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How a US TikTok ban could clobber the pro-Palestine movement – and hurt Joe Biden’s election chances

The Chinese-owned video app has galvanised a new wave of activism while making a few people’s fortunes. Four TikTokkers tell Io Dodds what a ban would mean for them and their causes

Thursday 14 March 2024 02:24 GMT
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<p>A protester outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 12 March, 2024</p>

A protester outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 12 March, 2024

Before last October, Awa's TikTok account was devoted to pleasant things: fashion, for instance, and her favourite places to visit in New York City where she lives.

Then the current Israel-Hamas war began, and Awa's profile became one of a new wave of pro-Palestinian activism galvanised by the wildly popular short-form video app.

"It has woken up the entire nation," the 26-year-old, known on TikTok as Sincerely Awa, told The Independent.

"We have had Palestinian activists in this country doing their best to bring up the truth, and they have always, for the past 75 years, been suppressed by the mainstream media...

"TikTok has made us be able to reach so many people across the nation, to understand what is truly happening to these people – that they are in an occupation, that they are in a genocide."

Now TikTok itself is under threat after the US House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday evening that would ban the app in the United States if its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, doesn't sell it off within six months.

Supporters argue that TikTok's ownership gives the Chinese government a back door into the personal data of its 170 million monthly US users, or even allows the Chinese Communist Party to covertly shape public opinion.

TikTok denies both of those claims, saying the bill would "trample the First Amendment rights of 170 million Americans and deprive 5 million small businesses of a platform they rely on to grow and create jobs".

The bill, which was introduced in March, still needs to get through the US Senate and could yet be subject to a legal challenge, like the one that kiboshed Donald Trump's attempt in 2020 to force a similar sale through executive fiat.

But if a ban actually happens, TikTokkers say it would deal a heavy blow to numerous American political movements, as well as social media influencers from marginalised backgrounds that have harnessed the app's unpredictable algorithms to build new careers for themselves.

"A lot of Black creators will be losing their primary source of income, and small businesses will lose their most impactful form or marketing," Cedoni Francis, a 25-year-old beauty influencer with about 246m TikTok followers, tells The Independent.

"There’s no way to mince my words on this – people will lose their livelihoods."

A wildcard algorithm that boosts outsider perspectives

On 25 October 2023, two and a half weeks after Hamas's attack on Israel and amid brutal reprisals by the Israeli government, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist gave his stark verdict on TikTok's impact.

"Israel is losing the TikTok war by a long shot," said former Tinder executive Jeff Morris Jr, in a viral thread on X.

Morris's thread prompted several other politicians and business leaders to call for TikTok to be banned. Republican senator Josh Hawley called it "a purveyor of virulent antisemitic lies", while prominent tech investor Sam Lessin said it was spreading "terrorist propaganda".

It's not actually clear whether pro-Palestinian content has outperformed pro-Israel content on TikTok overall. If it did, that might simply be due to the app's popularity with Generation Z, which is far more sympathetic than its elders to the Palestinian cause.

Still, left-wing TikTokkers say the app has been crucial to spreading their beliefs on Palestine, LGBT+ rights, and many other causes, allowing them to bypass the mainstream media and rival social networks such as Instagram, which are widely seen as more censorious.

"TikTok is unique because of the sophistication of its algorithm," says James Rose, a 28-year-old actress and influencer in New York City who uses both feminine and neutral pronouns, and who regularly uses TikTok to advocate for LGBT+ rights and other causes.

Like Awa, they describe Israel's treatment of Palestinian civilians as genocide – an allegation currently being examined by the International Court of Justice.

Whereas rival apps such as X and Instagram are built around the idea of choosing who to follow, TikTok does not require new users to follow anyone and largely relies on its famously capricious recommendation algorithm to serve up an endless, hyper-personalised stream of videos from all across its network.

That, Rose says, makes it much easier for minority perspectives, both radical and reactionary, to spread outside their bubble. Viewers who exhibit curiosity about a given topic will quickly be bombarded with more of it, sometimes before they even realise their own interest.

Tony Vara, a 23-year-old influencer and activist in Virginia, likewise says TikTok’s algorithms are far kinder than Instagram’s to new creators, capable of catapulting videos by relative unknowns in front of millions of eyeballs.

These algorithms are hardly uncontroversial: TikTok has been accused from across the political spectrum of promoting conspiracy theories, fringe beliefs, and incitement to violence.

Indeed, Vara pointed out that Donald Trump’s supporters have a strong presence on TikTok, and could also be hurt by a ban. Trump himself has come out in surprise opposition to the bill, despite having previously tried to ban the app himself.

Vara, Rose, and Awa further cited TikTok's culture of messiness and authenticity, in contrast to the glamourous but high-maintenance aesthetic norms of Instagram.

"No matter what you're talking about, it finds your audience for you," says Awa. "It's so easy to find your community...

"We now have so many allies within this country that, if you were to ask them a year ago, had no idea what the Palestinian struggle was.”

‘This would decimate a whole sector of the economy’

A US TikTok ban would also have a major commercial impact. While its advertising tools are nowhere near as popular as those of Meta, the tech giant that owns Facebook and Instagram, it is a key engine of what tech analysts call the "creator economy" – in which millions of people across the world monetise their online popularity through brand endorsements, merchandise, and other methods.

The same algorithms that can unexpectedly elevate radical content also make it easier for creators from marginalised and minority groups to gain a toehold.

"I’d be losing about 50 per cent of my income," says Cedoni Francis. "I'll be heading to grad school this summer to get my MBA, and the money I make from brand deals will be paying my tuition and living expenses. If TikTok is banned, that means I’m taking out student loans – lots of student loans."

TikTokkers with a large enough audience can also make money directly through the app's monetisation programme, which can deliver hundreds or thousands of dollars for one viral video.

Both Vara and Rose said they make large parts of their income from their TikTok content and would have to scramble to fill the gap.

"This would decimate a whole sector of the economy," says Rose.

TikTok ban could hurt Joe Biden’s election campaign

The US Senate is less rambunctious and more moderate than the House and is likely to be more sceptical of the bill. Even if it passes, ByteDance might find a way to divest from the app – although the Chinese government has previously signalled its opposition to such a sale.

Nevertheless, Awa, Rose, and Vara all expressed anger at the politicians backing the bill, describing it as an attempt to censor younger generations and suppress their opinions.

"I believe the government wants to take control over our activism, our voice, our freedom of speech. They want to control what we see and what we hear," says Awa.

"The fact that we were able to debunk and fight them on the propaganda that they've spewed in the mainstream media... brings so much fear to them that they don't want us to have that type of power."

Thousands of TikTok users have already bombarded Congress with calls to oppose the bill after receiving push notifications from the app itself – which joined a long tradition of apps mobilising their users as lobbyists.

Vara, who is also head of Latino outreach for the left-wing campaign group Gen-Z For Change, suspects that Biden could also come to regret his support for the bill as he struggles to persuade young left-wing voters to back him in the election this November.

"He's literally handing the youth vote away," says Vara. "He's basically telling young people: we don't care about you when it comes to immigration, we don't care about you when it comes to Palestine... and now it's like, we don't care that this is the app you use.

"I don't think people are gonna go out and vote for Trump. But I do think that he is running the risk of losing a lot of people that would [otherwise] go out and vote for him."

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