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The story behind the Osama bin Laden videos on TikTok

Osama bin Laden's 2002 "Letter to America" resurfaced on TikTok in recent days, prompting the popular video platform to clamp down on accounts resharing it.
Mazhar Ali Khan
/
AP
Osama bin Laden's 2002 "Letter to America" resurfaced on TikTok in recent days, prompting the popular video platform to clamp down on accounts resharing it.

TikTok says it has been "aggressively removing" hundreds of videos discussing a manifesto Osama bin Laden wrote in 2002 titled "Letter to America," which somewhat mysteriously resurfaced on the platform in recent days.

Some TikTok creators shared the document in light of the Israel-Hamas war, highlighting bin Laden's criticism of the U.S. government's involvement in the Middle East and support of Israel.

"Everyone should read it...However, be forewarned that this has left me very disillusioned," one TikTokker said.

Another creator on TikTok remarked: "I will never look at life the same. I will never look at this country the same. Please read it."

The letter was written a year after al Qaeda planned the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 2001, and the document recirculating on TikTok added fresh grist for lawmakers in Washington who have been calling on the Chinese-owned video platform to do more to combat antisemitic content. The White House even entered the discussion and issued a statement condemning the two-decade-old manifesto's re-emergence.

But as social media researchers pored over publicly available data on just how widespread the bin Laden content has been on TikTok, one thing became clear: the videos do not appear to have ever gone viral.

There were fewer than 300 videos using the hashtag #lettertoamerica that garnered around 2 million views by Wednesday, according to TikTok, a platform with an estimated 1.6 billion monthly active users. For comparison, a recent 24-hour period on the platform had 200 million videos using #GymTok and #travel videos racked up 137 million.

Yet after a tweet on Thursday afternoon from social media influencer Yashar Ali went viral on the platform formerly known as Twitter rounding up some of the videos, the number of views on the #lettertoamerica hashtag jumped to 13 million. That sent TikTok rushing to remove content related to the manifesto. In cracking down on the posts, TikTok even began suppressing videos that were criticizing those who were endorsing bin Laden's hateful writing.

The frenzy over the videos prompted moral panic among lawmakers and other observers over the idea that TikTok was radicalizing young people and amplifying the writing of a terrorist, according to Jared Holt, senior research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

"This story speaks to how far there still is to go in boosting social media literacy and how susceptible everyone is to information disorder and suggestion," Holt told NPR. "Even those who might consider themselves people trying to speak truth against falsehoods are not immune. Next year's election cycle is sure to be gasoline on these longstanding faults."

One major unknown in the whole saga is how and why bin Laden's manifesto was revisited at all. Some of the first now-removed TikToks of the document were created by health and wellness influencers, but what potential online forum, or social media site, or group chat originally resurrected the hateful screed is a mystery.

One TikTokker who shared a video on TikTok about the bin Laden letter was Lynette Adkins, a Los Angeles-based influencer.

In a statement to NPR, she said she decided to share it after other creators in her community posted about it. She claims she was not trying to promote hate or violence, but rather foster an "open & peaceful" conversation about what is happening in the world.

Adkins noted that she was three years old when the Sept. 11 attacks happened, but now that she is older she is trying to learn about the terrorist incident "beyond the narrative of the mainstream media." Adkins then implied she is sympathetic to conspiracy theories about the attacks.

While Adkins was not able to shed light on how the bin Laden manifesto first got on the radar of some TikTokkers, researchers say, at least so far, it does not appear to be a coordinated campaign.

Abbie Richards, who studies online extremism with the Accelerationism Research Consortium, said while the phenomenon's origin story is murky, she does not suspect it was undertaken by a single hostile actor.

"My understanding is that coordinated inauthentic behavior on TikTok is more likely to utilize anonymous meme pages than influencers. It's easier, lower cost, and lower risk," Richards wrote on X, adding that her analysis is based on a preliminary understanding of the situation. "So in short, we don't know for sure."

A transcript of the letter, which The Guardian published in 2002, rose to the top of the British publication's most-viewed stories, leading the site to remove it altogether. A spokesman for the paper said it was taken down since it had been "widely shared on social media without the full context."

That decision fueled online conspiracies about whether there was concerted effort underway to censor the document from the Internet. It also led to pushback from some researchers, who argued that the terrorist leader's incendiary writing should remain published to expose it for what it is.

"Don't turn the long-public ravings of a terrorist into forbidden knowledge, something people feel excited to go rediscover," said Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory in a post on Threads. "Let people read the murderer's demands - this is the man some TikTok fools chose to glorify. Add more context."

On forums used by supporters of al-Qaeda, the letter's re-appearance was cause for celebration. SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist organizations, noted that one user on the extremist forums wrote: "I hope you all are seeing ongoing storm on Social Media. ... We should post more and more content."

Knowing precisely how popular certain content is on TikTok has become increasing challenging, since outside researchers have limited access to the platform's internal data. That is true of other sites too. Elon Musk has taken away researchers' ability to analyze the site's metrics, setting something of a new norm among the platforms of boxing out independent review of patterns and trends on social media platforms.

"So, we're stuck in a world where it's incredibly hard to verify trends on either platform," said Brandon Silverman, the former CEO of data analytics tool CrowdTangle.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL's CEO, said in a statement to NPR that is it welcome news that TikTok has been removing the bin Laden videos, but that some damage has already been done.

"It is concerning that a blatantly antisemitic and anti-Israel text by the orchestrator of the worst terrorist attack in history has been disseminated to very large numbers of people, especially at this fraught moment when Jews have been targeted with heightened levels of antisemitism," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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