Over the past few days, a small group of TikTok influencers shared posts that were sympathetic to Osama Bin Laden, the now deceased Al Qaeda leader who organized the September 11 attacks.
The posts referenced Bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” a message he wrote more than 20 years ago justifying the killing of Americans and criticizing the U.S.’s support of Israel. Criticism of the U.S. and Middle East foreign policy have been intensely debated online on platforms such as TikTok since the current war between Israel and Gaza started.
TikTok removed the Bin Laden-related posts for violating rules prohibiting support of “violent extremists.” The company also removed the hashtag under which some of the posts had been written so that no results appear in searches for them.
“Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism,” a TikTok spokesperson told Fortune in an email. “We are proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform. The number of videos on TikTok is small and reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate. This is not unique to TikTok and has appeared across multiple platforms and the media.”
Many of the posts were shared under the hashtag #lettertoamerica, which as of Thursday, had received 14 million views, according to CNN. Between Tuesday and Thursday references to Osama Bin Laden on TikTok increased 4,300%, while those for the phrase “letter to America” rose 1,800%, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a think tank that researches online extremism and disinformation. All together the two terms totaled around 719 million impressions on the platform, according to the ISD’s estimates.
Some of the most viewed user videos about the subject had 1.5 million views on TikTok, according to CNN. Many of the videos came from lifestyle and marijuana influencers who do not usually cover geopolitics or foreign policy. Nonetheless, their posts circulated on the platform and garnered attention. As is common on social media, even users who replied to these posts to condemn them inadvertently amplified them further.
TikTok is playing an increasingly central role in the media diet of Americans and for understanding and discussing current events. Over one third of U.S. adults under 30 regularly get their news from TikTok, according to a Pew poll. The same survey found that 43% of TikTok users regularly get news from the platform, up from 33% in 2022.
In addition to its anti-American propaganda, Bin Laden’s letter also included extensive antisemitic bigotry. TikTok, like other social media websites, has come under fire for either promoting or turning a blind eye to antisemitism that has become rampant on social media, especially since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
TikTok rebuffed those claims in a statement, saying antisemitism “had never been allowed” on the platform. “Misinformed commentators have mischaracterized our work to prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation surrounding the crisis in Israel and Gaza, especially as it relates to antisemitism.”
On Thursday, prominent Jewish celebrities, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Amy Schumer, and Debra Messing, held a conference call with two TikTok executives, head of operations Adam Presser and global head of user operations Seth Melnick, to chastise the company for its alleged failure to curb antisemitism. TikTok is “creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis,” Cohen said on the call. Bin Laden’s letter was also addressed during the call, which in addition to the Hollywood celebrities, featured prominent Jewish TikTok influencers. One influencer called the topic “the talk of the app” and said, “This app needs to ban this letter.”
Other outlets as well scrambled to remove references to Bin Laden’s letter because of the TikTok posts. The British newspaper The Guardian removed a transcript of the letter that had been on its website since November 2002 after the rise in TikTok posts sharing it, citing a lack of “context.” A note on the webpage said the publication “decided to take it down and direct readers instead to the news article that originally contextualized” the letter.
The White House also issued a statement condemning the letter and those who shared it. “No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said on X.