“I don’t think I’m going to make too many videos about this,” said Alex Peter. It was October 8, hours after Hamas militants launched terror attacks on Israel. Peter, a TikToker with hundreds of thousands of followers, talked for three minutes about how “a superpower that has full faith and funding from the U.S. government” oppressed “people living in destitution.”
He headed to a solidarity rally in Times Square — then watched, with dismay, as media coverage focused on an attendee who displayed a swastika and another who praised the attacks, prompting prominent progressive politicians to disavow the event amid a national debate over antisemitism on the left. Peter posted more videos, on a platform that quickly became dominated by pro-Palestinian accounts and conversations, to the distress of pro-Israel politicians and activists.
“What’s happening now is so horrific that even the most indoctrinated people have a little bit more doubt about it,” Peter told Semafor. He’d blocked hundreds of comments he considered offensive, but kept a receptive audience of more than 870,000 followers.
Peter’s turn to Israel commentary was coming just as the political establishment outside of it was beginning to panic about the state of Gen Z — and especially the discourse on newer social media they tend to favor. Spokesmen for the Israel Defense Forces get ridiculed in these spaces; images of attacks that have killed thousands of Gazans spread instantly, with no filter.
“There are more perspectives now, in a more communicable format,” said Hasan Piker, a leftist Twitch streamer with 2.6 million followers. “But the other factor is that Israel is more brutal this time around, and has only increased its violence.”
Platforms like TikTok, whose Chinese ties often scare off mainstream politicians in addition to the more typical generational tech divides, could seem especially mysterious and frightening to outsiders in this context. Peter’s TikTok account — relatively popular, but hardly dominant — has nearly twice as many followers as the official Democratic Party account.
A viral thread by tech substacker Jeff Morris, Jr. blamed TikTok’s algorithms for pumping a self-reinforcing wave of anti-Israel messaging to teens with little prior interest in the conflict. The chair of the House China Committee, Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, called TikTok — already a major target in Congress — ”digital fentanyl” and suggested, without evidence, the Chinese Communist Party was deliberately gaming its algorithm in recent weeks to divide Americans on the issue.
To Democrats, Israel’s poor image on social media is accelerating what they’ve seen from young voters and even White House, Congressional, and party staffers — anger at the president for his support of the Israeli counter-attack and refusal to endorse a ceasefire.
But it’s also fed into fears of a broader political disconnect with Gen Z that goes beyond Israel, especially as President Biden struggles to connect with voters under 30, who polls suggest are still deeply unimpressed with his record. To some, the fierce reaction to his Israel policy in newer social media spaces was a Rosetta Stone to understanding both problems for the party, and a sign that Democrats had foolishly ceded a crucial information battleground to activists hostile to their interests who could depress turnout next year and encourage third-party defections.
“There’s not even a pretense of trying to be accurate, people can just focus entirely entirely on creating wherever the audience wants to hear,” Will Stancil, a progressive commentator who has urged Democrats to take the platform more seriously, told Semafor. “And it’s been outsourced to thousands of people who are mostly anonymous.”
Prominent new media creators see it differently. The generation’s drift towards more left-leaning activism, especially around Israel issues, long predates the newer social media platforms. To them, blaming apps where they’re the most likely to congregate is blaming the messenger.
Three weeks ago, when I talked to IfNotNow and other groups demanding a ceasefire, they knew that their opponents inside the Democratic Party saw the war as a chance to discredit them. The refrain I heard, again and again: Wait for the images from Gaza.
That theory has played out, especially on social media; Democrats who had pushed off the “ceasefire” question are now getting it constantly, and sometimes answering it sympathetically. When Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin told CNN that it was time for a ceasefire, his muddled answer — a focus on the release of hostages, which the Biden administration says it supports a temporary “humanitarian pause” to achieve — was celebrated by activists.
“Thank you for listening to tens of thousands of Jews calling for peace,” IfNotNow said, in a statement.
The angst about younger people seeing sympathetic coverage of Palestine, and especially instances of inflammatory or misleading rhetoric defending or rationalizing Hamas, in an unfamiliar media environment has some parallels to other episodes. Republicans in the Trump era have been increasingly confused by a shifting media landscape often driven by influencers and Rumble videos as much as Fox News, and afraid of angering a base they often struggle to understand (there’s even been a smaller, parallel Israel fight taking place on the right in those spaces). It can be difficult sometimes to tell what’s a long-term social trend and what’s a short-term media fad, and Democrats in particular have a habit of looking for structural explanations for politics that may or may not fit the moment.
Room for Disagreement
While Democrats fret over the politics of the Israel-Gaza war, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi told reporters this week she doesn’t expect voters upset over it will abandon Democrats, especially with Donald Trump as the GOP nominee. “Have we forgotten about the Muslim ban?” she asked at an event Monday. “One of the first things that what’s-his-name did when he became president was to put a Muslim ban on Muslims coming into the country.”
In Jewish Insider, Matthew Kassel talks to the pro-Israel groups already spending money, and scouting for candidates, to oust left-wing Israel critics from the House. Four members of the “squad” may “defend their seats from new challengers who are drawing sharp contrasts on Middle East policy.”
In the Washington Post, Drew Harwell and Taylor Lorenz cover the furious political reaction to Israel criticism on social media; TikTok, says Marco Rubio, is working to “downplay Hamas terrorism.”
And previously at Semafor, J.D. Capelouto explained how TikTok became so pro-Palestinian. One unusual factor: India, whose political landscape includes a major pro-Israel movement, is not on the app.