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TikTok under pressure to suppress pro-Palestine voices in alarming crackdown on free speech

November 17, 2023 at 2:58 pm

In this photo illustration, logos of TikTok are displayed on mobile phone screen and computer screen in Ankara, Turkiye on May 24, 2023 [Arman Önal – Anadolu Agency]

Social media giant, TikTok, has come under pressure from pro-Israel celebrities and “Jewish influencers” crackdown on pro-Palestine voices and content, according to a shocking new report by the New York Times. Earlier this week, executives at the company are said to have held a private meeting with around a dozen pro-Israel celebrities, included the actors Sacha Baron Cohen, Debra Messing and Amy Schumer to discuss what they called a “surge of anti-Semitism” on the platform.

However, recordings of the call obtained by the NYT reveal the reality to be quite different. The TikTok higher-ups appear to be under huge pressure to cooperate with demands to suppress users promoting legitimate pro-Palestine speech. Participating celebrities even went so far as to equate allowing criticism of Israel to enabling Nazism.

READ: Social media censorship of Palestinian content continued in August

“What is happening at TikTok is it is creating the biggest anti-Semitic movement since the Nazis,” Cohen, who does not appear to have an official TikTok account, is reported saying. “Shame on you,” Cohen apparently said to Adam Presser, TikTok’s head of operations, claiming that the social media platform could “flip a switch” to fix anti-Semitism on its platform.

Among the demands made of TikTok were tighter restrictions on use of the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which supporters of the apartheid state claim is anti-Semitic, even though Israeli leaders are notorious for using the term to assert Israel’s domination over every inch of historic Palestine.

Presser said the phrase was up for interpretation by TikTok’s 40,000 moderators. “Where it is clear exactly what they mean — ‘kill the Jews, eradicate the state of Israel’ — that content is violative and we take it down,” he told the group. “Our approach, up until Oct. 7, continuing to today, has been that for instances where people use the phrase where it’s not clear, where someone is just using it casually, then that has been considered acceptable speech.”

This week’s meeting with TikTok comes as the social media platform is trying to push back against growing claims that it is promoting pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel content. Several Washington lawmakers have renewed their calls to ban the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, arguing that Beijing may be influencing the content promoted through the platform’s algorithms.

TikTok executives were largely conciliatory in the meeting. “Obviously a lot of what Sacha says, there’s truth to that,” Presser is reported saying, referring to Cohen’s remarks that social media companies needed to take more action.

Earlier this year, a glimpse into the scale of Israel’s crackdown on social media users was given with the revelation that the Occupation state is one of the world’s leading countries in demanding the removal of videos from the TikTok social media platform.

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, TikTok received 2,713 requests from governments around the world to remove or limit content or accounts in the third quarter of 2022. The company removed 110,954,663 videos uploaded to the platform worldwide during this time, roughly one per cent of all the videos uploaded to TikTok.

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