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Courtesy Tiktok

No, young people are not stanning Osama Bin Laden

The idea that a significant amount of Gen Z are embracing the views of Bin Laden is just another made-up media panic about TikTok

According to the media, young people on TikTok have a new celebrity favie: Osama Bin Laden, whose ‘Letter to America ‘ allegedly went viral on the platform yesterday (November 16). In the ensuing firestorm, the White House ended up releasing a statement condemning the trend, TikTok deleted videos and restricted the relevant hashtag, and the Guardian removed the letter from its website to prevent it from being spread further. As one typical Daily Mail headline thundered, “Terror chief’s 9/11 justification wins support among pro-Palestine Americans who claim their ‘eyes have been opened’ after The Guardian linked to it.”

But is this actually true? Are Gen Z really stanning the architect of 9/11?

Well, not exactly. It all started on Monday (November 13) when a TikTok user with 371 followers posted a video where she read out parts of Bin Laden’s letter, which criticises Western imperialism and argues that the attack on the World Trade Centre was justified due to America’s support of Israel. As well as calling for a global theocratic state, it is wildly antisemitic, homophobic and conspiratorial, railing against the “devastating Jewish control of capital” and accusing the US government of deliberately spreading AIDS. Yep, it turns out that this Bin Laden character held some rather problematic views… 

It would be disturbing, then, if young people had embraced the letter en masse – but that’s not actually what happened. Things only really kicked off when journalist Yashar Ali shared a compilation video on Twitter, alongside the caption “Over the past 24 hours, thousands of TikToks (at least) have been posted where people share how they just read Bin Laden’s infamous ‘Letter to America’... Many of them say that reading the letter has opened their eyes, and they’ll never see geopolitical matters the same way again.”

However, according to a report by 404 Media, this was an exaggeration. ‘Letter to America’ was never a top trending topic on Twitter, the number of related videos could be counted in the dozens rather than the thousands, and most of them received very low engagement. It’s true that some people on TikTok were “expressing shock that they don’t entirely disagree with some of what Bin Laden’s letter said, namely that he is at war with the United States because the United States attacked the Muslim world first”. But there were many more videos criticising the letter, expressing bafflement that others were agreeing with it and mocking the whole drama.

As journalist Ryan Broderick argued, it was the tweet criticising the “trend” which created the trend. TikTok released a statement agreeing with this analysis, noting that before Ali’s tweet and the subsequent media coverage, the hashtag ‘#lettertoamerica’ only had 274 video posts and 1.85m total video views (which in the context of TikTok, is negligible.) Afterwards, this shot up to 13 million views. It turns out that telling people “it’s awful that so many people are reading Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’!!!” might encourage them to read Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America.’

The media were all too ready to jump onto this story, because it fits into a larger narrative about TikTok radicalising young people. Yes, a handful of people with poor media literacy posted some stupid things on the internet, but this is hardly a news story, and it’s not at all representative of the politics of an entire generation. 

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