Lawmakers Admit They Want to Ban TikTok Over Pro-Palestinian Content

Now that a potential TikTok ban has been passed by Congress and signed by President Biden, some lawmakers are getting more comfortable saying what exactly the ban would help them accomplish. In recent days, at least two prominent Republican lawmakers have linked the possible ban to their concerns that content on the extremely popular social media app is too sympathetic to Palestinians under siege in Gaza.

On Friday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) hosted an interview with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at this year’s McCain Institute Sedona Forum. Romney questioned Blinken as to why “PR” in favor of fomenting American support for Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza has been so bad.

“The way this has played out on social media has dominated the narrative,” Blinken said of the war. “You have a social media environment in which context, history, facts, get lost — and the emotion, the impact of images dominates.”

In a telling response, Romney noted that while “some wonder why there was such overwhelming support for us to shut down potentially TikTok,” if “you look at the posting on TikTok and the number of Palestinians relative to other social media sites, its overwhelmingly so on TikTok.”

“So I know that’s of real interest, and the president will have a chance to take action in that regard,” Romney added.

Last month, Biden signed a bill that would ban TikTok in the United States unless it divests from its Chinese parent company ByteDance. While the law was publicly marketed as an answer to lawmakers’ concerns that TikTok’s affiliations with China posed a cybersecurity risk to American users, Romney is not the only Republican lawmaker citing support for Palestinians as a justification for the ban.

Last Wednesday, the dark-money group No Labels held a webinar with prominent figures opposing student protests in support of Gaza. According to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Intercept, Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) told attendees that the student protests were “exactly why we included the TikTok bill in the foreign supplemental aid package because you’re seeing how these kids are being manipulated by certain groups or entities or countries to foment hate on their behalf and really create a hostile environment here in the U.S.”

Lawler, who co-sponsored the legislation behind the prospective TikTok ban, also pushed dubious claims that the student protesters were being organized and coordinated by “outside paid agitators and activists.”

In November, former Rep. Mike Gallagher penned an op-ed in which he accused TikTok of “brainwashing our youth against the country and our allies” by promoting “pro-Hamas” content. That same month Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused the app of being “a tool China uses to spread propaganda to Americans, now it’s being used to downplay Hamas terrorism.”

TikTok has maintained that they are in no way artificially boosting pro-Palestinan content, or suppressing pro-Israel content. According to the social media app, “in the six months since October 7, 2023, we have removed more than 3.1 million videos and suspended more than 140,000 livestreams in Israel and Palestine for violating our Community Guidelines, including content promoting Hamas, hate speech, violent extremism and misinformation.”

On Tuesday, the social media app filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, accusing lawmakers of violating both the company, and its users First Amendment rights.

“Congress has taken the unprecedented step of expressly singling out and banning TikTok: a vibrant online forum for protected speech and expression used by 170 million Americans to create, share, and view videos over the Internet,” the company wrote in their filing to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The global nature of TikTok’s reach is most likely the driver of the massive uptick in pro-Palestinian content on the app. According to a study conducted by Semafor in November, the app’s popularity with users in Muslim-majority countries was a decisive factor in the spread of pro-Palestinan content during the early weeks of the war. By contrast, content being produced in the United States was nearly evenly split in its support for Palestine or Israel.

While TikTok is a convenient scapegoat for lawmakers, the reality is that American public support for Israel’s continued assault on Gaza has waned considerably since the start of the war. In the face of widespread devastation in Gaza, impending famine, and the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinians — many of them women and children — Americans increasingly feel that Israel’s response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack has been outsized and excessive. The sentiment has resulted in nationwide protests calling for the end of American military support for Israel, and no social media ban will make that go away.

This post was updated on Tuesday, May 7, to include additional information regarding TikTok’s lawsuit against the United States government.

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