ANALYSIS: China Uses TikTok to Push Anti-Israel Propaganda in US

ANALYSIS: China Uses TikTok to Push Anti-Israel Propaganda in US
TikTok's office in Culver City, Calif., on March 16, 2023. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
News Analysis

As the Israel Defense Forces carry out its ground offensive into the heart of the Gaza Strip to eradicate the terrorist group Hamas, the Chinese regime is using TikTok to spread its anti-Israel propaganda from China to the United States, aiming to influence the perspectives of American youth on the Israel–Hamas conflict.

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Due to security concerns, President Joe Biden signed the No TikTok on Government Devices Act in December 2022, which prohibited downloading and using TikTok on all federal government devices. Over half of all U.S. states have either partially or entirely prohibited TikTok on government devices, according to a CNN analysis early this year.
TikTok’s promotion of pro-Palestinian content over pro-Israeli content can be viewed as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) attempt to undermine the U.S.–Israel alliance and weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Distorting Worldview of Young Americans

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Nov. 7, requesting her to ban TikTok and all ByteDance-controlled apps in the United States. Mr. Hawley expressed concern that TikTok has the potential to"radically distort" the worldview of America's youth. He pointed to a recent poll indicating that 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 believe that Hamas's killing of Israeli civilians is justified.
American venture capitalist Jeff Morris Jr. posted on X, formerly Twitter, saying that as of Oct. 26, videos on TikTok with the hashtag "#standwithpalestine" were viewed 3 billion times, while "#standwithisrael" was viewed about 200 million times. 

TikTok 'Within the Control' of CCP

The disparity in the number of views may be due to TikTok's algorithm. A social media platform's ranking algorithm determines what content is ranked high and low and what is pushed to users. Therefore, the algorithm can influence how many times a post is viewed, which can, in turn, affect how many times it can be reposted.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March that TikTok "is ultimately within the control" of the Chinese regime. He said the recommendation algorithm could allow China to manipulate content and perform influence operations. Mr. Wray affirmed that TikTok can be used to drive narratives to divide Americans.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said at the hearing that Chinese users see different content on Douyin than American users on TikTok. "For example, in the U.S., kids are being encouraged to choke themselves out, we’ve had kids die. In China, they’re encouraged to focus on math and science and building the country," he noted.

Douyin is the original version of TikTok and owned by ByteDance. Both apps have the same interface and features. However, Douyin is only available in China, while TikTok is the version offered to the international community. This prevents Chinese users from seeing content from the rest of the world.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump proposed a ban on TikTok unless it was sold to an American company, citing the national security threat posed by the app's popularity among young people. On Aug. 28 of the same year, China revised a list of technologies subject to export restrictions, and TikTok's recommendation algorithm was included in that list.

Opposing Views on Israel–Hamas War

According to a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released on Oct. 20, more than half (51 percent) of U.S. respondents in the 18-to-24 age group believe it was justified for Hamas to kill more than 1,200 Israeli civilians due to the alleged grievances of the Palestinians, while 49 percent said it was not justified. In contrast, 24 percent of the respondents thought that Hamas's killing of Israeli civilians was justified. The survey was conducted online in the United States from Oct. 18–19 among 2,116 registered voters. 
Mr. Hawley suggested that the difference in the opinions between young and older Americans may have been influenced by the increasing number of anti-Israel, pro-Hamas content on TikTok. He believes the CCP uses the app to "propagandize Americans."

Beijing’s Anti-Israel, Pro-Hamas Stance

Consistent with TikTok's anti-Israel bias is the CCP's criticism of Israel and its implicit support for Hamas as propagandized by Chinese state media.
 A child's bed stained with blood is among the damage caused by Hamas terrorists after they attacked Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel, on Oct. 20, 2023. (Dima Vazinovich/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)
A child's bed stained with blood is among the damage caused by Hamas terrorists after they attacked Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel, on Oct. 20, 2023. (Dima Vazinovich/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

In a call with his Saudi Arabian counterpart on Oct. 15, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi condemned Israel's actions in Gaza, characterizing the military response as "beyond self-defense" and “collective punishment.” The CCP also criticized the United States for voting in favor of Israel at the United Nations.

Shen Yi, a prominent Chinese nationalist and a professor of international relations at Fudan University in China, likened Israel’s response to an act of Nazi aggression.

A popular influencer in China with 2.9 million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo said he would choose to call Hamas a "resistance organization" rather than a "terrorist organization."
Since China’s social media is strictly controlled and censored by the CCP, the discourse allowed and promoted on such platforms generally reflects the stance of the Chinese regime. The CCP's anti-Israel and pro-Hamas stance is based on its geopolitical ambition to undermine the United States in the Middle East.

CCP Rallies Enemies of US, Israel

The United States has mobilized its military power to the Middle East in support of Israel, including sending two carrier strike groups the following week after Hamas's initial attack on Israel on Oct. 7. 
The Pentagon revealed that between Oct. 17 and Nov. 9, U.S. military bases and facilities in Iraq and Syria were attacked at least 46 times, with 56 injuries reported among U.S. troops. In response, the United States conducted multiple precision air strikes on facilities in the region operated by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliates in the past month and is still ongoing.
At the same time, the Chinese regime is solidifying its alliance with Iran and Syria. Iran is a sworn enemy of the United States and Israel and frequently calls for their destruction. The Syrian regime is an ally of China and Russia, while the United States supports the Syrian opposition. Iran further praised the brutal attack by Hamas and continued to call for the destruction of Israel, while Syria referred to Hamas as a "resistance group" and condemned Israel's response. 
Gabriel Noronha, a fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America think tank, said the CCP “has provided an economic lifeline” to Iran by purchasing an estimated $30 billion worth of crude oil from Iran last year and "is set to purchase even more in 2023."
“The Iranian regime is seeking to isolate itself from United States and Western sanctions by deepening economic ties with Russia and China,” Mr. Noronha said in his written testimony to the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 26.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited China in September and was given a state reception with a red carpet, a red-flagged sedan, and military honor guards.

Cheng Chin-mo, chair of the Global Politics and Economics Department at Tamkang University of Taiwan, criticized the CCP's reception of Mr. Assad. He said, "It is really embarrassing that [the] CCP has turned China [into] a supporter of terrorists."

Jenny Li has contributed to The Epoch Times since 2010. She has reported on Chinese politics, economics, human rights issues, and U.S.-China relations. She has extensively interviewed Chinese scholars, economists, lawyers, and rights activists in China and overseas.