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The US TikTok ban is an attack on the digital rights of Palestinians

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Regardless of the true motives behind the effort to ban TikTok, it would have damaging effects on free speech and digital rights. [Getty]

The US Congress's recent move to ban TikTok is a perfect example of the US's double standards.

Banning one of the world's most widely used social media platforms is a serious attack on free speech, and forcing a sale to owners more politically acceptable to the US is extremely problematic.

Civil society and digital rights experts have strongly condemned these efforts. Additionally, US intelligence chiefs have explicitly stated that privacy concerns surrounding TikTok are purely hypothetical, leading to questions about what the real factors driving this might be.

But regardless of the true motives of this action, if successful, it will set a dangerous precedent worldwide that will undermine freedom of expression.

To understand what is at stake, we must examine this action from the perspective of the impact of social media on the global perception of what is happening in Palestine. Conservative politicians like Nikki Haley would like you to believe that spending time on TikTok is directly linked to increased anti-Semitism.

“Faced with the failures of mainstream media, Palestinians have seen social media as an opportunity to be heard and seen by the world after suffering decades of forced isolation.”

Unpacking this extremely ridiculous and debunked claim points out some important facts. First, the general U.S. public is increasingly supportive of the Palestinians. Second, mainstream Western media coverage of Israel and Palestine has shown bias, and Palestinians are using social media as a tool to provide the international community with a more honest picture of the realities on the ground in Gaza.

Regardless of whether you believe that social media has a direct influence on public opinion about Palestine and Israel, it should be undeniable that Palestinians have the right to share their stories with the international community.

Facing the failures of mainstream media, Palestinians have seen social media as a chance to be heard and seen by the world after suffering decades of forced isolation. When people change their minds about Palestinians after seeing their stories on social media, it is because they were finally able to see Palestinians as people and not the stereotypes and statistics they often refer to in Western media .

This is something that all people, and especially oppressed communities, should have access to.

However, social media is certainly not a perfect solution. Palestinians have experienced widespread silence and censorship on all major platforms.

As TikTok has explained, there is a lot of pro-Palestinian content on its platform because its user base is largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but Palestinian advocates have also complained about TikTok's censorship. Additionally, like all major social media platforms, TikTok has legitimate privacy concerns.

Issues occurring on TikTok are not unique, but rather widespread across social media. In the age of surveillance capitalism, all major social media platforms profit from user data. As the saying goes, “If you don’t pay for it, you are the product.”

And even if Congress managed to pressure ByteDance to sell TikTok, given the complete lack of privacy laws in the US, it would still be extremely feasible for the Chinese government or anyone else to buy US users' data from a data broker .

Banning the platform won't solve the privacy issues at all, and neither will forcing it to sell to presumably US owners. Just look at how US social media platforms treat their users.

In fact, US social media platforms have a terrible track record when it comes to human rights. Following the 2017 genocide against the Rohingya, Amnesty International found that companies' “ruthless pursuit of profit” “significantly contributed to the Myanmar military's atrocities against the Rohingya in 2017.”

Naturally, the social media giant apologized and claimed to be changing its behavior. However, reports in November showed that Facebook is profiting from paid advertising campaigns promoting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Furthermore, since Elon Musk took over Twitter and renamed it X, the platform has become a hotbed for hate speech and incitement to violence against Palestinians. Since the beginning of the war on Gaza alone, over 3.5 million cases of hateful and inflammatory posts against Palestinians have been documented.

“Concerns about foreign actors propagating social media are neither new nor unique to TikTok, and yes, even the United States is engaging in such activity.”

Further concerns have been raised about China's ability to use TikTok as a propaganda machine to achieve its foreign policy goals. In the context of Israel's information war against Palestine, it is an absolutely ridiculous topic to raise.

In October 2023, investigative reports revealed that Israel invested millions of dollars in a paid advertising campaign on YouTube aimed at citizens of Western countries in order to justify collective punishment of all Palestinians and to garner support for its campaign of indiscriminate bombing in Gaza.

Additionally, recent reports also showed that former President Donald Trump implemented a CIA program to use Chinese social media to incite the Chinese population against his government.

These examples reiterate that concerns about social media propagation by foreign actors are neither new nor unique to TikTok, and yes, even the United States is engaging in such activities.

Banning TikTok would set a dangerous precedent for the world. Authoritarian state actors have long sought to silence their opposition, and many would take such actions as evidence that it is okay to ban major media platforms without facing international condemnation. That would endanger freedom of expression worldwide.

The Biden administration has actually condemned Nigeria for blocking access to Twitter just a few years ago.

It is curious that in an election year in which Biden's campaign was severely hampered by Palestinian advocates calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, Biden has now expressed support for a possible ban on a platform itself.

Eric Sype is a community organizer and Palestinian human rights advocate. He is the national organizer of 7amleh in the United States and is working to build a broad base of support for Palestinian digital rights in the United States.

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The opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial team or its staff.