Published23 hours ago
Young or old. TikTok or X. Pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. Your social media feeds are unique to you. Could they be shaping how you view the Israel-Gaza war?
When I open up my TikTok feed, two videos play one after the other. The first shows four Israeli soldiers dancing with guns, set against a blue sky. The other is a young woman speaking from her bedroom, with a prominent pro-Palestinian caption.
TikTok’s algorithm will determine what kind of videos I want to see and recommend similar content, based on which of the two videos I watch until the end.
The algorithms work in a similar way for other social media platforms too and it means some users are being driven towards increasingly divisive content about Israel and Gaza that only entrench their existing views and biases.
It matters because conversations on social media can shape public opinion – and normalise rhetoric that spills offline, at protests and beyond.
That includes the UK, where social media seems to have encouraged many people who are not normally politically active, to take action.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, whose mother is Palestinian, tells me she and other politicians are receiving a “huge influx” of messages including from young people urging a ceasefire. They seem to have been inspired to act because of “TikTok videos and Instagram reels shared around over WhatsApp”.
“Anything that is too slick, their initial instinct seems to be – don’t trust it. They expect it to be disinformation,” the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon says.
Conservative MP Andrew Percy, the vice chair of the Conservative Friends of Israel group, says the war has “garnered less engagement and communication from residents” in his constituency than other issues.
However, he says: “Much of the content being shared is problematically antisemitic. That’s been a real problem long before this conflict – and this time, social media has made that happen at speed.”
So what is getting the most traction on TikTok, and with whom?
My TikTok feed is constantly punctuated with videos that are categorically pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian – with opposing sides often critiquing each other’s content. And it’s pro-Palestinian content that seems to be proving more popular with Gen Z users – people born between 1997 and 2012.
Videos on TikTok using the hashtag “istandwithisrael” have racked up more than 240 million views, compared with more than 870 million views for videos using the term “istandwithpalestine”. That’s similar to other video-based sites popular with younger users.
Many of these videos have been posted since Hamas – proscribed as a terrorist group by the UK and other governments – attacked Israel on 7 October, but some pre-date that time.
There is a noticeable contrast between what the most popular content supporting either side looks like.
For example, videos from bloggers on the ground in Gaza – and pro-Palestinian users commenting on the Israel-Gaza war from their bedrooms – provokes the most positive reaction among younger users.
Meanwhile, content from soldiers with the Israeli Defense Forces appears more polished and curated – trying to play into viral TikTok trends.
Questions remain about just how much either side – whether the Israeli government or Hamas, which runs Gaza – is involved in encouraging or directing unofficial content.
Hate and polarisation
I tracked down several TikTokkers to find out more, including an Israeli soldier called Daniel. His most viral video, with 2.1 million views, shows him and three other soldiers – who are currently serving with the armed forces – dancing with guns several days after the 7 October attacks.
Since then, his videos have had fewer views, over 10,000 each but nothing like the initial 2 million.
It can be tricky to predict when a video will go viral on TikTok.
A consistent reduction in views could indicate users are not as receptive to these videos as they were before – especially as violence unfolds in Gaza – and as a consequence such videos are not being recommended as widely.
It’s also worth pointing out that a high number of views doesn’t necessarily correlate with a positive reception, either. Videos can be shared and widely criticised. Users on TikTok often “stitch” posts – where they re-post a video, alongside one of themselves reacting to it.
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I spotted this happening with some of Daniel’s content. Both in re-posted “stitches”, and in comments below Daniel’s own posts, people were suggesting his dancing videos were disrespectful to civilians being killed in Gaza. One user commented “shameless” while another said: “The more you show your cruelty in the eyes of the world.”
Daniel told me the reaction to his content has been split between “supportive users” and then those who share hate and, at times, antisemitic abuse. Abusive remarks on his videos, and other posts about Israel, have included comments from pro-Hamas accounts falsely claiming that the hostages taken on 7 October were actually paid actors or killed by Israeli forces.
“I am not taking personally the hate reactions because, first of all, I did nothing wrong, [and] second, people around the world are so dedicated to hate Israel so it doesn’t matter what [is] in my content,” Daniel explained.
