June 18, 2024

TikTok is back in the cross hairs of Washington, with Republican lawmakers again calling to ban the popular short-form video app amid accusations that it is amplifying pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel videos through its powerful algorithmic feed.

In the past week, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, asked the Biden administration to outlaw TikTok for its “ubiquity” of anti-Israel content. Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin said the app was “brainwashing” American youth into sympathizing with Hamas. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida accused Beijing officials of using TikTok, whose parent company is based in China, to spread propaganda to Americans.

“A regime that hates America controls TikTok’s algorithm and knows how to use it to divide and demoralize Americans,” Mr. Rubio, who has introduced legislation to ban the app, said in a statement. “What we’re seeing right now is a real-life demonstration of that capability. We should have banned TikTok a long time ago, but this should be a wake-up call.”

The criticism against TikTok, which has increased in volume since the Israel-Hamas war began, has put the company on its heels at a precarious time.

The company’s status in the United States has been in limbo since 2020, accused by Democrats and Republicans of being a tool of surveillance and propaganda by China’s communist government. The Biden administration has been investigating whether the app poses a national security concern. Lawmakers have proposed several bills to restrict the app, though they have been stymied in Congress over concerns of regulating speech and regulatory overreach.

ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has for years refuted claims that it poses a privacy or security risks. It has also said in recent weeks that the app does not disproportionately promote pro-Palestinian content. Since the start of the conflict, the company said, it has removed 925,000 videos in the conflict region for violating its policies around violence, hate speech, misinformation and terrorism, including content promoting Hamas.

“The content on TikTok is generated by our community, and recommendations are based on content-neutral signals from users, and nothing more,” said Alex Haurek, a spokesman for TikTok.

Mr. Haurek asserts that Palestinian versus Israeli content is performing similarly on other platforms as on TikTok. But lawmakers said their concern with TikTok was its Chinese owner, ByteDance. “If an American company is not given full control of TikTok and its algorithm, we need to either force a sale or ban the app in the United States,” Mr. Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, said in a statement.

The Treasury Department, which is leading the Biden administration’s investigation of TikTok, declined to comment.

TikTok, which has more than 100 million users in the United States, many of them young adults, started the year under intense scrutiny, with several lawmakers pressing for a ban. The app has been banned from state and federal devices — as well as on government devices in New York City. In March, Congress grilled TikTok’s chief executive on its ownership structure and how TikTok stored American user data.

Last week, the company sought to defend itself against the accusations that it promoted anti-Israel content, which have raised alarms among Republicans in particular. It released a statement that said the hashtag #standwithisrael had gained 46.3 million views since Oct. 7 in the United States, compared with 29.4 million for #standwithpalestine.

But that claim was immediately jumped on by critics, including Jacob Helberg, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and Anthony Goldbloom, a statistician and former chief executive of Kaggle, a machine learning company.

Mr. Goldbloom has argued that TikTok had cherry-picked hashtags that inaccurately portrayed the prevalence of pro-Palestinian content. He pointed to data from TikTok’s public ad platform for the hashtag #FreePalestine, which has generated 946 million views over 30 days in the United States as of Wednesday, and compared it with the 117 million views on #Israel🇮🇱, with an Israeli flag, in the same period.

About 58 percent of audience for the #FreePalestine hashtag consisted of 18- to 24-year-olds, compared with 39 percent for that demographic on the #Israel🇮🇱 hashtag. Mr. Goldbloom said that he found that “unbelievably interesting” in contrast with a recent poll of registered voters. According to the poll, conducted by Harvard-Harris, most people 25 or older backed the Jewish state, while 52 percent of voters 18 to 25 said they sided with Israel and 48 percent with Hamas.

Mr. Helberg said that he had spoken to 100 different lawmakers in the past year. “Every single one of them agrees TikTok is a national risk,” he said, but added that they differed in how to solve the issue. He said that the allegations around content tied to the Israel-Hamas war were a “galvanizing force” for Washington.

Politicians are “seeing such a vivid example of how the foreign influence of a foreign adversary could actually impact a crucial national security debate that affects lives here in the U.S. as well as in Israel,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “We’re at a time when this can have real-world consequences.”

Senator Hawley said in a letter this week that the conflict underscored the continued power of the platform.

TikTok has the “power to radically distort the world picture that America’s young people encounter,” said Mr. Hawley, who on Wednesday called for a Senate vote for a bill he wrote to ban the app. “Israel’s unfolding war with Hamas is a crucial test case.”