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 current 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 fact, one that’s faraway from its authentic context and coated in hyperbole. The panic over the letter is simply the most recent in an extended line of those types 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? Certain. Was it a wildly in style development amongst Gen Z teenagers again within the day? No. The identical goes for final 12 months’s panic about youngsters baking NyQuil in rooster as a way to go viral on TikTok.

What makes this TikTok panic particularly potent, nonetheless, is a mixture of elements. There’s bipartisan assist amongst US politicians to limit or ban TikTok as a nationwide safety threat. In a listening to earlier this 12 months, 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 common 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 anxiousness about what The Kids are as much as on-line.

In the meantime, bin Laden is a determine that elicits robust feelings — particularly within the West — for his position within the 9/11 terror assaults and the shadow the resultant battle on terror solid on American life. One of many issues the letter touches on, and one of many issues the movies centered 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 battle on Hamas, these feedback seem to have taken on new efficiency for some TikTok customers. As NBC Information reviews, many who’ve mentioned the letter haven’t stated that they assist bin Laden’s actions and his perpetration of the September 11 assaults, however word that it has made them view the US’s overseas coverage within the Center East extra critically.

It appears probably 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 truly started, we’re all listening 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 Put up 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.

Based on the Put up, TikTok movies with the hashtag #lettertoamerica had been seen about 2 million instances 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 instances, per the Put up. Ali has a giant, various, and politically well-connected following on X, giving his posts vast attain. Following his put up, TikToks with this hashtag had been seen 14.2 million instances 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 specialists 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 may very well 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 dearth of background supplied. The Guardian famous in a press release that the letter was “extensively 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 explanation for this matter’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 reviews 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 the US, and what the group desires from the US. It was revealed 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 the US’s assist of the creation of Israel and the occupation of Palestinian territories, amongst quite a lot of 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 all the pieces 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 pressured them to mirror on how historical past has framed the US’s culpability in geopolitics. “If in case you have learn it, let me know in case you are additionally going by way of an existential disaster on this very second, as a result of within the final 20 minutes, my total viewpoint on your complete life I’ve believed, and I’ve lived, has modified,” one consumer stated. And whereas a lot of the backlash has recommended that these posts are broadly synonymous with reward of bin Laden, some folks within the movies featured in Ali’s compilation have been centered 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 need to grasp the historical past of the Israel-Hamas battle. On the identical time, TikTok is gaining in reputation as a spot to study and perceive the information. Based on a current Pew Analysis ballot, the share of TikTok customers who usually 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 important of each Israel’s navy response and the US’s assist for it.

One professional advised the Washington Put up that a few of the customers sharing bin Laden’s letter have been probably 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, advised the Washington Put up. “And I don’t know whether or not it’s as a result of folks aren’t truly studying it or, once they’re studying it, they’re studying the bits that they wish to see.”


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