In a striking example of social media's dark power, TikTok recently became a platform for rekindling sympathy towards Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, through the viral spread of his two-decade-old "Letter to America."
The letter, a diatribe against United States (US) policies and its support for Israel, purportedly penned by the notorious al-Qaeda leader in 2002, has been circulating on TikTok, garnering significant attention.
According to reports, the hashtag #lettertoamerica amassed millions of views.
The content of the letter, which includes accusations against the US for its support of Israel and the perceived oppression of Palestinians, has resonated with some users.
A New York-based lifestyle influencer, in a video viewed more than 1.6 million times, urged others to read the letter, stating it changed her "entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived."
This phenomenon is not just a reflection of the platform's reach among young Americans, but also raises concerns about the ease with which misinformation and extremist views can be propagated.
TikTok, known for its popularity with a majority of Americans under 30, as per a KFF survey, has become a fertile ground for such content.
The platform's design, which makes it difficult to precisely measure the popularity or widespread nature of a sentiment, further complicates the issue.
The spread of bin Laden's letter on TikTok has prompted the platform to take action, stating that content promoting the letter violates its rules against supporting any form of terrorism.
However, the effectiveness of these measures is debatable, given the rapid spread and high engagement the letter received.
Guardian, which first published a translated copy of the letter in 2002, removed it from its website after TikTok users linked directly to the document, citing the lack of full context in its recent circulation.
The White House has condemned the online trend, with deputy press secretary Andrew Bates calling it an insult to the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.
"There is never a justification for spreading the repugnant, evil, and antisemitic lies that the leader of al-Qaeda issued just after committing the worst terrorist attack in American history," Bates stated.
Amid these controversies, there have been growing demands for bans on TikTok, especially in the US. Concerns about data privacy, the potential for foreign influence, and the spread of harmful content have led to bipartisan calls for stricter regulation or outright prohibition of the app.
These concerns are not new; as early as 2020, the Trump administration attempted to ban TikTok, citing national security concerns, although these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
The Joe Biden administration has also scrutinised the app, reflecting ongoing apprehensions about its influence and operations.
As TikTok continues to grow as a source of news for young Americans — with nearly a third of Americans ages 18-29 regularly getting news from the platform, according to Pew Research — the US establishment is gradually growing ever more nervous about a Chinese Trojan horse.
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