Last week, a YouGov survey for the Campaign Against Antisemitism showed that over a third of British 18-to-24-year- olds believe that Israel treats the Palestinians like the Nazis treated the Jews. In similar vein, more than a quarter said they agree that Israel can get away with anything because its supporters control the media — the same proportion who believe that Israel and its supporters are a bad influence on our democracy. In the United States, a Pew poll found similarly that 51 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds believe the Hamas attacks of October 7 “can be justified by the grievances of the Palestinians”.
One reason for these findings, which are obviously of enormous significance for the future, is almost certainly TikTok.
Those of us who are older than “Gen Z” (mid-20s or younger) have no conception of the dominance of the platform in that age group’s digital lives. Nothing else comes close, and nothing else really has an impact on them. Research shows that Gen Z spends at least ten per cent of its waking hours on TikTok, and unpublished Google data is reported to show that the primary search engine for 40 per cent of Gen Z is TikTok. What TV is to us, TikTok is for Gen Z.
But it is not some neutral platform. TikTok is Chinese-created, owned and controlled. We have entrusted the supply of news for Gen Z to a platform that is a source of deliberate, targeted and deeply dangerous poison by the Chinese Communist Party. For Gen Z, it is as if the Chinese Communist Party owned the BBC, ITV and Sky.
The algorithms on which TikTok’s success is built deliberately lead users along pathways they may never have intended to go down, pushing them towards well-crafted, well-put-together, anti-Western and, at the moment, pro-Hamas content. Last November, for example, posts with the hashtag #lettertoamerica received over ten million views. The letter which the posts celebrated was Osama bin Laden’s notorious Letter to America credo, published by the Guardian in 2002. After an outcry, TikTok eventually blocked searches for it, but by the then the damage had been done, with TikTok posts commenting on the insights of bin Laden and the supposed relevance of his views to the Israeli operation in Gaza.
Effectively handing over an entire generation’s internet portal to China is an act of supreme folly. Through TikTok, the CCP is being given the chance to shape the views and outlook over the next generation of political, business and civic leaders.
Last month, Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at New York University, produced research showing that TikTok videos tagged #StandWithPalestine received more than ten times the views of those tagged #StandWithIsrael — 324million v 3.4billion. Is it any wonder, when the platform on which Gen Z obtain not just their news but the commentary around it is a tool of the CCP?
It is important to be clear that no one has been able to show direct evidence that the CCP actively controls TikTok. Of course not — it would be a pretty useless tool if the CCP’s control was open. But look at it the other way round: what are the chances that the CCP would not control TikTok? Somewhere close to zero, surely.
Take a step back. The CCP has long practised industrial and political espionage in the West, partly designed to gain access to secrets and intellectual property but also to destabilise and divide us. The creation of TikTok has given the CCP an unparalleled opportunity to take this many steps further. In the 2022 US mid-terms, TikTok promoted videos attacking US politicians on key social issues without disclosing that the videos were made by Chinese state-controlled accounts. And in the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was full of Russian propaganda. TikTok also suppresses “unhelpful” content: only 20 videos have the hashtag Tiananmen Square, for example, and most of them deny the massacre happened.
As Prof Galloway has put it, it is as if the CCP “has implanted a neural jack into every under-30”. This, he points out, is classic psyops: “In the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union engaged in covert actions aimed at fomenting internal strife. Radio Free Europe, a CIA-backed initiative, broadcast pro-democracy messaging into the Eastern Bloc to encourage dissent. In the Second World War, Nazi Germany dropped leaflets over American troops that highlighted racial injustices in the US, hoping to demoralise troops and incite racial tension. Every nation has done, or is doing, this … actively.”
This is an issue of grave concern to the West generally, but as the CAA poll figures show, it is of vital importance to anyone concerned with support for Israel. China is engaged in a systematic attempt to destabilise the West, and one key aspect to that is pushing Gen Z to support Islamists and terror organisations.
Although the Chinese refuse to concede that they control TikTok’s algorithms to this end, they have made no effort to disguise the broad strategy into which TikTok fits. In 2013, President Xi Jinping called the internet “the main battlefield in the battle for public opinion”. He added: “Online public opinion work should be taken as the top priority of propaganda and ideological work. Many people, especially young people, do not read mainstream media and get most of their information from the internet. We must face up to this fact, increase investment, and seize the initiative on this battlefield of public opinion as soon as possible. [We must] become experts in using new means and methods of modern media.”
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew delivers his opening speech during the TikTok Southeast Asia Impact Forum 2023 in Jakarta on June 15, 2023. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP) (Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images)
If there was any doubt as to TikTok’s purpose, one need only look at the domestic Chinese version, Douyin, and see the differences. Superficially they appear the same. But the content is completely different. For one thing, under-14s are only allowed access for 40 minutes a day and there are five-second delays if a user starts scrolling for too long, while the algorithm used on TikTok encourages users to remain on the app for as long as possible.
The Douyin algorithm promotes “inspiring” videos promoting patriotism and social cohesion along with scientific, educational and historical content, as well as academic and athletic achievement.
Centre for Humane Technology founder Tristan Harris puts it like this: “It’s almost like they recognise that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.”
This is an apt comparison, because research has shown that the areas of the brain usually associated with addiction are highlighted in brain scans when young people see TikTok videos. An article in the academic journal NeuroImage in 2021 reported how TikTok’s algorithm-chosen content seared itself onto younger minds: “The fMRI results showed higher brain activations in sub-components of the default mode network (DMN), ventral tegmental area, and discrete regions including lateral prefrontal, anterior thalamus, and cerebellum when viewing personalised videos in contrast to non-personalised ones. Psychophysiological interaction analyses revealed stronger coupling between activated DMN subregions and neural pathways underlying auditory and visual processing, as well as the frontoparietal network.”
TikTok was set up by ByteDance, founded by internet entrepreneur Zhang Yiming. Zhang stood down as CEO and chair in 2021 but reportedly still owns a class of shares that retain his control. The CCP is also said to have a “golden share” in ByteDance, which includes veto powers and board nominations.
Infamously, too, the Chinese state has the power to mandate Chinese tech companies’s behaviour through Article VII of China’s National Intelligence Law, which states: “Any organisation or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with the law, and maintain the secrecy of all knowledge of state intelligence work.”
It has also been reported that more than 300 TikTok employees worked before for Chinese state media, with 23 ByteDance directors having worked for CCP propaganda outlets. The CCP has refused to let ByteDance go public, citing national security reasons.
So the question for us is why, given that we know exactly what China is up to, we do nothing and allow it to do whatever it wants. It’s not as if we can’t see the the impact of this on our streets at the moment, with younger people appearing to make up the vast majority of those on the so-called Free Palestine marches. When we see where they are getting their news and views from, the term “hate marches” seems an ever more accurate label.
As Goebbels wrote: the purpose of propaganda is to generate “volcanic passions, outbreaks of rage, to set masses of people on the march, to organise hatred and despair with ice-cold calculation.”
More fool us that we let it.