Is TikTok brainwashing the kids about Gaza? No, this is just an old moral panic in a new form

<span>Photograph: Guardian TikTok</span>
Photograph: Guardian TikTok

In a famous two-frame meme from The Simpsons, Principal Skinner asks himself: “Am I so out of touch?” “No,” he decides, with resolve. “It’s the children who are wrong.” It’s the easiest thing, dismissing the views of young people when they question our beliefs. It’s even easier when those views are mainly expressed on a social media platform that can also be dismissed as a lawless land of misinformation and clickbaiting. And so as Palestine- and Gaza-related content explodes on TikTok, predictable responses have arrived, and some have been pretty out there.

The Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley called for the banning of TikTok altogether when she said in a primary campaign debate last week that “for every 30 minutes that someone watches TikTok, every day they become 17% more antisemitic, more pro-Hamas based on doing that”. Last month, a Republican congressman said that TikTok was “digital fentanyl”, brainwashing young Americans against their country and its allies. Over at the Telegraph, we are told that the app’s “threat is real”.

TikTok responded by stating that it’s just how the algorithm works. It does not “take sides” but simply personalises the user’s news feed to show more of the kind of content they interact with. And as Israel, Palestine and Gaza began to dominate the news cycle, users naturally began to search and consume more content relating to them. That has resulted in a whole churn of videos. Some informative, such as Gaza map breakdowns; some poorly sourced and propagandistic on both sides; and some competitively supportive of one party or another. Within those interactions, there are nuances, such as breakdown of support by location and age profile. The overall picture, though, shows a much higher appetite for content that is supportive of Palestine; views attached to pro-Palestine hashtags vastly outnumber those such as #istandwithisrael.

Dismissing this as “brainwashing” is to write off not only millions of young people, but also an entire social media development that is not just a fad, but a new way of consuming news and information. TikTok is the most downloaded app for 18- to 24-year-olds, and the way they use the platform to navigate their daily lives means it is no longer just for viral dance videos, but increasingly a search engine that users turn to instead of Google. Instagram has evolved in the same way. Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google senior vice president, in an acknowledgment of the encroachment of these apps on Google’s territory, said that according to Google’s own studies, “almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search. They go to TikTok or Instagram”.

Ignoring these developments also assumes that all information on TikTok is bad, self-generated and highly manipulable garbage. The reality is that news reports about Gaza from mainstream media are frequently clipped and circulated on TikTok, extending their window of relevance and consumption. Over the past few days the most-watched clip on CNN’s TikTok account, which has more than 3 million followers, is one of its news anchor Jake Tapper taking Mark Regev, senior adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, to task over the killing of the family of one of CNN’s producers in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes. On the Guardian’s TikTok account, the most-watched video of the past six weeks, with more than 7m views, is of a protester interrupting the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and calling for a ceasefire.

As with most moral panics, little of this is new. Social media is vulnerable to manipulation, but younger people have always been drawn to the conflicts that can become totemic, and often react against perceived hegemonic government interests and the convictions of older generations. What is new is that there are simply more of these young people in the same place, hundreds of millions of them, with access to other people from different countries. They can provide each other with information and interactions that would be impossible to access in any physical space, and fill a need that can’t be satisfied by mainstream media, which few of these people consume at source anyway.

What is also new is what feels like the closing of a window on an entire era of managing public opinion on foreign policy in general, and in the Middle East in particular. To an 18-year-old today, 9/11 is a historical event, entirely shorn of the moral and ideological “clash of civilisations” rhetoric that dominated the aftermath. Their recent experiences of domestic politics, in the US and the UK, are of high political volatility, unstable leaders and a pandemic that has exposed the limitations and corruptions of the political class. In the US, recent history (and perhaps even the near future) is of Donald Trump and his multiple legal and personal infractions, and of the first election in which the oldest of them were eligible to vote culminating in a storming of the Capitol with the encouragement of the outgoing president. In the UK, that experience is of a post-Brexit politics that has triggered a revolving door of prime ministers, and of the last, sorry, the one before the last, prime minister riding a party bus over at No 10 while the rest of the nation was in brutal lockdown, and school and university life was disrupted in ways that we still have not yet fully grasped.

You can disagree with the political views of young people and be suspicious of how those views are formed on social media. But refusing to reckon with how the ostensibly sensible grownup offline world has chased them away is to be Principal Skinner. “Is my head in the sand?” he asks. “No, it is the world that has gone dark.”

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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