Muslims around the world reacted very strongly to the images of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on fire during clashes between protesters and Israeli police last Monday, one of the events that provoked the current round of violence, Omar said. The sight of a roaring blaze in one of Islam’s holiest sites was deeply provocative for many, even though the blaze in a tree on the Mount was reportedly caused by a flare thrown by the Muslim protesters at the police.
TikTok was launched in China in 2016, and usage of the video platform has since grown rapidly, with more than two billion downloads worldwide. The vast majority of its users are under age 30, and a number of Muslim countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, are among those with the highest market penetration of the app.
Those factors are part of what has made propaganda on TikTok so much more explosive than on Facebook and on WhatsApp groups, Omar said. “The people on Facebook are generally older than TikTok users, and there is a greater tendency there for people to have discussions and share balanced messages about calming the situation and restoring peace. On WhatsApp, there are many local community groups sharing information with each other about what is happening and what needs to be done. But TikTok, by nature, tends to create a more aggressive environment where people can drop videos and get a lot of likes and shares without engaging with followers or responding to their opinions. In that respect, it’s like Twitter, just dedicated to videos only, not text.”
Responding to these statements, a representative for TikTok in Israel said that “Safety is our top priority and we do not tolerate violence, hate speech or hateful behavior. We have already taken action to remove content that violates our Community Guidelines and we will continue to take action wherever necessary, including cooperating with law enforcement where we receive a valid request.”
Meanwhile, celebrities and influencers on Instagram and other networks are weighing in on Israel’s campaign in Gaza, but maintaining their distance from debating the issues, Omar says. “A number of celebrities are going in and dropping opinions, but then blocking comments on their posts. That’s a new phenomenon. They understand their power to influence, but most don’t want to be a warrior for a particular cause, so they’ll say use a trendy hashtag like #freegaza and then block people from reacting, as if it absolves them of responsibility for defending their statements. A lot of influencers see this as part of their strategy for promoting themselves, and it is much easier to likes and shares by taking the side of Hamas.”
In Israel, Instagram and other platforms are also being used to threaten public figures. On Tuesday, police arrested a suspect who had threatened N12 reporter Dana Weiss on Instagram. Multiple reporters have been attacked in recent days, and four N12 journalists – Yonit Levi, Rina Mazliah, Guy Peleg and Weiss – have been assigned with private security details after reportedly seeing an alarming rise in calls online to perform acts of violence upon them, some of which included explicit death threats.
Responding to the threats, a representative from Facebook, which owns Instagram, said, “We don’t want anyone to feel threatened or harassed on our apps. While we allow criticism of public figures, such as journalists, we don’t allow people to threaten or harass them, and we remove this content whenever we become aware of it. We also remove content that shares people’s personal information, and have removed several posts that showed journalists’ private phone numbers. We encourage anyone who sees harmful content on our apps to report it, so we can take action to keep our community safe.”
Many Israeli brands are bearing the brunt of hatred against Israel on social media, with thousands of negative comments being posted by users and automated bots programmed to generate hateful speech, Omar noted. Even the social commentary on Israel’s Eurovision representative, Eden Alene, was filled with negativity ahead of her performance in the semifinals Tuesday night.
“Usually, there is a very high correlation between what people say online about a song and how they vote. But in this case, we are seeing a unique mismatch, with people rating the song highly but attacking it on social media.”
Ultimately, Omar said, the war on social media is very real, with an important and long-term impact on how the conflict is perceived. “They used to say that history is written by the winners. Now, history is being written by the narrative that social media shows to the world.”