposing and preventing america, and what the group needs from the US. It was printed after the terrorist group killed practically 3,000 Individuals on September 11, 2001.

Bin Laden argues that the rationale for the group’s violence is “since you assault us and proceed to assault us,” citing america’s help of the creation of Israel and the occupation of Palestinian territories, amongst quite a few different overseas coverage actions together with America’s sanctions on Iraq and bombing of Afghanistan. It additionally requires extra folks to grow to be adherents to Islam and criticizes the US for every thing from its purported “acts of immorality” to its local weather coverage to its remedy of detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

In its response to those two questions, the letter additionally makes an attempt to justify the killing of civilians, makes use of a number of antisemitic tropes, and assaults homosexual folks.

Of their posts, some TikTok customers say that studying the letter has compelled them to mirror on how historical past has framed the US’s culpability in geopolitics. “You probably have learn it, let me know in case you are additionally going via an existential disaster on this very second, as a result of within the final 20 minutes, my total viewpoint on all the life I’ve believed, and I’ve lived, has modified,” one consumer stated. And whereas a lot of the backlash has steered that these posts are broadly synonymous with reward of bin Laden, some folks within the movies featured in Ali’s compilation have been targeted extra on reflecting on America’s historic relations with the Center East than they have been on backing bin Laden’s actions.

This response has come as there was elevated scrutiny of Israel’s airstrikes and siege of Gaza, which have killed greater than 11,000 civilians, and a want to know the historical past of the Israel-Hamas battle. On the similar time, TikTok is gaining in reputation as a spot to find out about and perceive the information. In line with a latest Pew Analysis ballot, the share of TikTok customers who frequently get information on the app has doubled since 2020. Youthful folks, who’ve a big presence on TikTok, have additionally been among the many teams who’ve been most crucial of each Israel’s navy response and the US’s help for it.

One professional instructed the Washington Publish that a number of the customers sharing bin Laden’s letter have been doubtlessly specializing in elements that resonated with them whereas ignoring different elements that perpetuated damaging tropes and violence.

“It’s not the letter that’s going viral. It’s a selective studying of elements of the letter that’s going viral,” Charlie Winter, a specialist in Islamist militant affairs and director of analysis on the intelligence platform ExTrac, instructed the Washington Publish. “And I don’t know whether or not it’s as a result of folks aren’t really studying it or, after they’re studying it, they’re studying the bits that they wish to see.”




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