TikTok says it’s “aggressively removing” videos promoting Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America,” which explained why he orchestrated the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The platform has also blocked the hashtag #LettertoAmerica, meaning users won’t be able to search for it, a TikTok spokesperson told Semafor.
Several videos from creators encouraging others to read the letter or sympathizing with bin Laden’s views on Israel and the U.S. racked up tens of thousands of views on TikTok and other platforms in recent days. Google Trends data indicates that searches for the document began spiking around a week ago.
Critics argued the videos showed that TikTok was spreading harmful information to young people, who make up a large bulk of its user base. But the platform said in a statement on X that the number of videos about the letter “is small and reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate.” The statement added: “This is not unique to TikTok and has appeared across multiple platforms and the media.”
In its statement, TikTok said that content “promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism,” adding that it is “investigating how it got onto our platform.” TikTok has been at the center of the conversation about how the Israel-Hamas war is playing out on social media, in part because of a narrative that the app, which is Chinese-owned, leans pro-Palestine.
Videos that show the letter or direct people to read the letter violate the platform’s policy surrounding “violent hateful organizations and individuals,” TikTok said. Content that denounces the letter or gives additional historical context without praising it is allowed. TikTok didn’t say how many videos related to the letter have been taken down.
Similar content has been posted to X and Instagram, including videos originally taken from TikTok. X and Meta, Instagram’s parent company, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Videos about the letter, many of which are still available on TikTok, ranged from simply reading the text to saying that bin Laden made good points about Israel, Palestine, and American foreign policy. Some expressed that it made them rethink what they had been taught about the U.S. and terrorism in the early 2000s.
Many TikTok users originally read the letter on the website of The Guardian, where it amassed over 100,000 views in recent days before the newspaper took it down, according to a person familiar with the matter. Another person at The Guardian told Semafor that almost all of the traffic came from people searching for the letter on Google, starting on Nov. 9.
The Guardian said it deleted bin Laden’s letter from its website because it was being shared on social media without its original context. “Therefore we have decided to take it down and direct readers to the news article that originally contextualized it instead,” the newspaper said in a statement.
- The Guardian originally published bin Laden’s letter in its Sunday newspaper alongside an article explaining that it was first published in Arabic to a Saudi Arabian website used by al-Qaeda to disseminate its messages. It was later circulated in English by the Saudi Arabian dissident Mohammed al-Massari.
- Social justice writer Frederick Joseph argued in a TikTok video that people are not praising bin Laden, but rather discussing the points his letter raised about ”American imperialism and American warmongering.”
- 43% of U.S. TikTok users say they regularly get news content on the app, up from 22% in 2020, according to Pew survey released Wednesday.