The Dark Side of TikTok

By: Aliza Leichter  |  August 30, 2020
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By Aliza Leichter, Social Media Manager

TikTok, a viral video-sharing app, originally called Musical.ly, was acquired by Chinese tech company ByteDance in 2017 for up to $1 billion. Three years later, the platform has become a massive success with more than two billion downloads and a value of $50 billion. TikTok allows users to create and upload short videos showcasing their talents. In between innocuous videos of lip-synching to viral songs and choreographed dance challenges is a different sound, the sound of all-too-familiar antisemitism. One video featured racist sketches of characters with large noses labelled “A Sneaky Jew” and “Mega Jew,” followed by antisemitic tropes that Jewish people control the media, financial sector, and government. In another clip, a TikTok user “duets” — a video reply alongside another original post — a video addressing the dangers of antisemitic slurs. The user filmed themselves opening an oven door — an obvious, horrific reference to the crematories at Auschwitz — as the original video plays in the background.

In adapting to their rapid growth, TikTok has largely ignored their own Terms of Service statement that users may not post “any material that is racist or discriminatory, including discrimination on the basis of someone’s race, religion, age, gender, disability, or sexuality.” While less then 20% of reported videos are removed, this often happens after the content has been viewed millions of times. For example, TikTok’s own algorithm promoted a since-removed video mocking Auschwitz victims with the lyrics: “We’re going on a trip to a place called Auschwitz, it’s shower time,” referring to gas chambers in the death camp which were disguised as showers. The video went viral with a staggering 6.5 million views and some users employed the song in their own antisemitic videos. 

According to watchdog group StopAntisemitism.org, reports of antisemitic TikTok videos have increased ten-fold since the start of the global pandemic in mid-March. These videos have become so normalized on the platform that they can be found trending on TikTok’s explore page. 

In a recent meeting between Israeli lawmakers and tech representatives from social media giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter, TikTok was notably absent. The Knesset’s (Israel’s lawmaking body) Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs said that the platform’s refusal to participate leaves the impression that TikTok “shuns” ideas of tackling the rampant antisemitism on their platform. 

While antisemitism and Holocaust denial are rooted in innacurate opinions, their ramifications are all too real. In 2018, eleven people were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. The suspect was deeply involved in spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories on social media sites. The following year, in 2019, the American Jewish community experienced the highest level of antisemitic incidents since tracking began in 1979, with more than 2,100 reported instances of assault, vandalism, and harassment. As the Jewish community mourned deaths in Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey, it was social media users who struck us with fragments of the same hatred our anscestors experienced during the Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and Holocaust, alongside the shattering realization that in the land of the free, our safety is no promise.

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