From the China-US Conflict to the War in Gaza

The Campaign Against TikTok or the Rivalry of Hypocrites

Armed conflicts are also conflicts between narratives. The social networks play an active role and they are all controlled by US groups, with a single exception: China’s TikTok. For years now Democrats and Republicans have been trying to bring it into the US fold or ban it. The latest pretext is that it is ‘pro-Palestinian’ or even anti-Semitic.

While Israel prevents all foreign reporters from entering the Gaza Strip and shoots Palestinian journalists like fish in a barrel – some hundreds have been killed since 7 October 2023 – what would become of the news from Gaza (already too scant) if a social network like TikTok were to disappear? If a single proprietor, i.e. Meta, were to hold a monopoly of on-line platforms? Such questions are not pure fantasy. On 13 March, Republicans joined Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass a law demanding the sale of the famous application to a ‘safe’ company, in other words, a US one. Otherwise, it would be banned in the States. This project will now have to be passed by the Senate, so it is not about to happen. But Republicans and Democrats generally manage to overcome their differences where China is concerned. And TikTok belongs to a Chinese group called ByteDance. We must admit that these US falcons do show a certain constancy.

They have been battling since 2020 to get hold of this platform which is so attractive to adolescents and young adults – the ‘Z generation’, born with the Internet and digital culture and who has a great appetite for TikTok, which totals 179 million users in the United States alone, i.e. more than Instagram (157 million) and almost as many as Facebook (175 million) which recruits viewers in slightly older age brackets. Until now, US authorities have moved very cautiously on this front: depriving young people of their favourite mode of communication is not an easy matter, and one never knows what might happen if it were interfered with.

An ideological bias with an eye on the till

Clearly, the congressman who drafted that law, Mike Gallagher, one of the most ferocious China-haters in the United States, has come up with a telling argument, capable of accelerating a process which has been stalled for four years now: TikTok is pro-Palestinian and maybe even anti-Semitic… Since Beijing is demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, the opening of negotiations and the end of Israel’s occupation, and since the application is Chinese, its users are bound to be ‘manipulated by the Chinese government’.

Thus, an ideological bias is combined with an economic operation in hopes of promoting a narrative more favourable to Israel’s war and of stopping China’s progress on the digital front by letting some US company get its hands on one of today’s most inventive social networks.

As concerns the massacres perpetrated by Israel, Anthony Goldbloom, a specialist who has studied TikTok data for advertising purchasers, indeed found many more views of videos with pro-Palestinian hashtags then with pro-Israeli ones. According to him, the ratio may be as high as 69 to 1.1 Should this be seen as proof that Beijing has infiltrated US minds? Or proof that most young people oppose this war? To know the answer, we need only read the reports in US newspapers, or the results of opinion polls, which show that among the under-35s (approximately half the users of the Chinese application) a majority is anti-war. Which is one of the reasons for the poor showing in the polls of president-candidate Joe Biden.

Because the application has chosen not to censure its contents, at least not in the West. In China, TikTok is unavailable. Only Dongying, its closely monitored local version is accessible. In the kingdom of hypocrites, Beijing which cries foul play, could claim first prize. And yet, Joe Biden is just as hypocritical. Last February, the US President opened a TikTok account on Super Bowl Sunday to post a video telling how much he loved US football. And yet in March he let it be known he will be delighted to sign the Gallagher law banning the application.

Exclusive coverage from Gaza

In the meantime, TikTok practises no censorship. Which is the reason for its success. Videos about Benyamin Netanyahu’s war are frequently posted there showing images from Gaza (when the Palestinians have electricity and the Internet), but also from Israel, as a university professor told a reporter from the Washington Post: ‘When the war broke out, my students surfed in different places on TikTok to see what kind of videos were popular in Israel dealing with Gaza, the West Bank and other places. I never would have thought of doing that.’2

That freedom infuriates Netanyahu and his cronies. And it is just as aggravating to the US Republicans, openly pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian. As for Joe Biden’s democrats, who deplore the plight of the Gazans and wound up demanding a cease-fire in the 25 March UN Resolution but haven’t stopped delivering the weapons that kill Palestine civilians. The war is also being waged in words and pictures.3

Censorship on X, Facebook, and Instagram

On the other popular networks, a direct form of censorship has been massively practised ever since 7 October.

Some posts from Orient XXI have experienced this, they cannott be shared on X or Facebook. This has been the fate of certain accounts from Rami Abou Jamous, our correspondent in Gaza, who keeps a regular diary. More globally, Human Rights Watch (HRW) points to ‘the systematic censorship of pro-Palestinian contents on Instagram and Facebook’.4

These contents, originating with Palestinians or with people defending their rights are simply not posted: this is known as ‘shadow banning’. They are not actually removed, but the algorithms are conceived in such a way as to make them invisible or almost. To get around this, users put a watermelon in place of the word Palestine (its flag has the same colours, red, green, black, and white) replace a letter with an asterisk or a period meaning Gaza, which keeps their texts from being spotted by the algorithms. But this riposte is only relatively effective.

