from the it's-always-the-media dept
We’ve done this a few times now where people start talking about a social media trend that actually only went viral because of the media coverage of the supposed (but not really) social media trend. And each time there’s some outrage moral panic about how “social media” is destroying the children or whatever, when it’s more frequently just adults freaking out over an overblown story.
That seems to have happened again this week. Did you hear the story about how the kids on TikTok were suddenly agreeing with Osama bin Laden, and saying that 9/11 was justified, because they read his mostly batshit crazy “Letter to America?” It got so crazy that the Guardian pulled down their version of the letter that people were pointing to.
So, look, where there a few naïve kids on TikTok who read the letter and talked about it on TikTok? Yes. But did it really go viral? No. At least not until the media went crazy about it all. Thankfully, at least some in the media are calling out that the viral attention came after the panic. Drew Harwell and Victoria Bisset at the Washington Post have a good run down:
TikTok spokesman Alex Haurek said Thursday that the company was “proactively and aggressively” removing videos promoting the letter for violating the company’s rules on “supporting any form of terrorism” and said it was “investigating” how the videos got onto its platform.
Haurek said that the #lettertoamerica hashtag had been attached to 274 videos that had garnered 1.8 million views on Tuesday and Wednesday, before “the tweets and media coverage drove people to the hashtag.” Other hashtags, for comparison, dwarfed discussion of the letter on the platform: During a recent 24-hour period, #travel videos had 137 million views, #skincare videos had 252 million views and #anime videos had 611 million views, Haurek said.
TikTok, for its part, banned promoting the letter pretty quickly, but that combined with the media coverage of all of this Streisanded the thing into getting a ton more attention.
Scott Nover at Slate also has a good breakdown of what happened, noting that the media took a few naïve kids and turned it into a trend that just didn’t happen:
A small number of TikTok users found a letter written by bin Laden and published by the Guardian in 2002 and thought that—despite it being full of anti-Semitic garbage and Islamic-fundamentalist nuttery—the late terrorist and al-Qaida leader made some good points in critiquing American foreign policy.
Sure, the sentiment these videos expressed is nauseating. But so is a lot of stuff on the internet, and to call these particular pieces of content is to misunderstand TikTok and to grossly mischaracterize the chain of events that brought this phenomenon before a mass audience.
As Nover notes, a few videos on TikTok getting a bunch of views is not a “trend.” Due to the quick nature of TikTok tons of videos get a bunch of views, but to really be trending they need many, many millions of views. Nover calls out CNN and the NY Times for claiming that these videos were somehow newsworthy for how many views they got:
Less than 300 videos? 14 million views total? On TikTok, those are paltry numbers. The other day, I watched a video of a guy trying Indian food for the first time that—by itself—got 18.6 million views on TikTok. In May, I tweeted a video of a guy unclogging a sewer drain and that got 26 million views. At any moment online, things are going viral before TikTok’s massive audience. To call these pro-Osama videos viral, however, would be a stretch. TikTok’s algorithm is known for supersizing virality, often lifting seemingly random content to ungodly heights quicker than any other platform.
Reporter Ryan Broderick also highlighted how there is no evidence at all that this was trending in any way, and much of the outrage is from people misunderstanding TikTok’s scale and how it counts views. Any sliver of a video watched counts as a view, and people go through tons of videos, often swiping away after a split second, though it still counts as a view:
So, right now, the popular wisdom is that TikTok counts a single second as a single view. That said, a developer I work with named Morry Kolman has done some tests on this and it may be even less than a second. A view is very possibly just every unique open or autoplay of a video. Meanwhile, a view on YouTube is around 30 seconds and a view on Facebook is around three seconds. So if we were to take one of the most viral videos about Bin Laden’s letter, which had around two million views, and applied Facebook’s view metric, it would have around 660,000 views. And if it was a YouTube video, it would have around 65,000. Now, let’s ask ourselves. Would you, in 2023, give a shit if someone was saying something unhinged and offensive in a YouTube video with 65,000 views? If so, good news, I can send you millions of videos that match that exact description! Just go search “The Marvels” and have a blast.
Of course, what did go viral was old people in the media freaking out about this. Nover again:
One prominent Twitter figure’s outraged post about the videos, which included a supercut of them, racked up 32 million views on X. Flipping through TV channels on Thursday, I noticed the story on several different news broadcasts—every anchor and reporter was disgusted and wanted to say so. The Biden administration even responded Thursday. “No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates wrote on X while sharing the CNN article.
Broderick did his best to track down what was actually happening, and again, it appears to have been a tiny group of mostly nobodies, and a few bots, and TikTok took it all down before it went particularly viral:
I spent all day yesterday looking for the “thousands” of videos. Of course, TikTok was already in the process of scrubbing them, but according to screenshots and cached Google data, I’m comfortable saying there were likely around 300-500 unique videos about the letter and, once again, around 25% of what I personally saw were bots or automated accounts or duets. And the largest comment section I’ve seen underneath one of these videos had around 5,000 comments. Now, let’s do this again. Would you, in 2023, give a shit if there were around 5,000 people being offensive on the internet? Well, if you would, I, once again, have some good news for you. Type “X.com” into your URL bar and make sure to follow the site’s CEO, he has a lot of interesting ideas about race and gender.
Look, if you want to find naïve people saying stupid shit, it’s not difficult to find online. There are a lot of naïve people (of any age), and they have many places to say stupid, ignorant shit. It’s not hard to find. The media doesn’t need to go crazy about all of them. The White House doesn’t need to put out a statement about all of them (though it did here).
Before assuming that this is somehow “trending” or something that’s catching on, learn to take a breath and look at what’s actually happening. This isn’t a story about a few naïve folks saying dumb shit. This is a story about the media, yet again, blowing a small sample size way out of proportion to make a misleading point about “the kids and social media these days.”