According to TikTok, the platform has been “aggressively removing” hundreds of videos that discuss Osama bin Laden’s 2002 manifesto, “Letter to America,” which has strangely reappeared on the platform recently.
In light of the Israel-Hamas conflict, a few TikTok creators circulated the document, emphasizing bin Laden’s criticism of the US government’s support for Israel and its role in the Middle East.
“Everyone should read it…However, be forewarned that this has left me very disillusioned,” one TikTokker said.
Another creator on TikTok remarked: “I will never look at life the same. I will never look at this country the same. Please read it.”
The letter, which has been making the rounds on TikTok, was written a year after al Qaeda plotted the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It gave legislators in Washington more ammunition to push the Chinese-owned video platform to take stronger action against antisemitic content. Even so, the White House joined the debate and released a statement denouncing the resurgence of the two-decade-old manifesto.
However, one thing became evident as social media researchers combed through publicly accessible data on how popular the bin Laden content has been on TikTok: the videos don’t seem to have ever gone viral.
According to TikTok, a platform with an estimated 1.6 billion monthly active users, there were less than 300 videos with the hashtag #lettertoamerica that received about 2 million views by Wednesday. In contrast, 200 million videos on the platform during a recent 24-hour period used the hashtag #GymTok, while 137 million videos featured #travel.
But the #lettertoamerica hashtag gained 13 million views on Thursday afternoon after social media influencer Yashar Ali’s tweet about rounding up some of the videos went viral on the former Twitter platform. This caused TikTok to scramble to get rid of manifesto-related content. TikTok started removing videos that criticized users for endorsing bin Laden’s hateful writings as part of their crackdown on posts.
Read Full Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter To America below:
According to Jared Holt, senior research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, lawmakers and other observers experienced moral panic as a result of the madness surrounding the videos because they believed TikTok was radicalizing youth and amplifying terrorist writing.
A central mystery in the entire story is how and why bin Laden’s manifesto was even brought up again. Influencers in the health and wellness space made some of the original, now-deleted TikToks of the document, but it’s unclear what possible online forum, social media platform, or group chat initially brought the divisive rant back to life.
Influencer Lynette Adkins, who resides in Los Angeles, was one TikTokker who posted a video on the bin Laden letter.
She said in an NPR statement that she chose to share it after seeing posts about it from other creators in her community. She asserts that her goal was to encourage “open & peaceful” discussion about global events rather than to incite hatred or violence.
Having grown older, Adkins stated that she is attempting to learn about the terrorist incident “beyond the narrative of the mainstream media.” Adkins was three years old when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Adkins went on to imply that she is in favor of conspiracy theories regarding the attacks.
Although Adkins was unable to clarify how the bin Laden manifesto initially came to the attention of some TikTokkers, researchers claim that, at least thus far, there does not seem to have been a coordinated campaign.
Although the origin story of the phenomenon is unclear, Abbie Richards of the Accelerationism Research Consortium stated she does not believe it was initiated by a single hostile actor.
When The Guardian published a transcript of the letter in 2002, it became one of the most popular stories on the website and was eventually taken down. It was removed, according to a paper spokesman, because it had been “widely shared on social media without the full context.”
Online conspiracies regarding the possibility of a coordinated effort to remove the document from the Internet were sparked by that decision. Some researchers reacted negatively to it as well, claiming that the terrorist leader’s inflammatory writing ought to be kept up to date in order to expose it for what it is.
The letter had surfaced again, and al-Qaeda supporters rejoiced on forums where it was posted. The tracking group SITE Intelligence Group observed that a user on the extremist forums posted the following: “I hope everyone is enjoying the ongoing social media storm….” We ought to consistently publish new content.”
It’s getting harder to pinpoint exactly how popular certain content is on TikTok because external researchers have less access to the platform’s internal data. That also applies to other websites. By removing researchers’ access to the site’s analytics, Elon Musk has essentially established a new standard for social media platforms: boxing out independent evaluation of patterns and trends.
The CEO of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, told NPR in a statement that while the removal of the bin Laden videos from TikTok is a positive development, some harm has already been done.