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TikTok’s Unwritten Rules For Israel-Gaza Ads Sparked Internal Outrage

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After October 7, TikTok rejected ads about the Israeli hostages abducted by Hamas—even as a top employee has family among the kidnapped. Following external pressure and internal turmoil, the company recently changed course.


After Hamas kidnapped more than 240 people during its brutal October 7 attack on Israel, families of the hostages turned to TikTok to advocate for their release. With its 1 billion users, the app could be a powerful means of rallying global support for their loved ones and demanding their safe return home.

Among a number of ads created by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, the leading volunteer organization campaigning for the release of those taken captive, was one that showed 12-year-old Noam Avigdori boogying to an electronic dance music track. Another featured 47-year-old Elad Katzir cheering in a stadium filled with green-clad sports fans.

They both ended the same way, with text saying: “On October 7th, hundreds of innocent civilians were taken hostage by Hamas. Bring them home now.”

But TikTok rejected the advertisements throughout October, according to Dorit Gvili, an ad executive who oversaw social media for the Forum. TikTok top brass previously considered ads about hostages to be against company policy, according to internal material from October obtained by Forbes and two TikTok sources familiar with the matter.

In the months that followed, local TikTok representatives explained in conversations with the Forum that their various ads had been declined because they included visuals that were “triggering,” text that was “triggering,” mentions of Hamas (prohibited under TikTok’s advertising rules related to terrorism), and explicit references to the hostages, Gvili said. The group could compromise on the first three pieces, she added, but not the final one. “You cannot talk about the hostages without using the word hostages,” Gvili explained.

Ads depicting the war’s growing and devastating toll in Gaza, meanwhile, had been running regularly across the platform since the earliest weeks of the conflict, TikTok’s Ad Library for Europe shows. They included videos from humanitarian relief groups like the United Nations World Food Programme, Human Appeal and Save the Children—showing hospitals in chaos, smoke rising from bombs and buildings reduced to rubble—as well as one-offs from unknown users who’d paid to run ads, many of them graphic. Millions of TikTok users across a dozen European countries would see these ads by the end of 2023, per the database. More than 32,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

The apparent discrepancy between the types of ads being approved post-October 7 fueled intense backlash inside the company, TikTok sources in a position to know told Forbes. The problem hit especially close to home for employees in Israel because a beloved TikTok department head there has a sibling among the kidnapped, they said. Not only did staff feel the rules were unfairly undermining critical, time-sensitive efforts to support the hostages, they said, but the Forum was notably permitted to run the same ads without pushback on other top platforms owned by Meta and Google, according to Gvili.

“TikTok is one of the strongest platforms in the world to raise messaging and to raise awareness in general, and we cannot lose it as one of the platforms, especially on this important subject,” she said. “Those people, if they will be forgotten—that’s a death penalty for them.” Israel says 130 hostages remain in Gaza, including some who are believed to be dead.

TikTok told Forbes there was no specific policy prohibiting the word “hostage” and that it simply did not allow war-related ads in the past; that policy was revised in 2024 to permit ads for humanitarian campaigns referencing victims of war, according to spokesperson Jamie Favazza. “We thoughtfully respond to unforeseen situations when necessary by carefully reviewing our policies to help ensure that we continue to keep the platform safe,” she said in a statement.

“I was instructed by the company that anything related to the hostages is out of policy. All this subject, all together, was overruled and rejected.”

Barak Herscowitz, a vertical lead at TikTok Israel who resigned in January

Though TikTok does not have a comprehensive ads database in the U.S. to provide transparency into what is running on the platform and who is paying for it, Forbes analyzed hundreds of ads in TikTok’s EU repository to examine how its stated rules have been applied in practice—and what content about the war advertisers big and small were disseminating in the crucial weeks and months after October 7. Forbes also contacted half a dozen top humanitarian organizations focused on relief efforts in Gaza to ask whether they’d experienced similar issues airing ads.

TikTok says it removed nearly 1.5 million ads from October to December 2023 for violating its advertising rules. But despite the company’s claim that it did not allow ads related to war during that time, ads explicitly referencing and illustrating this war were easy to find in its database, with a disproportionate volume depicting its effect on Gazans. One of the Gaza relief organizations contacted by Forbes said it does not run campaigns on TikTok, while the others declined to comment or did not respond. (Three—the UN World Food Programme, Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, also called Médecins Sans Frontières—have been able to run ads regularly and have together reached millions of people, the archive shows.)

The larger volume of ads about Gaza early in the war could be due to the fact that the overall death toll in Israel on October 7 was considerably lower, north of 1,200. Still, the company’s advertising rules prohibiting content about war and Hamas did not appear to have been applied consistently to many of those ads.

Some war-related ads in the TikTok database glorified violence against Israelis (Forbes was unable to find ads doing the reverse, though it’s possible they exist or were taken down). Other ads urged a boycott of brands with ties to Israel, showed hashtags like #GazaHolocaust and called for a ceasefire. At least one, showing small children hugging cats in the rubble, appeared to be AI-generated. Searching “Hamas” pulled up videos containing the word “Hamas,” or claims like “Israel controls what Western journalists can show you, they’re trying to censor a genocide” and “that’s one child killed every 10 minutes.” Searching “October 7” and “hostage” during the same period did not return ads about the war’s effect on Israelis. Forbes also found a number of ads, some humanitarian campaigns and others not, about the Ukraine-Russia war.

