Is TikTok the new battleground for the Israel-Palestine conflict? | World News

In the TikTok video, a little Gazan girl covered in ash asks for her mother. It’s one of millions of videos about the Israel-Hamas conflict gripping users on the social platform.

The heartbreaking stories and harrowing images pouring out of the conflict zone have set emotions boiling thousands of miles away on the streets of London – and turned social media into a battleground.

Millions of TikToks are uploaded every day giving differing perspectives on the Israel-Hamas war, as a new generation engages with this latest iteration of the long-running conflict. For many, it’s now a primary source of news.

The platform is known for short, snappy video clips that can gain colossal reach as they are shared and reshared.

“When anger is stirred up things tend to go viral much more quickly,” says Dr Christine Cheng, a senior lecturer in war studies at King’s College London.

In the US, Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley has even claimed that TikTok makes people “17% more antisemitic, more pro-Hamas” every 30 minutes – without any clear evidence to back it up.

Prominent UK TikTok creators – aligned on both sides of the conflict – say the platform offers an opportunity to promote conversation across the divide and highlight stories missed by mainstream media.

TikTok itself says it is “rapidly and robustly” responding to the Israel-Hamas war and has accelerated efforts to remove fake accounts and engagement.

Just looking at the numbers it would seem that TikTok’s content leans pro-Palestine, but the platform argues that this reflects wider trends on social media and among younger audiences generally.

Protesters on the Embankment during a pro-Palestine march , organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, in central London, to call for a ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Picture date: Saturday December 9, 2023.
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Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to London’s streets in support of Palestine

“Any time you have a strong emotional response you’re much more likely to engage,” Dr Cheng says. “Social media platforms love that and of course we then tend to spread it and provoke it even more.”

As a result, we end up with increased polarisation and it becomes difficult to have calm conversations, she says.

Short video clips about specific events in the conflict struggle to encapsulate all the relevant context, she adds. “It’s very easy to take that particular incident and then it goes viral, and then the conversation stops.”

Dr Martin Farr, senior lecturer in contemporary British history at Newcastle University, said people have seen things on their phones in the last few months that they will never forget and may shape their perspectives on the conflict.

“It’s been so extraordinary, the extent of the violence, the extent of the loss of life and the sense that people could have that one side is to blame rather than a more complicated and more necessarily nuanced appreciation of the situation,” he says.

“There’s an impulse in all these things to be more provocative.”

Dr Farr also pointed to what he calls the “deflating” of the Hamas attack on Israel as numbers of people killed in Gaza have soared.

Asked if social media has fuelled divisions over Israel-Palestine, he says: “I don’t think it’s necessarily exacerbated it, I think it has damaged understanding.”

Benny Jeeee TikTok
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Benny Greenstein asks people about Israel-Palestine. Pic: bennyjeeee

What do prominent UK TikTok creators say?

Unmissable with his distinctive short, colourful hair, 25-year-old Benny Greenstein has nearly 70,000 followers on TikTok and his “do you have to pick a side?” videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views.

From a Jewish family and raised in Manchester with lots of Muslim friends, Benny says his background gives him a well-rounded view on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“It’s just stuck in this toxic place and all we can do is promote peace and diplomacy.”

Many of his videos see him approaching people on the streets of London to talk about Israel-Palestine, asking them: Do you have to pick a side?

“Conversation and diplomacy is what gets you places. Rocket firing and antisemitism and islamophobia gets you nowhere.”

Some people in Benny’s TikToks are clear supporters of one side or another, while others are less sure or say there should be a humanitarian approach.

The comments are busy with users posting in support of Israel and Palestine or calling out “genocide”.

Benny says he is inspired by his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and is determined to use his platform to promote peace and love.

Isobel Dye, 22, is currently studying for a master’s degree at LSE and has also been posting on TikTok for several years, amassing more than 164,000 followers.

Her interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict, in particular the plight of Palestinians, was sparked after she attended a pro-Palestine rally in 2021.

Isobel Dye says she reached one million people in a week on TikTok
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Isobel Dye says she reached one million people in a week on TikTok

“I try and speak about things not picked up by the mainstream media,” she says. “British people are deeply complicit [in the conflict], we can’t not have an opinion on this.”

Her TikToks usually feature news clips and stories with her speaking to the camera overlaid on top. In the last week she has reached around a million people, she says.

Isobel’s audience during that time was heavily female (80%), with 66% aged between 18 and 24. It’s a good example of TikTok’s reach with the younger demographic – just 28% of people aged 16-24 read newspapers in print or online, according to Ofcom.

Asked if TikTok is a good place for people engaging with the conflict, she says yes, so long as you have the right voices out there. “I try and centre Palestinian voices,” she adds.

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A pro-Israel demonstration in London

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Debra Barnes, 59, is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who goes into UK schools to talk about antisemitism. In search of a new audience, she started posting TikToks about her family’s story too.

“I’m not exactly a TikTok prime audience,” she says. “My mission is to spread the stories of the Holocaust in the hope that it will educate people and something like that will never happen again.”

In the aftermath of the horrors of the Hamas attack on Israel, she started using TikTok to amplify calls for the safe return of the hostages.

“I feel like a tiny voice, David and Goliath almost… among this massive anti-Israel, antisemitic thing it has now grown into on social media,” she says.

“I don’t post about the conflict because there are so many people who are much more knowledgeable and do it much better than me… I’m just trying to do my bit to help the cause.”

The U.S. head office of TikTok is shown in Culver City, California, U.S., September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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TikTok has tried to explain how its algorithm works

Amid discussion about how it decides what content to show its users, TikTok published a lengthy blog post saying its recommendation algorithm does not take sides.

“The content people see on TikTok is generated by our community and recommendations are based on the content people have previously engaged with.

“TikTok does not ‘promote’ one side of an issue over another,” it said.

Videos are ranked using prediction scores based on what TikToks users have viewed and engaged with previously.

On the Israel-Hamas war specifically, TikTok said it is responding “rapidly and robustly” and has removed more than 925,000 videos for violating policies around things like violence and hate speech.

It added: “TikTok does not allow inaccurate, misleading, or false content that may cause significant harm to individuals or society, regardless of intent.”

The platform said that between 7 October and 31 October it removed more than 50,000 videos that it said contained “harmful misinformation”.

While it might not be an app that’s popular with politicians – indeed it’s banned on UK government devices – it’s clear that TikTok is a huge part of the discussion about Israel and Palestine.

The attack on Israel on 7 October and the ensuing invasion of Gaza have energised a new generation to engage with the struggle for peace in the Middle East. And it’s places like TikTok where that conversation is happening.

Watch Crossing the Divide, a Sky News documentary looking at how the Israel-Hamas war has divided people in the UK, Saturday 23 December at 9pm.