In a recent meeting with TikTok executives, comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen accused the site of “creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis”. He is not the only Jewish celebrity to have expressed concerns in the wake of the 7 October attacks.
In a recent blog post, TikTok said: “Our recommendation algorithm doesn’t ‘take sides’ and has rigorous measures in place to prevent manipulation.”
The social media company also told us that from 7 October to 17 November it had removed more than 1.1m videos in the conflict region for breaking its rules – including content promoting Hamas, hate speech, terrorism and misinformation.
Its community guidelines prohibit “content that promotes Islamophobia or antisemitism”, which TikTok says it takes action against.
When I take a look at pro-Palestinian content, some creators’ videos have a different style.
Ariana, who shares videos on the war from her home in the US, often talks straight into the camera in her bedroom. She gives her opinion on war-related posts from celebrities or on images coming out of Gaza.
“When I first started posting about Palestine [after 7 October], my views decreased. I lost a lot of followers,” Ariana explained to me, describing criticism from users supportive of Israel.
But she began to get more engagement on TikTok in the following weeks, when she started posting more about what she believes is Israeli-propaganda.
“People started discovering me and so the numbers started shooting up,” she says.
She says, for the most part, she has been “receiving a lot of support” online, especially from people who “felt like they couldn’t trust traditional media”.
But she has also experienced Islamophohic hate, not just on TikTok – but on Instagram and other social media platforms.
Both Daniel and Ariana say their content has not been sponsored by political actors or other groups.
Osama Bin Laden’s letter
When users are pushed more and more content that confirms a particular narrative, it becomes easier to understand how more extreme ideas can start to gain traction.
This happened recently on TikTok, when several Gen Z users began to promote Osama Bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America” – which he wrote as his justification for the 11 September terrorist attacks, that killed 3,000 people in the US.
Those postings were essentially suggesting that Bin Laden’s perspective was not without merit, and offered an alternative view on the US’s involvement in Middle East conflicts.
But they didn’t reference the original letter’s antisemitic remarks and homophobic rhetoric.
TikTok said that the number of videos about the letter was small but that interest was amplified after they were posted to X, formerly Twitter. TikTok has since removed videos and blocked “Letter to America” from its search function.
Things are different on X
On longer-established platforms like X, it’s a different picture.
The platform has been accused of allowing the spread of violent, hateful and misleading content. Its relatively new owner, Elon Musk, has also been criticised over his response to posts promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Mr Musk has since insisted he’s not antisemitic and the social media company has defended its approach to harmful content.
But – in contrast to TikTok – X has traditionally been a platform popular with politicians and journalists. It would appear pro-Israeli content is still having significant reach in this circle.
The curated content – including emotional videos about hostages taken by Hamas – shared by the State of Israel’s account seems to have accumulated huge numbers of views, according to X’s own data. For example, between 16 and 21 November the official account had racked up over 40 million views on X.
In comparison, the official account on X for the Palestinian mission to the UN has had just over 200,000 views on its own posts over the same period, and has far fewer followers.
And I have found evidence that official accounts on X have also been spreading disinformation.
In October, State of Israel posted false claims that the body of a four year-old Palestinian boy killed by Israeli strikes was just a doll. A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in the UK did not comment directly on these social media posts or on the circumstances of the child’s death.
False claims have also been spread by accounts that support Hamas. However, in the absence of official accounts with large followers, these mistruths seem to have unfolded in a more dispersed way online.
Take, for example, comments suggesting that a different four-year-old boy, an Israeli, who was killed when Hamas attacked his home, had been a “paid actor”.
Then there’s Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook. It has come under pressure amid claims of over-zealous moderation of content about the war.
For example, an Instagram account with more than six million followers called @eye.on.Palestine – which posts images and videos showing violence against civilians in Gaza during Israeli airstrikes – was suspended by the platform for several days.
Meta later said this was for “security reasons after signs of compromise”.
Several people sharing pro-Palestine content on Instagram have also posted examples of where they say their accounts have been restricted from adding comments to posts, for example, without a clear indication as to why.
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