When Ahmed Khalifa, 24, started making political TikToks about Palestine, plenty of people tried to warn him that this might not be such a good idea. “Strangers actually reached out to me saying, ‘be very careful. This will hurt your career prospects, your name is going to be tarnished completely.’ And some of them were speaking from experience. But it was a sacrifice that I was willing to make, and continue to be willing to make,” he says.
A law student in Canada who has recently taken a break from TikTok, Khalifa rose to prominence on the platform by posting sharply articulated political videos, many of which concern the Palestinian territories. He became a member of a growing community. All over the world the world, Palestinians are using TikTok to document their lives, celebrate their culture and, in some cases, protest the human rights violations which continue to take place at home. The hashtag “Palestine” has 3.6 billion views, while “freepalestine” has 771.6 million, and in Palestine itself the platform is becoming increasingly popular among young people. For Palestinians, most of whom are barred from returningto their homeland, social media platforms like TikTok can be a way of sustaining a shared cultural life and national identity.
Some of these TikTok users make content which directly addresses the situation in Palestine: you might find people doing dramatic pro-Palestine make-up routines, or documenting human rights abuses with the same power ballads which other teenagers are using to soundtrack narratives of failed romances. Others focus on cultural aspects such as food or music, and many more are using TikTok in the exact same way as anyone else: taking part in memes, miming to songs, and lovingly making fun of their families.
Even before Khalifa signed up to TikTok, he was aware that addressing the subject of Palestinian rights in a public space could be a risky endeavour. He took a lot of care to make his profile as anonymous as possible, but this didn’t stop people from emailing the law department of a Canadian university with the goal of getting him suspended — fortunately, they got the wrong university. Every time he posted a video, he received dozens of abusive comments, and sometimes even death threats.
Khalifa’s experience is far from an isolated incident. According to Nadim Nashif, executive director of 7amleh, a digital rights NGO based in Haifa, Palestinians are often subject to social media harassment by armies of trolls. There have also been concerted efforts to mass-report Palestinian content in the hope of having it taken down. These campaigns are sometimes coordinated by projects such as Act.il, a smartphone app and website which partners with the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry. “They basically send people in an organised way, hundreds or even thousands of them, to report certain content,” Nashif says. “In many cases, this content just features a Palestinian flag or some kind of symbol related to Palestinian heritage. Even this is enough for some people to start reporting.”
While being a politically active Palestinian on TikTok was often challenging, for Khalifa there were also upsides to the platform. “It definitely created a Palestinian activist community”, Khalifa says, “and I was able to reach out to other people who were already very active in the cause already.” Khalifa even ended up joining a “hype-house”, a group of like-minded users who created content about Palestine. Overall, Khalifa found it a far less biased platform than some of its rivals. “What Tiktok did was give us a space where we were on a level footing with everyone else.”
Down in Tampa, Florida, Mia Hamdan runs a TikTok account featuring her own colourful spin on Palestinian cuisine, alongside charming vignettes of family life. “The food I feature on my page is very diverse,” she says. “Honestly, I personally hate following recipes nor do I measure. I love adding my own twist on the meals I decide to make. Difficult meals for me are very enjoyable.” The style of cuisine she chooses to make, whether Middle Eastern or otherwise, depends on her mood. “Some days I wake up and say I want a big bowl of maklooba, which is absolutely amazing – it’s a rice dish with vegetables cooked in a chicken broth and then flipped upside down. But some days I just want pasta or a big salad.”
There is a big Palestinian community in Tampa, but Hamdan still appreciates the way that TikTok has allowed her to connect with people all over the world. “It’s a great feeling to know my Palestinian community have been so supportive,” she says, “I absolutely love my fan club, who are so sweet with their feedback.” The platform has also allowed her to showcase an important aspect of Palestinian identity. “I feel it’s very important to keep our kids learning about our amazing culture and pass it on to the next generation,” she says.
And TikTok isn’t just popular in Palestinian communities in the West. The platform, along with Snapchat, is fast becoming an alternative to Facebook for younger people in Palestine itself. It can be a way of shining a light on the realities of life, both good and bad. For many people across the world, Gaza conjures images of extreme poverty and buildings reduced to rubble. This impression isn’t exactly unfounded: for well over a decade, the area has been subject to an ongoing land, sea and air blockade, which has devastated the region’s economy.
But this isn’t the whole story. Yahya Sager’s TikTok, which currently draws in 439,000 followers, shows a different side to life in Gaza. His account is focused on street sports like parkour and skateboarding; impressive displays of acrobatics which are often sound-tracked to Arabic language hip-hop.
