TikTok’s algorithm is a rabbit hole that can easily lead you on a path to extremism.
By Eitan Goldstein CTech
Earlier this week I was speaking to a friend of mine about the rise of the Lions’ Den terror cell in the city of Shechem (Nablus). We were talking about how their rise was largely a result of becoming TikTok famous, with terrorists posting TikToks of themselves shooting at Israeli civilians and soldiers.
As someone who speaks Arabic and follows various Palestinian channels on Twitter to understand their media landscape and how they view the world, I was intrigued as to how videos on TikTok, an app I had yet to download, were influencing this new generation of Palestinians.
I remarked that it would be interesting to see how long it took for the TikTok algorithm to begin showing me these Lions’ Den videos, to which my friend replied, “only a crazy person would do that.”
A few minutes later, with TikTok downloaded, I began my search for the Lions’ Den videos that were inspiring this new generation of Palestinian terror.
• I didn’t sign up for TikTok using any email, phone number, or identification of any kind.
• I came into this with a basic knowledge of the TikTok algorithm – the faster you swipe over something the less likely you are to see something similar. Conversely, the longer you watch a video, or even repeat a video, the more likely the algorithm is to show you similar ones.
• I went into this racing to see how fast I could find the videos. This was not a natural progression, rather a concerted effort to find these Lions’ Den videos.
7:00 PM: I turned on TikTok and it asked me for some subjects I would be interested in. My phone is set to Hebrew, so I picked “קומדיה” (comedy). And with that, I was off!
For the first few minutes, I was getting a lot of Hebrew standup comedians and skits which I quickly scrolled past. Finally, I found one in Arabic and watched the whole thing twice. I then started getting more Arabic comedy. In addition, there were videos of Latina girls twerking to reggaeton songs in barely-there bikinis.
7:11 PM: I now began getting a lot of Syrian Druze TikTok videos talking about the Syrian Druze town of Suwayda, Syrian Druze history, and more. While interesting, I was on a mission and kept swiping until I found people speaking in a Palestinian dialect.
It was then that I stumbled upon an old woman singing a song about Palestine. Fantastic. I watched it twice. I then started getting more nationalist Palestinian material. In addition, there were videos of very attractive Arab and Latina girls dancing to Arabic pop songs girls wearing skimpy, tight-fitting outfits. No more girls in bikinis.
7:48 PM: TikTok is now showing me videos made by Palestinians in the West Bank. I’m starting to hear a West Bank Palestinian accent in the videos, seeing lots of weddings, luxury car racing, people riding (and falling off) horses, people building houses, and more.
But they’re coming from all over the West Bank. I’m getting close! I quickly scroll past videos from Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jericho and fully watch videos from Nablus and Jenin, as these are the cities where Lions’ Den is the strongest. There are still attractive girls dancing to Arabic pop songs, but they’re all wearing tight-fitting shirts and pants. Much more conservative.
8:46 PM: It finally happened. I got the algorithm to show me my first somewhat militant video. It’s a video of a man standing next to homemade tank traps in Jenin vowing to “crush the occupation.” I’m getting closer! There are no more cute girls dancing.
8:53PM: I’ve finally done it. My first Lions’ den video! And it took me a little under two hours of searching. I’m seeing them being cheered on by Palestinians, getting into shootouts with the IDF, shooting at civilian buses and cabs, and imams praising their work, and all with the same soundtrack. I wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes and continue on.
9:46PM: After watching about an hour of Lions’ Den videos I’m shown one which is quite surprising – a video on how to make pipe bombs out of fire extinguishers and other household items. I’m then almost immediately shown part two with the terrorists placing the pipe bombs next to the Jalame checkpoint in the Northern West Bank outside of Jenin. And another one of a failed IED attack on an IDF convoy.
I tell this story not as a warning of the dangers of TikTok or social media, nor to promote content moderation on these platforms (a nearly impossible task). Rather, I tell this story as a warning about the type of world we now live in.
TikTok’s algorithm is designed to give people exactly what they want so they’ll stay on the app longer. Indeed, I felt a bit of excitement every time a new video popped up, and that dopamine hit felt like a drug. I was searching for something specific, and the algorithm did exactly what was asked of it – no more, no less.
I don’t believe TikTok or any other social media app actively pushes extremism such as violence, sex, fake news, or unhealthy diets, just like it didn’t push me to find these Lions’ Den videos. Subconsciously, the human condition is pre-disposed to engage with more extreme videos, and the TikTok algorithm is designed to give users exactly what they want, whether or not they’re cognizant of wanting it.
Therefore, I suggest something different – use the apps. However, be aware of what you’re watching when using them, as it can quickly lead you down a path toward extremism. If you feel a video or post may lead the algorithm to suggest more extreme content, recognize it and swipe away quickly. I peered down the rabbit hole, and there’s a long way to the bottom.
Eitan Goldstein is the Communications Manager for a tech firm in Israel. He previously worked in law and as a senior editor for Ynetnews.
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