Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’ went viral after a journalist posted TikTok movies to X


On Monday, a TikTok person with 371 followers, utilizing the display identify “_monix2,” posted a video the place she learn elements of Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” through which the late terrorist chief mentioned his killings of almost 3,000 Individuals within the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults had been justified by the USA’ help of Israel’s “occupation” of Palestine.

By Wednesday evening, the letter had turn into some extent of debate amongst left-wing creators on the wildly common video app, with some saying its critiques of American overseas coverage had opened their eyes to a historical past they’d by no means realized.

However the letter didn’t rank amongst TikTok’s prime developments. Movies with the #lettertoamerica hashtag had been seen about 2 million occasions — a comparatively low depend on a wildly common app with 150 million accounts in the USA alone.

Then that night, the journalist Yashar Ali shared a compilation he’d product of the TikTok movies in a publish on X, previously Twitter. That publish has been considered greater than 28 million occasions. By Thursday afternoon, when TikTok introduced it had banned the hashtag and dozens of comparable variations, TikTok movies tagged #lettertoamerica had gained greater than 15 million views.

The letter’s unfold sparked a deluge of commentary, with some worrying that TikTok’s customers have been being radicalized by a terrorist manifesto, and TikTok’s critics arguing it was proof that the app, owned by the Chinese language tech big ByteDance, had been secretly boosting propaganda to a captive viewers of American youth.

However the letter’s unfold additionally mirrored the bedeviling realities of recent social media, the place younger folks — a lot of whom have been born after 9/11 — share and obtain info on fast-paced smartphone apps designed to make movies go viral, no matter their content material.

It additionally confirmed how efforts to suppress such info can backfire. Most of the movies on TikTok have been posted after the British newspaper The Guardian, which had hosted a duplicate of bin Laden’s letter, eliminated it. Some TikTokers mentioned the elimination was proof of the letter’s knowledge and significance, main them to additional amplify it in consequence.

“Don’t flip the long-public ravings of a terrorist into forbidden information, one thing folks really feel excited to go rediscover,” Renee DiResta, a analysis supervisor on the Stanford web Observatory who has suggested Congress on on-line disinformation, wrote Thursday in a publish on Threads. “Let folks learn the assassin’s calls for — that is the person some TikTok fools selected to glorify. Add extra context.”

TikTok spokesman Alex Haurek mentioned Thursday that the corporate was “proactively and aggressively” eradicating movies selling the letter for violating the corporate’s guidelines on “supporting any type of terrorism” and mentioned it was “investigating” how the movies bought onto its platform.

Haurek mentioned that the #lettertoamerica hashtag had been connected to 274 movies that had garnered 1.8 million views on Tuesday and Wednesday, earlier than “the tweets and media protection drove folks to the hashtag.” Different hashtags, for comparability, dwarfed dialogue of the letter on the platform: Throughout a latest 24-hour interval, #journey movies had 137 million views, #skincare movies had 252 million views and #anime movies had 611 million views, Haurek mentioned.

Ali mentioned he made the compilation video Wednesday after seeing “1000’s” of the movies and deliberately not noted the “most incendiary examples” as a result of he didn’t need the compilation to be faraway from Instagram, the place he additionally posted it.

He agreed the hashtag had by no means trended on TikTok however disputed the concept that the variety of movies posted there had been “small,” saying, “Certain, within the context of a worldwide platform. However not sufficiently small to be minuscule or not vital.”

A lot of the movies have since been eliminated by TikTok, making it troublesome to get a full tally. However a seek for the letter Thursday morning by a Washington Submit reporter revealed round 700 TikTok movies, only some of which bought greater than 1 million views.

Such excessive view counts are widespread on TikTok, the place movies are served up in speedy style and the common U.S. person watches for greater than an hour a day. One viral video final month, through which a younger lady mentioned the ache of a 9-to-5 job, has greater than 3 million views and 280,000 likes.

The movies featured many individuals saying they’d identified little about bin Laden and have been questioning what they’d been taught about American involvement world wide. Some mentioned they have been “attempting to return to life as regular” after studying it; in a single video, a person scrolled via the complete letter and mentioned, “We’ve been lied to our total lives.”

However whereas many pointed to bin Laden’s feedback on Palestine, few highlighted the letter’s extra excessive criticism of Western “immorality and debauchery,” together with “acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, playing and buying and selling with curiosity.”

Many commenters additionally criticized giving the letter consideration or labored to remind people who bin Laden had preached an antisemitic, sexist ideology that led to 1000’s of deaths. On the “_monix2” video, one commenter mentioned, “You guys Bin Laden wrote this. Do y’all know what he did. What’s unsuitable with y’all [oh my God. I guess] we’re supporting terrorism as of late.” (Makes an attempt to succeed in the @_monix2 account have been unsuccessful.)

