Asian and Middle Eastern users tilt TikTok balance toward Palestinians

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The popularity of pro-Palestine content on TikTok is being driven primarily by users in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, while U.S. consumption on the platform is roughly split between both sides, according to an analysis of TikTok hashtag data by Semafor.

U.S. critics have accused the Chinese-owned app of posing a national security threat over claims that it serves overwhelmingly anti-Israel videos to people. “By tweaking the TikTok algorithm, the CCP can censor information and influence Americans of all ages on a variety of issues,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., wrote in an op-ed this week.

TikTok has denied the claims and said in a blog post they were based on “unsound analysis.” The data reviewed by Semafor suggests that the imbalance on the platform is largely outside the U.S. — and may skew heavily toward the Palestinian side because of the app’s popularity in Muslim countries and the fact that it is blocked in India. TikTok declined to comment on the findings to Semafor.

In the last 30 days, TikTok users in Malaysia — a country of roughly 33 million people — posted 39,000 videos with the hashtag #istandwithpalestine. That’s almost four times the number that were uploaded to the platform with the same hashtag in the U.S.

Since Oct. 4, three days before Hamas’s attack on Israel, TikTok videos hashtagged with the Arabic word for Palestine have been watched 3 billion times in Iraq (population: 44 million), a billion times more than TikTok users in the U.S. viewed videos tagged with #Palestine in English.

Within the U.S., there appeared to be slightly more interest in pro-Palestine hashtags compared to pro-Israel tags, but not by much. Over the last month, Americans posted 10,000 videos tagged with #istandwithpalestine that were viewed a collective 34 million times, compared to 7,000 videos with #istandwithisrael that garnered 33 million views.

Other popular tags included the very similar #standwithpalestine and #standwithisrael. The pro-Israel version of that tag received 48 million views from 5,000 TikToks in the U.S., while the Palestine version totaled 31 million views from double the number of videos.

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Semafor collected the data from TikTok’s Creative Center, a tool for advertisers that shows how hashtags are performing on the app around the world. It isn’t an exact proxy for the popularity of a certain topic on the platform — creators may choose not to include specific hashtags or omit them entirely. But the country-by-country breakdown provides a glimpse of the relative interest in different topics over time.

The data shows that hashtags related to the war are often the most popular in countries geographically close to the conflict, like Bahrain, Lebanon, Kuwait, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, relative to their population size.

While the United States is an important ally of Israel, Americans are not among the biggest consumers of videos with many of the hashtags Semafor examined. TikTokers in Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, posted and watched far more content tagged #freepalestine and #istandwithpalestine than U.S. users over the last 30 days.

Both of the Muslim-majority countries known for “being staunch regional advocates of the Palestinian cause,” Aiza Mohamad wrote in The Diplomat. They’re two of just six Asian nations that don’t formally recognize Israel, and both have government programs set up to promote and support Palestine. Malaysia’s prime minister also recently accused TikTok of blocking pro-Palestinian content in the country, a charge that TikTok denied.