When Forbes provided TikTok with dozens of examples of these ads, asking whether they had violated its rules, TikTok confirmed that many did and would still not be permitted on the app today. They have since been removed.


‘It just doesn’t make any sense’

Over the last six months, TikTok has played an outsize role in shaping global discourse and perceptions around Israel’s war against Hamas. With more than 1 billion users around the world—170 million in the United States alone—the platform has become a popular destination for news and real-time updates on high-stakes, fast-moving current events. But TikTok has been thrust under a microscope far more now than during the Ukraine-Russia war. People have been fighting over which side of the conflict gets boosted or booted by its algorithm (TikTok denies it tips the scales on either viewpoint). The app has inflamed generational rifts, too. It’s also facing its most serious threat yet of being banned in the U.S. But as contentious as the platform has become in the public eye, its handling of the Israel-Hamas war has also been hugely contentious within its own walls.

The rule keeping ads about hostages off the platform roiled TikTok’s outpost in Israel, according to the two TikTok sources familiar with the matter, in part because one of the company’s top employees there, head of entertainment sales Michael Levy, has a younger brother who is being held hostage in Gaza. Levy’s brother, Or Levy, was taken from the Nova music festival, where police say Hamas massacred at least 360 people; his sister-in-law was among those murdered as she sought shelter. They leave behind a 2-year-old toddler. (Levy did not respond to outreach from Forbes.)

“My perception [of the war] is very different than most of the Israelis. And yet, even for me, the way TikTok is handling the hostage situation—it just doesn’t make any sense.”

TikTok source familiar with the matter

The tragedy endured by Levy and his family—and his monthslong efforts advocating for his brother’s release—have weighed heavily on many in TikTok’s Israeli branch of roughly 160 employees (some who’ve been called to reserve duties) and mobilized their support, the sources told Forbes. But the company’s stance on ads mentioning hostages, and its lack of transparency and urgency on the issue, fueled widespread anger internally among staff in Israel, they said—leading workers there to lobby management, arguing that material about the hostage crisis was of a humanitarian nature that aligns with company policy.

“His brother is literally kidnapped by a terror organization and no one says anything, does anything,” one of the sources in a position to know told Forbes sixteen weeks into the war, before any changes had been made. “We need to have more exposure about the hostages.”

“My perception [of the war] is very different than most of the Israelis,” this person added. “And yet, even for me, the way TikTok is handling the hostage situation—it just doesn’t make any sense.”

When the company then gave Israeli workers a roughly $2,500 bonus to assist them while the office there remained shut down, some did not view it as a true show of support, the TikTok sources said.

“Within TikTok it felt, to me, so cynical,” said one, who donated the bonus straight to the Hostage and Missing Families Forum. “The money felt dirty.”


Outside pressure builds

The firestorm over TikTok’s approach to hostage-related ads also spilled into public view, drawing fierce criticism and pleas to better meet the moment from outside the company.

At Davos in January, at least one of the freed hostages and several hostage family members in attendance spoke to TikTok’s Adam Presser about the importance of getting their stories out on the platform, Gvili said. (Presser, TikTok’s head of operations, oversees trust and safety and reports to CEO Shou Chew.) Moran Stela Yanai, who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, and Nili Margalit, who was abducted from her home in Kibbutz Nir Oz, were both released from Hamas captivity at the end of November and were among the group that flew to Davos less than two months later to speak with tech and business leaders.

Days after Davos, when the TikTok CEO testified before Congress at a high-profile Senate Judiciary hearing, the committee’s top Republican grilled him about a senior employee at TikTok Israel who’d just resigned in protest of the company’s position on hostage material and its broader handling of antisemitism and alleged anti-Israel bias on the platform. The staffer, Barak Herscowitz, was in charge of recruiting the government, public sector and NGOs to join and advertise on TikTok. He told Forbes, “I was instructed by the company that anything related to the hostages is out of policy. All this subject, all together, was overruled and rejected.”

“Paid ads can have a huge impact on shaping public discourse,” he said. “These are ads targeting specific audiences and potentially reach millions of views, regardless of the organic behavior of the users.”

“The hostage families’ campaigns did not have harsh war images, yet they were considered too political, while, in contrast, Palestinian campaigns with war scenes were not considered political and ran on the platform,” he added. But in his view, “the main victims are primarily users in the United States and the rest of the world, for whom TikTok has become a primary source of news and information. They received, as I saw it, a well-paid distorted and one-sided picture of reality.”

“There are over 200 people that got kidnapped from their own beds. … They’re not part of this war. They’re not part of this game.”

Dorit Gvili, who oversaw social media for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum

In February, TikTok’s top policy leader for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, and vice president for public policy in Europe, Theo Bertram, then met with Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog to discuss concerns about the platform’s role in influencing dialogue around the conflict and Jews more generally.

The building pressure inside and outside TikTok, and monthslong back-and-forth with the Forum, culminated with the company quietly pivoting on its policy nearly five months later, about a month ago, Gvili said. The Hostage and Missing Families Forum has since been able to run at least two ads on the platform using language about the hostages, though there are still restrictions on what else can be shown and said.

“There are over 200 people that got kidnapped from their own beds—children, elderly, mothers, grandmothers, men—and they’re not part of this war, they’re not part of this game,” Gvili told Forbes. “This is why we were insisting all that time that this is not a political campaign; this is just a campaign about humanism.”

“The battle is still running,” she added. “We are still in a huge problem. The hostages are still there.”

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