Dozens of young Americans posted videos on TikTok this week expressing sympathy for Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who orchestrated the September 11 attacks, over a twenty-year-old letter he wrote criticizing the United States , notably their government and their support for Israel. .
The letter, which attempts to justify the targeting and killing of American civilians, was first published in 2002. It began circulating this week on social media, and videos on the subject had garnered at least 14 million views Thursday. Many of the videos, which support some of bin Laden’s claims and urge other users to read the letter, were shared in the broader context of criticism of US support for Israel in its ongoing war against Hamas.
TikTok said Thursday that videos promoting the letter violated its rules against “supporting any form of terrorism.” The company said the number of videos promoting the letter was “low” and added that “reports of trends on our platform are inaccurate.”
TikTok declined to provide specific data to support this claim.
TikTok is extremely popular with younger Americans, with a majority of Americans under 30 using the app at least once a week, according to a KFF survey. Many TikTok users were born after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when 19 men hijacked commercial airliners, intentionally crashed them, and killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and the rural areas of Pennsylvania. The attack was orchestrated by bin Laden, the former leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, who was killed during a US special forces raid in 2011.
TikTok’s design makes it difficult to precisely measure the popularity or extent of a sentiment on the platform, but an initial CNN analysis found a few dozen videos openly praising or sympathizing with the sentiments expressed in the letter, entitled “Letter to America”.
Many videos were shared with the hashtag #lettertoamerica. As of Thursday, views for those videos had surpassed 14 million, but some videos were from users expressing frustration and disgust over the letter and how it was being praised by others on the platform.
In a video that is no longer available on the platform and has been viewed more than 1.6 million times, a New York-based lifestyle influencer encouraged others to read the letter and said: “If you have read, let me know if you go too. going through an existential crisis right now, because in the last 20 minutes my entire perspective on the entire life I’ve believed in and lived has changed.
The video was later deleted. CNN has contacted the user for comment.
In another video viewed more than 100,000 times, a TikTok user who regularly posts criticism of the US government said of the letter: “If we are to call Osama bin Laden a terrorist, the US government will ‘is also. »
A White House spokesperson blasted the apparent online trend in a statement, calling it an insult to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“There is never any justification for spreading the disgusting, evil, anti-Semitic lies that the leader of Al Qaeda spun immediately after committing the worst terrorist attack in American history – pointing to them as his direct motivation for murdering 2,977 innocent Americans,” the deputy press secretary said. Andrew Bates told CNN.
“No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families who are still mourning their loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden,” Bates added, “especially now, at a time of increasing anti-Semitic violence around the world, and just after the Hamas terrorist attacks. committed the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust in the name of the same conspiracy theories.
Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, explained that TikTok encourages high engagement at all costs. The platform “is completely unforgiving about whether it uses hate, misinformation, or positive content to keep you hooked.” Thus, “intelligent solutions are not those that succeed. It’s the silly shots that get the most virality on a platform like TikTok.
Ahmed, who studies the rise of conspiracy theories among young people, told CNN that TikTok “pretends to be an entertainment machine” but is actually “an indoctrination machine.” Right now, “we have no visibility or control over the algorithms that are shaping the minds of young Americans today,” he said.
The letter itself is a broad critique of American foreign policy that is also filled with anti-Semitic tropes and even repeats the conspiracy theory that AIDS was an “American satanic invention.”
Particular emphasis is placed on American support for Israel. “It makes us laugh and cry to see that you still do not tire of repeating your fabricated lies that Jews have a historical right to Palestine,” it reads.
Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst who produced Osama bin Laden’s first television interview in 1997, said he found the letter’s virality “confusing.”
“Most people weren’t born or were very young children when bin Laden and 9/11 happened, so they don’t have a lot of historical context.”
Bergen, who has written several books about the deceased terrorist, remains skeptical about the origin of the letter. “There is no evidence that bin Laden wrote and some of the things he focuses on are inconsistent with his other writings,” he told CNN.
On Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper, which first published a translated copy of the letter in 2002, removed it from its website after TikTok users linked directly to the document. In a statement, the newspaper said the letter “published on our website 20 years ago was widely shared on social media without full context. That’s why we decided to remove it and direct readers to the news article that originally contextualized it.
The letter, however, is still available elsewhere online.
New data from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday shows that TikTok is quickly becoming a place where more young Americans get their news.
Nearly a third of Americans ages 18 to 29 receive news from TikTok regularly, according to Bench – and overall, the share of American adults who say they regularly receive their news from TikTok has quadrupled, from 3% in 2020 to 14% in 2023.