With the benefit of 24 hours of hindsight, the brouhaha that erupted Thursday was a near-perfect distillation of the political and cultural moment. It looped in everything: uncertainty about social media, fears of foreign interference, the low bar for applying the term “going viral,” intergenerational tensions and even the domestic response to the Israel-Gaza war.
What was most revealing, though, was the speed at which the conversation about Osama bin Laden and TikTok exceeded the boundaries of what was known or even likely, serving as a vehicle for a broad range of pet peeves and predetermined positions.
The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell has the definitive explanation of the tempest. A TikTok user came across a letter written by the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in 2002, elevating some of his critiques of the United States. Others then read the same letter and responded, generating one of the countless eddies of conversation and interaction that populate social media sites on any given day. Then journalist Yashar Ali noticed the conversation and drew attention to it — turning the thing into a Thing. And that combination of TikTok and young people and the hated terrorist gave the media (particularly on the right) an awful lot to work with.
It’s probably useful to begin by assessing why this letter became a focal point in the first place. It is true that more than a quarter of Americans were born in or after 2001, meaning that they had no firsthand experience with that horrible day. For them, bin Laden and his actions are something of an abstraction. That also means that, for many younger Americans, bin Laden’s letter was genuinely new and, stripped of the context of why he wrote it and what he’d done, is easy to elevate as some sort of until-now hidden truth.
It is also true that people, and particularly the younger people who make up a disproportionate part of TikTok’s user base, like to test the waters by embracing controversial opinions. This happens all the time, in various guises — including in the number of “maybe Adolf Hitler had a point” takes that populate the-site-formerly-known-as-Twitter. Controversy is also a good way to earn attention, the currency of social media. And once someone is generating currency with controversy, others will mirror the same controversy for the same currency.
This explains why the eddy existed. The controversy itself stemmed from the imprecise way in which we talk about “virality.” The videos Ali found had been viewed just under 2 million times but, as Harwell notes, the “skincare” hashtag gets more than 250 million views a day. Pick out some of the videos and apply the number “millions,” though, and suddenly you have a trend. You have something that seems, particularly to the caveman-like brains of those of us who lived in the pre-social-media world, like a juggernaut of influence.
Now consider that this is happening on TikTok, an application that has been consistently (and with increasing breathlessness) framed as an insidious foray by the Chinese government into American culture. Consider too that the country is just emerging from a news cycle in which the most prominent voice on the right, Donald Trump, was mirroring Hitler’s rhetoric. Well, here’s “the left” — as young people are assumed to be, not without justification — praising bin Laden!
This tension between old and young is essential to the outcry that unfolded. That’s obviously true of the divergent participants, the young TikTok users and the older critics. It’s of a piece with a broader tension between old and young that’s rooted heavily in fears among older Americans, particularly on the right, that the U.S. is changing in unacceptable or frightening ways. This idea that young people don’t “get” America is pervasive, powering everything from the tea party movement (the moment at which young people began to challenge older people for power) to Trump’s own “Make America Great Again” political rhetoric.
But the old-young tension also plays out within the media itself. Some of the outcry and outrage pointed at this TikTok-bin Laden thing was rooted in frustration that TikTok would be seen as a source for news or information in the first place.
“It speaks to what’s going on generally, with a lot of young people paying way more attention to social media than to what’s really happening,” former New York Times media critic Bill Carter offered on MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour” Thursday night. “And they’re getting a tremendous amount of confusing messages.”
Host Stephanie Ruhle jumped in: “But Osama bin Laden?!”
On CNN, host Kaitlan Collins inadvertently got to a similar point as Carter, asking her guest “if any young TikTok users are watching who saw this video, what would you say” about bin Laden. But of course, the odds that any of those young viewers were watching was remarkably low.
As you might expect, no one was more excited by the story than Fox News. Over the past 48 hours, it’s mentioned bin Laden at least 100 times, with hosts and guests alike using the controversy, such as it is, to pillory everyone and anyone in sight.
“You have the Chinese Communist Party that owns TikTok that is using this to brainwash our children, no doubt,” “Outnumbered” panelist Jeremy Hunt said. “I mean, they’re using their algorithms to make sure pro-Hamas videos are trending, to make sure this pro-Osama Bin Laden is trending. I think they’re mocking us, saying, ‘We can brainwash your children right in front of you,’ that’s part of it.”
