TikTok removed the hashtag #lettertoamerica from its search function after videos about Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America” went viral on the platform and were re-uploaded on social media site X. Some social media users suggested that the Al Qaeda founder’s document provides another perspective on US involvement in the Middle East conflict.
All week, TikTok users have been sharing a link to The Guardian’s copy of bin Laden’s book, which was written almost a year after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the US The Guardian took the book. down on its website on Wednesday.
In the book, bin Laden spoke to the American people and tried to answer the following questions: “Why are we fighting and against whom?” and “What do we call you, and what do we want from you?” The book includes offensive language and homophobic comments.
The scale of the book has drawn criticism from the platform, which is owned by China’s ByteDance. The app has faced increasing scrutiny over the past year as the US and other countries say it threatens national security. Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, critics of the app have accused it of using its influence to suppress content that is anti-Israel and contrary to US foreign policy interests. TikTok says the allegations of bias are unfounded.
Investigators at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which actively researches social media, said they found 41 “Letter to America” videos on TikTok. Although TikTok has now blocked “Letter to America” from its search function, videos referring to “Letter to America” are still easily found under the search term “Bin Laden,” the agency said in its findings.
Bin Laden’s book criticizes America’s support for Israel and accuses the Americans of aiding the oppression of the Palestinian people. Bin Laden, who was killed during a special US mission in Pakistan in 2011, also criticized US intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kashmir, Chechnya and Lebanon.
People on the Internet have used bin Laden’s words as a basis for discussing American foreign policy in the Middle East. Several said it caused them to re-evaluate their beliefs about the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although people criticized US involvement in world conflicts, many made it clear that they did not praise or defend bin Laden’s orchestration of the 9/11 attacks.
Speakers who cited the book encouraged people to read it, saying that doing so helped them better understand US intervention in the Middle East and the Israel-Hamas war. The videos also went viral on X, where some renewed calls for TikTok to be banned.
Over the past 24 hours, thousands of TikToks (at least) have been posted where people share how they just read Bin Laden’s infamous "Letter to America," in which he explained why he attacked the United States.
The TikToks are from people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and… pic.twitter.com/EwjiGtFEE3
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) November 16, 2023
When the book was re-uploaded on TikTok, many of the videos discussing it were removed. TikTok spokesman Ben Rathe said in an email that the videos with the letter violate the platform’s community guidelines.
“The content promoting this book clearly violates our laws against supporting any form of terrorism,” said Rathe. “We are actively removing this content and investigating how it got into our site. The number of videos on TikTok is small and its trending reports on our site are not good. This is not unique to TikTok and has been seen in many social media and media. “
Viral X post from journalist Yashar Ali highlighting videos received 25.6 million views. That brought more attention to TikTok talk. TikTok said the number of videos about the book was small but interest increased after it was posted on X.
Ali told the Washington Post that the hashtag was not trending on TikTok when he made his collection, but said the number of videos posted on the platform “is not small enough to be small or insignificant.”
In its study, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue said bin Laden’s references on X jumped more than 4,300%, from Tuesday to Thursday, from just over 5,000 to more than 230,000. “Letter to America” references jumped more than 1,800%, from just over 4,800 to 100,000, with 719 million impressions worldwide.
On YouTube, searches for bin Laden also dropped 400% from Tuesday to Thursday, according to Google Trends. Instagram’s autosuggest function in search helped users find “Letter to America,” listing it as a “popular search.”
A YouTube spokesperson said in an emailed statement that “Community guidelines apply consistently to all content uploaded to our site.”
“We may allow content that has an adequate educational, documentary, scientific or artistic (EDSA) context,” the spokesperson wrote, sharing a link to its guidelines for “How YouTube evaluates Educational, Documentary, Scientific, and Artistic (EDSA) content.”
The guidelines classify “Unedited re-uploading of content created by or glorifying violent terrorist or criminal organizations” as another type of content that does not receive an EDSA exception.
A representative for X did not respond to a request for comment.
The X’s guidelines and states that the platform “will remove any accounts maintained by individual perpetrators of terrorism, violent extremists, or mass violent attacks, and may also remove posts that disseminate a manifesto or other content generated by perpetrators.”
A representative for Meta, which owns Instagram, declined to comment.
Instagram’s community guidelines note that the platform is “not a place to support or glorify terrorism, organized crime, or hate groups.”
On October 13, Meta revealed its efforts to increase content moderation amid the Israel-Hamas War in a press release. The company later updated the post, saying that “its teams have introduced a series of measures to address the increase in harmful and potentially harmful content circulating on our platforms.”
“Our policies are designed to keep people safe on our apps while giving everyone a voice,” Meta wrote.
As of Thursday afternoon, a link to the deleted document was listed on the most viewed list on The Guardian’s website.
“An article published on our website in 2002 has been widely shared on social media without its full context,” a spokesperson for The Guardian said in an emailed statement. “Therefore, we decided to lower it and direct the readers to the news article that had context in the beginning.”