Alongside the undeniably harsh realities of life in the strip, it’s also a place where young people hang out with their friends on hazy, sun-drenched beaches. For Sager, this was a deliberate decision. “I decided to show a different side of life in Gaza, which is something that’s really important to me,” he says. “ That is what I strive for, despite the lack of resources here. Especially for people outside my country, I want to convey this different picture.”
Sager taught himself parkour over six years ago. “I learned it on the sand,” he says, “because there are no clubs or resources to support such a thing in Gaza. So I would go to the sand dunes where if I fell, I wouldn’t injure myself.” Parkour is a popular activity in Gaza, and he has set up a club to teach children how to do it properly. While Sager’s experience on TikTok has largely been positive, he has still experienced some problems. “It’s happened so many times that when I post a video with the Palestine flag or a patriotic song about Palestine, TikTok deletes it,” he says.
While TikTok has been a valuable platform for many Palestinians, it has recently come under criticism for the way it has handled the issue of digital rights. Ahmad Jarrar, the editor of QNN, a Palestinian news network which was deleted from TikTok earlier this year, says that the platform’s moderation policies remain frustratingly opaque. “We eventually got the account back after publishing a press release about the issue in the international media,” he says, “but they never explained the reasoning behind removing it or why they decided to reactivate it.” According to Jarrar, this incident represents a broader trend: “Many Palestinian journalists complain about their content constantly being removed by TiKTok.”
A representative of the company told VICE World News over email, "TikTok is an inclusive, diverse platform built upon the foundation of creative expression. We believe in providing a space for everyone to openly express themselves. To support the safety of our community, we have robust protections in place, and easy mechanisms to report content for review. While identification of a Community Guidelines violation may occasionally lead to an incorrect action on content or an account, we allow in-app appeals and reassess our actions accordingly. This was the case for the account in question which has been since reinstated."
Digital censorship is becoming an increasingly important area of the struggle for Palestinian rights. Every year, Nashif, the executive director of 7amleh, says, tens or even hundreds of Palestinians are arrested by the Israeli government because of what they’ve said on social media. “Our basic assumption,” he says, “is that each Palestinian social media account is being watched and monitored by different Israeli agencies. Legislation, criminalisation, surveillance, and the jailing of Palestinians all combine to a heavy pressure on freedom of expression.” According a 2019 report by NGO Human Rights Watch, “Israeli authorities have said that they in particular closely monitor online speech, especially on Palestinian social media accounts, and have used predictive algorithms to determine whom to target.”
Both inside and outside of the Palestinian territories, one of the key issues is the way that social media platforms are moderated. This is a problem which extends far beyond the issue at hand, but it does impact Palestinians in unique ways. For instance, certain keywords related to Palestine are more likely to be censored by Facebook’s AI-powered algorithms, including muqawama — the Arabic word for “resistance”. On YouTube meanwhile, Palestinian human rights groups have reported that Arabic-language videos, along with videos posted from the West Bank and Gaza, are subject to a disproportionately high level of surveillance. “We feel that this content moderation is not transparent enough,” says Nashif, “it doesn’t lie outside the influence of oppressive governments. Obviously we don’t want hate speech, violence or terror. But this should be dealt with in a fair, objective way for everybody.”
You don’t need to be railing against the occupation in the West Bank to run afoul of these policies: Even the most banal content related to Palestine may end up being taken down. “When it comes to innocuous content such as memes, those most probably get into the web of automated decision making by mistake,” says Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian digital rights activist and MENA policy manager at Access Now. “The algorithms detect and remove content which violates the platform’s terms of services. But these are blind to cultural, political, and language contexts, and therefore, often remove non-problematic content. ”
“Giant tech companies have been complicit in censoring Palestinian voices abroad and erasing their narrative,” says Fatafta. However, while digital censorship of Palestinians is to some extent an international problem, the stakes are much higher within Palestine itself. For Khalifa, the law student, this makes him even more determined to speak out about the human rights violations which are taking place there.
“Here in Canada, there is a kind of a chilling effect,” he says. “But we still do have our protected speech. So I think it's our responsibility, as people who are on the outside, to take advantage of our right to freedom of expression.” Speaking about the harassment he experienced on TikTok, he says, “the fear is very real and these things could have very real consequences. But I told myself: if there aren’t people who are willing to make that sacrifice, then this issue will always be considered taboo to speak about in the public domain.”