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TikTok and Bin Laden’s letter

An old letter from Bin Laden is causing a stir on TikTok: young people are picking up on his conspiracy myths and making a connection to the Middle East war. The platform reacts, politicians are alarmed.

Arne Bartram

The videos are shocking some people in the US: young Americans in their 20s who express understanding for Islamist terrorism and question their previous opinions about their own country.

A woman says on TikTok: “I was just a little child on September 11th and always thought those responsible were terrorists. But who are the real terrorists? Who terrorizes people?” Other users of the social media platform also make similar comments: “The events of September 11th were the consequence of our government abandoning other countries,” says a woman in a video.

Old letter from Bin Laden causes excitement

The reason is a letter that is over 20 years old, probably written by Osama bin Laden. In it, the now dead terrorist leader explains his view of the Middle East conflict, including anti-Semitic conspiracy myths. The USA is controlled by Jews and terrorist attacks against the West are part of a liberation struggle.

Young American TikTok users are spreading the content and urging others to read the letter online. How can it be that, in the country of 9/11, of all places, young people publicly express understanding for the mastermind of the attacks?

The trigger is the current escalation in the Middle East conflict, says Inga Trauthig, propaganda researcher at the University of Texas at Austin: “The videos are part of a polarized American public in which there is very little empathy for the ‘other side’.” The conflict is simplified as a battle of good against evil, oppressor against the oppressed, colonialists against anti-colonialists. “This view is then reflected in the discussions about the war,” says Trauthig. And not just online but also offline.

“Ban TikTok”

Hatred is increasing in the USA – including among young people. Because of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents, even the US Department of Education is investigating whether schools and universities have violated anti-discrimination rules. Some politicians blame propaganda on social media for the development.

For them, the outrage over the Bin Laden videos is a reason to shoot against the Chinese platform TikTok in particular: “If someone on TikTok can claim that Bin Laden – who killed thousands of innocent civilians – was in the right, that is “It’s disgusting,” said Republican Mike Gallagher on Fox News. “It’s one more reason we should ban or force-sell TikTok before a Chinese Communist Party-controlled app checkmates the free world by taking control of the dominant media platform in America.”

Scientist: Problems with Instagram and X too

After protests, TikTok blocked the videos in which Bin Laden was trivialized – but criticism of the platform remains. Especially because it is becoming more and more influential in the USA. A new survey has shown that around a third of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 find out about the latest news on TikTok.

Nevertheless, Martin Riedl believes that just blaming this one platform for spreading propaganda is not enough. The Austrian is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee. There are also problems with US platforms such as Instagram or X (formerly Twitter), he says. He worries that in times of crisis like now, platforms fire people who were responsible for moderating content.

Riedl therefore believes it is important to put more pressure on the platforms to delete harmful content. On the other hand, more media literacy is also needed so that users can better recognize propaganda on social media platforms.

Arne Bartram, ARD Washington, tagesschau, November 18, 2023 7:02 a.m

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