Charlie Winter, a specialist in Islamist militant affairs and director of analysis on the intelligence platform ExTrac, mentioned in an interview Thursday that he was “frankly actually fairly shocked on the response” to the letter, which he described as “a sort of core doctrinal textual content” for each al-Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorist group.

Along with long-standing grievances, the letter comprises “blatant language that’s clearly calling for acts of genocide … [and] for killing noncombatants in any nation that’s democratic and is preventing towards a Muslim-majority state,” he mentioned.

“It’s not the letter that’s going viral. It’s a selective studying of elements of the letter that’s going viral,” he mentioned. “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 need to see.”

The letter’s unfold on-line was celebrated Thursday by customers on al-Qaeda boards, in keeping with SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks on-line extremism. One person Thursday wrote that Islamist militants ought to capitalize on the chance, saying, “I hope you all are seeing ongoing storm on Social Media. … We should always publish increasingly content material.”

A number of the TikTok creators who shared the letter posted follow-up movies saying they didn’t help terrorism or violence. One of many first TikTok creators to share it, and who spoke to The Submit on the situation that her identify not be included within the story, mentioned she had inspired folks to learn it for “instructional functions.”

She mentioned she didn’t “condone nor justify” bin Laden’s actions and was “distancing [herself] from this complete scenario.” “It’s a tragic world if we can not even learn a public doc, merely to teach ourselves, with out being smeared on-line,” she mentioned.

TikTok has confronted criticism and requires a nationwide ban because of the reputation of pro-Palestinian movies on the app in contrast with pro-Israel content material, despite the fact that Fb and Instagram present a comparable hole. In a video name organized by TikTok on Wednesday, first reported by the New York Occasions, some Hollywood actors and TikTok creators pushed firm executives to do extra to crack down on antisemitic content material.

However the concept that the “Letter to America” dialogue solely started on TikTok is challenged by Google knowledge, which present that search curiosity within the “bin Laden letter” started gathering final week, days earlier than it turned a subject of TikTok dialog.

And TikTok is much from the one place the place the letter has been mentioned. Although Instagram blocked searches for some hashtags, some movies associated to the letter — together with these essential of it — remained publicly viewable Thursday on the Meta-owned app.

On Thursday afternoon, searches for “letter to America” on Instagram have been nonetheless being given a “In style” tag. One publish, a collection of screenshots of the letter, had greater than 10,000 likes as of Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday, the letter and bin Laden’s identify have been additionally “trending matters” on X, the social community owned by Elon Musk. One tweet there from Wednesday — through which the author mentioned studying the letter was like feeling a “glass wall shatter,” and asks, “Is that this what ex cult members really feel like after they turn into self conscious” — remained on-line Thursday, with almost 3 million views.

The letter — an almost 4,000-word translation of the al-Qaeda chief’s feedback — had been initially posted in Arabic on a Saudi Arabian web site used to disseminate al-Qaeda messages. The Guardian initially revealed an English translation in 2002 alongside a information article that supplied extra element on the way it had begun circulating amongst “British Islamic extremists.”

Although The Guardian eliminated the letter on Wednesday, its substitute, a web page referred to as “Eliminated: doc,” had by Thursday turn into one of many most-viewed tales on the newspaper’s web site. Some TikTokers voiced anger on the newspaper for, within the phrases of 1, “actively censoring” info.

A spokesperson for the Guardian mentioned in a press release that the letter had been eliminated after it was “broadly shared on social media with out the complete context.”

The editors of the Guardian confronted a “no-win state of affairs” as soon as curiosity in bin Laden’s letter started to develop, Marco Bastos, a senior lecturer in Media and Communication at Metropolis, College of London, mentioned in a cellphone interview.

“In the event that they don’t take down the content material, the content material can be leveraged and will probably be mentioned, doubtlessly shared and goes to go viral — if not out of context, then actually exterior of the scope of the unique piece,” Bastos mentioned. “In the event that they take it down, they’re going to be accused, as they’re proper now, of censorship.”

On the time of publication, the editors “anticipated that this letter could be learn critically, you realize, adversarially … that you’d course of this inside the view — or the bias, in the event you favor — of the Western aspect of the occasions,” Bastos added. “And now it’s being consumed, distributed and shared to push an agenda that’s exactly the other of the one which it was initially meant for.”

Winter, the Islamist militant affairs specialist, mentioned he discovered it “sort of ironic” that the letter was being shared uncritically across the internet.

“Individuals who think about themselves to be essential shoppers of mainstream media are consuming this very uncritically and never enthusiastic about the context round it,” he mentioned. “Not enthusiastic about all the things that occurred simply over a yr earlier than it was revealed as properly, in any significant method.”

Bisset reported from London.


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