No, Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” did not go viral on TikTok

TikTok has scrambled to prohibit all content that promotes Osama bin Laden’s 2002 letter explaining attacks against Americans after dozens of users talked about it on the platform. But it doesn’t mean these videos went viral.

Discussions of the 20-year-old letter have spread on the platform this week in the context of the debate over the Israel-Hamas war, with some users in the West praising its contents.

The letter, which was written after al Qaeda's attack on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people, criticized US support for Israel, accused Americans of financing "oppression" of Palestinians, and contained antisemitic comments.

A number of TikTok users thought that the late terrorist and the former head of Al Qaeda, a terror group behind the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, actually made some good points, especially in light of the ongoing clashes between Hamas and the Israeli military.

“Aggressive” removal policy

In one video no longer available on the platform that had been viewed more than 1.6 million times, a New York-based lifestyle influencer encouraged others to read the letter and said: “If you have read it, let me know if you are also going through an existential crisis in this very moment, because in the last 20 minutes, my entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived, has changed.”

Unsurprisingly, this is nauseating to most. Bin Laden, killed in Pakistan by US special forces in 2011, was responsible for nearly 3,000 American deaths on 9/11. And the letter is just antisemitic garbage and Islamic fundamentalism, really.

Because TikTok is Chinese-owned, and China is blamed for all sorts of things in Washington, some US lawmakers started lamenting what they say is a “viral TikTok trend” and calling for a ban on the platform.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates also said in a statement on Thursday: "There is never a justification for spreading the repugnant, evil, and antisemitic lies that the leader of al Qaeda issued just after committing the worst terrorist attack in American history."

TikTok, a platform that recently had to deny it was pushing young people to support the Palestinian cause, reacted swiftly.

It prohibited content promoting bin Laden’s letter, and searching for it now surfaces no results – only a notice that says the phrase may be associated with “content that violates our guidelines.”

“Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism. We are proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform,” said TikTok.

Importantly, the company stressed that “the number of videos on TikTok is small, and reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate.” TikTok is probably right because these videos certainly didn’t go viral.

Streisand Effect in action

Yes, by Thursday, views of videos talking about bin Laden’s letter had exceeded 14 million but many of the videos were from users expressing disgust and frustration.

CNN’s initial review found only a few dozen videos, and it doesn’t make it a trend.

And, actually, 14 million views is not a lot on TikTok. There’s a video of a guy trying Indian food for the first time that garnered 18.6 million views on TikTok.

One journalist recently shared a video of a man unclogging a sewer drain – on X, it got 26 million views. TikTok’s most viewed video ever is Zach King’s Harry Potter Illusion (2.2 billion views as of 2023).

In other words, things are going truly viral at any moment online because the audiences now are massive – and TikTok’s algorithm is known for supersizing virality and certainly capable of lifting content to more than 14 million views.

It’s the backlash to the videos that actually went viral. Outrage sells, and posts by prominent personalities condemning the audacity of some to agree with bin Laden have been racking up hundreds of millions of views on various social media platforms. Everyone wants to have a say.

It didn’t help that The Guardian immediately deleted bin Laden’s letter from its online archives, where at least some young TikTokers seemingly found it (of course, the declassified letter is long available on the Office of Director of National Intelligence’s website).

Together with TikTok’s aggressive action, The Guardian’s decision to remove the letter because it was being shared without full context actually added fuel to the fire.

The issue probably received way more attention than it deserved, creating a modern version of the Streisand Effect – an unintended consequence of attempts to hide, remove, or censor information, where the effort instead backfires by increasing awareness of that information.

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Jason Crosby
prefix 6 months ago
The link posted here to Bin Laden's letter on the Office of Director of National Intelligence’s website can't be the same letter that was published on the Guardian's website.

That letter mentions Obama as Bush's successor. Obama wasn't elected until 2008 and didn't take office until 2009. The Guardian's website says they published Bin Laden's letter in November of 2002.
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