The collective rage of the U.S. media was unleashed Thursday amid reports that the callow youth on TikTok expressed sympathies with Osama bin Laden, who murdered nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
A small number of TikTok users found a letter written by bin Laden and published by the Guardian in 2002 and thought that—despite it being full of antisemitic garbage and Islamic-fundamentalist nuttery—the late terrorist and al-Qaida leader made some good points in critiquing American foreign policy.
Sure, the sentiment these videos expressed is nauseating. But so is a lot of stuff on the internet, and to call out these particular pieces of content is to misunderstand TikTok and to grossly mischaracterize the chain of events that brought this phenomenon before a mass audience.
Here’s how CNN framed the story: “Dozens of young Americans have posted videos on TikTok this week expressing sympathy with Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who orchestrated the September 11 attacks, for a two-decade-old letter he wrote critiquing the United States, including its government and support of Israel.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. Dozens of people doing anything on TikTok does not a trend make. But let’s see where this goes: “The letter, which attempts to justify the targeting and killing of American civilians, was first published in 2002. It began to recirculate this week on the social media platform, and videos on the topic had garnered at least 14 million views by Thursday.” The New York Times reported something similar, noting that the hashtag #LetterToAmerica, the name of the bin Laden essay, garnered 14.2 million views across videos. A TikTok spokesperson told the Washington Post that only 274 videos used the hashtag on Tuesday and Wednesday before “tweets and media coverage drove people” to it.
Less than 300 videos? 14 million views total? On TikTok, those are paltry numbers. The other day, I watched a video of a guy trying Indian food for the first time that—by itself—got 18.6 million views on TikTok. In May, I tweeted a video of a guy unclogging a sewer drain and that got 26 million views. At any moment online, things are going viral before TikTok’s massive audience. To call these pro-Osama videos viral, however, would be a stretch. TikTok’s algorithm is known for supersizing virality, often lifting seemingly random content to ungodly heights quicker than any other platform. These videos seem to have received some kind of boost—but far short of what TikTok is capable of.
But while the videos themselves didn’t go viral, the backlash to the videos did.
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
One prominent Twitter figure’s outraged post about the videos, which included a supercut of them, racked up 32 million views on X. Flipping through TV channels on Thursday, I noticed the story on several different news broadcasts—every anchor and reporter was disgusted and wanted to say so. The Biden administration even responded Thursday. “No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates wrote on X while sharing the CNN article.
And the Guardian, which originally published the letter, deleted it from its archives—sometimes a faux pas in modern journalism, where transparency for even egregious errors or past mistakes is commonplace. (“The transcript published on our website had been widely shared on social media without the full context,” an editor’s note now reads. “Therefore we decided to take it down and direct readers instead to the news article that originally contextualised it.”) TikTok then said it’s “aggressively removing” the videos, which violate its platform rules. The Guardian’s removal and TikTok’s heavy policing likely added fuel to the fire, bringing more attention to a once-contained issue, a social-era version of the Streisand effect. The Guardian’s list of most-viewed stories now lists “Removed Document” near the top—a placeholder for where the letter once stood.
To live in a society with free speech is to live in a society with repulsive speech. People have a right to be stupid and hateful and wrong, and privately run social media sites have a right to largely police their platforms the way they see fit. Small factions of people will always have repugnant ideas, express them, and—hopefully—feel the awesome weight of the world responding.
But what we need to keep in mind is proportionality. A small group of nobodies on TikTok saying dumb shit is not a viral trend that necessitates mass hysteria in response. This incident is only news because, well, it became news.