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 latest worry that TikTok is indoctrinating Gen Z with pro-Hamas propaganda. The subject is, that story’s not totally true. While 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 corner” of TikTok, as Jason Koebler, one of many earlier reporters to dig into the movies, defined in a publish 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 unique context and coated in hyperbole. The panic over the letter is simply the newest in an extended line of those kinds of social media-driven scares concerning 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? Sure. 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 children baking NyQuil in rooster as a way to go viral on TikTok.

What makes this TikTok panic particularly potent, nevertheless, is a mixture of elements. There’s bipartisan assist amongst US politicians to limit or ban TikTok as a nationwide safety danger. 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 firm). And though TikTok says that the common age of its 150 million lively customers within the US is 31, the platform retains a deep affiliation with youth tradition. This makes it the best breeding floor for anxiousness about what The Children are as much as on-line.

Meanwhile, bin Laden is a determine that elicits robust feelings — particularly within the West — for his function within the 9/11 terror assaults and the shadow the resultant battle on terror solid on American life. One of the issues the letter touches on, and one of many issues the movies targeted 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. In 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 News studies, many who’ve mentioned the letter haven’t mentioned that they assist bin Laden’s actions and his perpetration of the September 11 assaults, however observe that it has made them view the US’s overseas coverage within the Middle East extra critically.

It appears doubtless that statements, tweets, and articles expressing outrage about TikTok personalities praising the letter went extra viral than any of the movies in query. Regardless of how this story really started, we’re all being attentive to it now.

The outrage over the bin Laden “Letter to America” TikTok movies, briefly defined

As with many tales about viral tendencies, the unique supply of curiosity within the bin Laden letter is unclear. The Washington Post 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 concerning the bin Laden letter started to flow into on social media.

According to the Post, TikTok movies with the hashtag #lettertoamerica had been seen about 2 million occasions as of Wednesday night, a quantity the publication described as a “relatively low” determine given the 150 million accounts on the app within the US. On Wednesday night time, social media influencer Yashar Ali posted a compilation of those posts on X that was seen 38 million occasions, per the Post. Ali has a giant, numerous, and politically well-connected following on X, giving his posts vast attain. Following his publish, TikToks with this hashtag had been seen 14.2 million occasions as of Thursday morning.

With all these views got here backlash. The White House criticized these creating, watching, and sharing the movies: “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,” Andrew J. Bates, a deputy White House press secretary, mentioned in a press release to the New York Times. “No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden.”

Slate author Fred Kaplan was amongst the media consultants 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 “attack on the modern secular world,” justification for violence towards civilians, and antisemitic statements. Far-right lawmakers — a lot 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. Because the app is owned by a Chinese guardian firm, some lawmakers have raised issues that it could possibly 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 website, citing the dearth of background supplied. The Guardian famous in a press release that the letter was “widely shared on social media without the full context. Therefore we decided to take it down and direct readers instead to the news article that originally contextualized it.”

For his half, Ali — in addition to CNN correspondent Donie O’Sullivan — disputes the implication that his video was the only real reason for this subject’s virality. TikTok has additionally pushed again towards the concept that the bin Laden movies went viral in any respect, whereas additionally taking down movies selling the letter noting that these movies violate “rules on supporting any form of terrorism.”

“The number of videos on TikTok is small and reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe added in a press release to NBC News. “This is not unique to TikTok and has appeared across multiple 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 United States, and what the group needs from the US. It was revealed after the terrorist group killed almost 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.

Bin Laden argues that the rationale for the group’s violence is “because you attack us and continue to attack us,” citing the United States’s assist of the creation of Israel and the occupation of Palestinian territories, amongst quite a few different overseas coverage actions together with America’s sanctions on Iraq and bombing of Afghanistan. It additionally requires extra folks to turn out 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 therapy 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.

In their posts, some TikTok customers say that studying the letter has compelled them to mirror on how historical past has framed the US’s culpability in geopolitics. “If you have read it, let me know if you are also going through an existential crisis in this very moment, because in the last 20 minutes, my entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived, has changed,” one consumer mentioned. And whereas a lot of the backlash has advised that these posts are broadly synonymous with reward of bin Laden, some folks within the movies featured in Ali’s compilation have been targeted extra on reflecting on America’s historic relations with the Middle 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 want to know the historical past of the Israel-Hamas battle. At the identical time, TikTok is gaining in reputation as a spot to find out about and perceive the information. According to a latest Pew Research ballot, the share of TikTok customers who often get information on the app has doubled since 2020. Younger folks, who’ve a big presence on TikTok, have additionally been among the many teams who’ve been most crucial of each Israel’s navy response and the US’s assist for it.

One knowledgeable advised the Washington Post that a few of the customers sharing bin Laden’s letter have been doubtlessly specializing in elements that resonated with them whereas ignoring different elements that perpetuated damaging tropes and violence.

“It’s not the letter that is going viral. It’s a selective reading of parts 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 Post. “And I don’t know whether it’s because people aren’t actually reading it or, when they’re reading it, they’re reading the bits that they want to see.”


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