Social Media

Content Controversy: How Pro-Palestinian Narratives on TikTok Sparked Calls for a Ban

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives made a significant move against TikTok, passing a bill that puts the social media giant’s future in the country at risk. Owned by ByteDance, a China-based company, TikTok is now under pressure to be sold to a non-Chinese entity to avoid a total ban in the U.S. The bill saw overwhelming support in the House, with 352 members voting in favor, indicating a strong bipartisan concern over the platform’s operations and its implications for national security and data privacy.

The bill’s journey is far from over as it heads to the Senate, where its fate remains uncertain. However, the robust support from the House showcases the gravity of the issue at hand. This legislative move marks the most significant challenge TikTok has faced in the U.S., raising questions about its ability to continue operating without substantial changes to its ownership and data handling practices.

The core of the controversy lies in fears that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, could misuse American user data or censor content in line with the Chinese government’s directives. Despite TikTok’s assurances of data protection and their efforts to distance U.S. user data from Chinese influence—including routing data through servers in Singapore and the U.S., and opening a data center in Ireland—lawmakers remain unconvinced.

In a dramatic session last year, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced intense questioning by Congress, further highlighting the deep mistrust between U.S. officials and the social media platform. The bill demands ByteDance divest TikTok within 165 days, failing which, TikTok would face a ban, affecting its access to app stores and web-hosting services in the U.S.

The discussion brought to light several critical issues surrounding TikTok, its CEO Shou Zi Chew, and the relationship with its parent company, ByteDance, which is based in China. Highlights from the conversation include:

  • Concerns were raised about the connections between Chew, TikTok, and ByteDance, with Chew making efforts to dissociate himself and TikTok from ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party.
  • The conversation among U.S. legislators also focused on the negative impact of the platform, particularly regarding harmful content aimed at children and the propagation of false information.
  • The issue of self-harm and TikTok’s content moderation practices was a recurring topic, with specific instances cited, such as Congressman Gus Bilirakis presenting a video related to suicide and mentioning a tragic case from New York.
  • Defending TikTok, Chew pointed to the challenges common across social media platforms regarding content regulation and safety, asserting that TikTok strives to address and mitigate harmful content.
  • Data privacy emerged as another significant concern, with lawmakers questioning the potential for the Chinese government to access American users’ data through TikTok.
  • Chew sought to alleviate these concerns by discussing Project Texas, a plan aimed at ensuring all U.S. user data is stored domestically, thus enhancing data security.
  • He also addressed worries about the development and modification of TikTok’s code outside the U.S., assuring that American engineers would review any such code.

Throughout the discussion, Chew faced difficulties in fully conveying his points due to limited opportunities to respond to lawmakers’ queries and criticisms.

Critics argue that the bill could lead to a total ban on TikTok, stripping 170 million American users of their platform for expression and impacting businesses and creators who rely on it. The debate over TikTok’s future is part of a broader discussion on internet freedom, data privacy, and national security, with significant implications for how foreign-owned social media platforms operate in the U.S.

Previous attempts to ban TikTok, including an executive order by former President Donald Trump and state-level bans, have faced legal challenges, underscoring the complexity of addressing national security concerns without infringing on free speech rights. The current bill also faces skepticism from some sectors, including civil rights groups and some lawmakers who advocate for a more comprehensive approach to regulating social media rather than singling out TikTok.

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, the swift move to advance a particular bill may be largely attributed to concerns in Washington about the widespread dissemination of content on TikTok related to the genocide in Gaza.

Jacob Helbert, affiliated with the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, mentioned to WSJ that the resurgence of Congressional interest in the legislation stems from TikTok’s influence on public opinion.

WSJ disclosed that the announcement of legislative intentions by lawmakers took TikTok by surprise, given the wide endorsement the bill received. Helbert noted that the conflict in Gaza played a significant role in determining the strategy and the quick shift in stance.

Helbert pointed out to WSJ that the momentum to act against TikTok accelerated following an incident on October 7, where an attack in Israel by Hamas and the subsequent conflict in Gaza marked a pivotal moment in the campaign against the platform.

A Wall Street Journal survey revealed that approximately 60% of US voters disapprove of President Joe Biden’s handling of the conflict in Gaza, with only about 30% supporting Biden’s stance on the matter.

San Francisco-based data scientist and tech executive, Anthony Goldbloom, conducted an analysis of TikTok’s data, which showed that videos with pro-Palestinian hashtags significantly outnumbered those with pro-Israel hashtags, sometimes by a ratio of 69 to 1, according to WSJ.

Furthermore, Nikki Haley referenced Goldbloom’s findings during a Republican presidential primary debate, using it to support arguments for banning TikTok.

These developments illustrate the Biden administration’s concerns over the increasing solidarity among US citizens with Palestinians and its potential adverse effects on public opinion.

As the bill moves to the Senate, TikTok’s lobbying efforts are expected to intensify. The outcome of this legislative process will not only determine TikTok’s fate in the U.S. but also set a precedent for how the country navigates the intersection of technology, free expression, and national security in the digital age.

 

[1] Hale, E. (2024). Why has the US passed a bill to ban TikTok, and what’s next? [online] Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/3/14/why-has-the-us-passed-a-bill-to-ban-tiktok-and-whats-next.

[2] TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s Congress showdown: Five takeaways. (2023). BBC News. [online] 24 Mar. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/65047087.

[3] Huang, S.W., Georgia Wells and Raffaele (n.d.). WSJ News Exclusive | How TikTok Was Blindsided by U.S. Bill That Could Ban It. WSJ. [online] Available at: https://www.wsj.com/tech/how-tiktok-was-blindsided-by-a-u-s-bill-that-could-ban-it-7201ac8b.

Tariq Kurd was born and grew up in Hertfordshire. His family is originally from Halabja, Kurdistan but due to periodic migration currently reside across the Baluchistan region.
He has a BA Hons. in History from the Open University. Besides English, Tariq can speak Baluchi and Brahvi, he is also conversant in Persian and Pashto.
His has an eclectic range of interests including military and tribal history. Tariq lives in London and is currently studying Islamic apologetics through the Sapience Institute.