One of the show’s hosts, Emily Compagno, agreed.
“When you talk about sort of identifying and ascertaining the algorithms,” she said, “I just see that we are the product of a very deliberate machination that has been years in the making, decades in the making, and they are winning.”
The channel hit its stride by prime time. On “Fox News at Night,” guest Jill Simonian declared that “Gen Zers defending Osama bin Laden” was “trending” on TikTok. (It only trended after the controversy drew attention to it.) Simonian is director of outreach for PragerU Kids, an organization that explicitly attempts to instill right-wing ideologies in young people. But notice how sweeping this is: It’s not a few young people, but “Gen Z” writ large.
“What the hell is happening to this generation?” host Jesse Watters asked on his prime-time show, deploying that same overestimation. “How do we live in a country with people who think bin Laden was right?”
His guest was Dana Perino, who joined the George W. Bush White House soon after 9/11.
“I feel like there’s something nefarious in the way that this spread online. Because they’re not seeing this on cable news, right?” Perino replied. “This is something that starts on TikTok and then it spreads all around. And then you have these young people who maybe are seeing this for the first time and they think it’s fashionable, they think it’s — maybe it’s so novel, that they’re the first to have ever even experienced this.”
On “Fox News at Night,” lawyer Erin Elmore expanded on the purported “nefariousness.”
“Let’s face it: TikTok is a Chinese Communist Party spying tool,” she said. “Not only are they stealing data from our phones but they are trying to poison the minds of Americans. Whether it’s about Hamas or Osama bin Laden or antisemitism or children, with gender ideology: this is intentional.”
To be clear, there is no evidence that TikTok intentionally did anything here. Soon after the controversy emerged, in fact, it started removing content elevating bin Laden’s letter — the sort of restriction on “free speech” that in other contexts would spur a whole different set of Fox News commentaries. But notice how Elmore makes this not only about bin Laden (or the similarly exaggerated allegations about Hamas) but even gender ideology. This is part of the older-younger split, too, the idea that someone is brainwashing young people; why else would they not hold hard-right conservative values?
On her show, Laura Ingraham went to the same place: “We’re supposed to believe this is just a freaky coincidence that TikTokers discovered bin Laden’s letter to America that he published a year after 9/11?”
On “Hannity,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich argued that the kerfuffle was a good reason to ensure that schoolchildren were saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, as though it’s a magic spell against anti-Americanism.
He had other thoughts too.
“TikTok should either be banned or they should sell it to an American company, but the idea of having a Chinese Communist propaganda system in the United States is just crazy,” Gingrich said. Oh, also: “We need to learn to say to young people: ‘This is wrong. You are stupid.’ ”
What’s remarkable about the controversy is that, even after Harwell and others pointed out that the whole thing was wildly overblown, right-wing actors kept running with it. The New York Post put it on its cover, insisting that “TikTokers now praise Osama bin Laden.”
Today’s cover: Why TikTokkers are fawning over Osama bin Laden https://t.co/x96tWAWiWz pic.twitter.com/8yTvJYPSJ6
— New York Post (@nypost) November 17, 2023
On Fox News’s early morning programs, the patter about young people and the left and TikTok and all of it continued unabated.
“Did you ever think the brainwashing of our kids would go so far as to praise Osama bin Laden?” “Fox & Friends First” host Todd Piro asked his guest, Joe Concha.
“We now have those who are millennials in large numbers supporting Osama bin Laden,” Concha said of the controversy, which was obviously incorrect even before the whole TikTok trend was debunked.
Then came “Fox & Friends,” the network’s flagship program. Its hosts went through the familiar rhetoric, lauding first responders and lamenting the tragedy of 9/11, as though the TikTok users were praising the actual terrorist attacks, which they weren’t.
The most revealing comment, though, came from host Lawrence Jones.
“I hope [parents are] listening,” Jones said, “and they defund the organizations and schools that are teaching this.”
And that’s it. From a small, obviously misinformed conversation on social media to a cable-news host calling for cutting school funding due to insufficient patriotism in the span of 24 hours. America, 2023.