As for Amnesty International it has observed another phenomenon: ‘Meta’s policies and content moderating systems are increasingly gagging voices favourable to Palestine on Instagram and Facebook’ writes the director of Amnesty Tech who worries that this ‘censorship contributes to the effacement of the sufferings of the Palestinians.’5

What holds so tragically true for the Israeli war against the Palestinians holds true in every area. We forget only too often that the monopoly of the three US giants – Meta, Google, and Elon Musk (X) – on planetary digital communication constitutes a threat to all democracies. This does not give TikTok a clean bill of health. But to oblige it to sell out to one of these three would simply strengthen their stranglehold. If it were banned, the result would be the same. What net-surfers need is public regulation.

Chinese spy programs?

Of course, just like all the other networks, TikTok carries fake news and more or les vicious hate speech. However, this has noting to do with the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime. US rulers are afraid that President Xi Jinping is collecting information on Western users in view of some sinister plots, not just for commercial purposes. TikTok’s boss, the Singapore national Shou Zi Chew, under a barrage of questions from Congress lasting over five hours, did his best to be reassuring: his group is owned for 60% by institutional investors such as the ultra-rich asset management funds Blackrock and Susquehanna International Group, specialised in Tech; for 20% by its Chinese founders and for the rest by its personnel. Three of the five members of its application board are US citizens. And finally, the servers stocking its data are in the United States on the Oracle Cloud platform and no longer in China or Singapore.

And yet according to those who would like to see TikTok banned, none of that is enough. The Chinese government is suspected of having set up spy programs to take control of people’s brains, and to influence US voters’ choices and distort election results. Has it done this? Nobody knows. Yet nothing produced by US authorities and intelligence services has shown that ‘any algorithm has served to glorify the People’s Republic of China – and I suppose that if the head of the national intelligence bureau had proof of this, he would have made it public,’ wrote Julia Angwin in The New York Times (14 March 204). This was confirmed by a Democratic Congresswoman from California, Sara Jacobs, after a meeting between members of Congress and the national security services: ‘Not one single thing we have heard in that classified briefing was specific to TikTok. These are things that occur on all social media platforms.’6

As several level-headed representatives pointed out in the House debates, there is no need to hold capital in an on-line application to create false accounts, flood the networks with false scoops or try to manipulate elections. After all, the democrats accused Vladimir Putin of similar schemes and to my knowledge the Russian president owns no application.

Fake US accounts in communist China

While Western media and political rulers were all but unanimously raging against TikTok, we learned from the CIA that the US Agency had ‘created false accounts on Chinese social networks to spread rumours and negative stories about Chinese rulers’ in hopes of ‘modifying public opinion’ and influencing it from outside. All this under the authority of Donald Trump, who was President at the time.7 Another example of the prevailing hypocrisy when it comes to TikTok. Republicans and Democrats are less worried about the minds of their fellow citizens than about the profits of the multinationals which they protect. As things stand now, part of the data on Western users is beyond their reach, while TikTok’s turnover is about to overtake Meta’s. Laying hands on its precious data would open lucrative prospects. But most of all it would allow them to appropriate the program and the algorithm that have made the application so successful, and which attest to a certain Chinese advantage in this area. The Chinese authorities have already said they would oppose such a sale in the name of the principles of free trade and free speech as set forth in the first amendment of the United States Constitution. Another US hypocrisy denounced.

1Stu Woo, Georgia Wells, Raffaelle Huang, ‘How TikTok Was Blindsided by U.S. Bill That Could Ban It’, Wall Street Journal, 12 March 2024.

2Frances Vinall, ‘Young Americans are more pro-Palestinian than their elders. Why?’, Washington Post, 21 December 2023.

3Laura Cugusi, ‘Gen Z and Palestine: how social media activists are changing journalism forever’, UntoldMag, 12 January 2024.

4‘Meta: Systematic censorship of pro-Palestinian contents’. Human Rights Watch, 1 December 2023.

5Israel/Gaza: the social networks between censorship of Palestinian voices and multiplier of of hatred’ Amnesty International, November 2023.

6Julia Angwin, ‘Why Are Lawmakers Trying to Ban TikTok Instead of Doing What Voters Actually Want?’, New York Times, 14 March 2024.

7Joel Schectman et Christopher Bing, ‘Exclusive: Trump launched CIA convert influence operation against China’, Reuters, 14 March 2024.