Last week an Israeli Defense Force soldier tried to participate in a TikTok meme and show her support for Israel in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. It backfired on her very badly.
TikTok's relationship to political content has been dicey, at best. Although some kinds of political influencers have gained traction on the platform, Black creators are still saying that their content related to Black Lives Matter is being suppressed on the platform. TikTok users who talk about politics also do so with great care or nuance, in part because of TikTok’s content moderation overreaches and censorship of, for example, content critical of the Chinese Communist Party, glitches that have the side effect of censoring posts, and general fears and misinformation associated with a company that is based in China. TikTok also hasn’t been very good at explaining or enforcing its moderation policies.
That’s not to say there’s no politics on TikTok—there’s a lot, on both the left and the right. But when it comes to national security affairs and major international crises, sorting through coded language and disappearing hashtags can be really tricky. Given all that, the sheer number of hashtags, and the amount of activity on them, that deal directly with the crisis in Palestine is a welcome surprise. When you search "Palestine" on TikTok, dozens of related tags appear, including "freepalestine." The videos in the "palestine" tag have, collectively, over seven billion views. The videos in the "freepalestine" hashtag have over 4 billion. These people are filming themselves at protests, sharing messages of solidarity, and sometimes telling jokes. Some of them even stan BTS.
Over the past week, TikTokers in support of Palestine have created a nascent meme within that community, all centered around clowning on another TikTok from an IDF soldier.
Last week, an IDF soldier posted a video to TikTok participating in a meme using the song "Jalebi Baby" by Canadian Punjabi artist Tesher. It's a variation on the common "this or that" meme format on TikTok. You use two emojis to symbolize two different concepts, like a heart emoji for love and a cash emoji for money, and then when Tesher sings "jalebi, baby," you dance over to the side of the screen representing your choice.
The IDF soldier did mostly go through the same "this or that'' categories that most other TikTokers do, like choosing between love and money or junk food and vegetables. They also began their TikTok by showing emojis of the Isreali and Palestinian flags on screen, pretending to dance toward the Palestinian one, and then dancing over to the Israeli one. People were not amused.
In response, people started using "Jalebi Baby" to show all the things that they would choose over Israel. Most commonly, people are using this meme format to say that they prefer poop, toilets, and the coronavirus to the Israeli occupation.
Memes in this specific genre aren’t terribly deep. But memes are how people participate in normal-ass internet culture, and have a shared memetic language that transcends borders and spoken languages. So much of the conversation and justification for the Israeli occupation of Palestine has been rooted in dehumanizing the Palestinian people, to the point where a pro-Israeli lobbying group asked lawmakers not to sign a letter acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinian people. We shouldn't need memes to see people as fully human, but the immediacy with which they humanize other people cuts through decades of propaganda. It's harder to ignore the suffering of the people in Gaza when they're also just regular people, participating in viral trends that millions of people see.
A layer deeper, TikTok is being used to spread support for Palestinian people who are suffering. There are many very popular TikToks of pro-Palestine protests throughout the world, many of which dive deeper into the dangerous and horrifying conditions in which the Palestinian people have had to live.
Of course, like all social media platforms, it’s possible to find essentially any and all viewpoints. So while there are a lot of pro-Palestine posts, there are also a lot of pro-Israel ones, as well. TikTok as a platform is not entirely left leaning or right leaning. While the official TikTok account of Israel is getting wrecked in the comments for posting a message to Bella Hadid, the TikTok account for the IDF is being fawned over in the comments of its videos about the ongoing conflict. But memes can come from anywhere, and anything, especially when they're born out of a desire to make fun of someone. Seeing people from all over the world gather together to make fun of someone for a bad post is heartwarming, in its own way.