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S.F. data scientist connects TikTok to surge in Gen Z antisemitism

Before Oct. 7, 16-year-old Sasha Yolles watched videos on TikTok for up to two hours a day. Cooking, baking and dance videos were her favorites.

Since the Hamas terrorist attacks drew Israel into war, however, the Marin teen has encountered so many videos and comments that she felt showed bias against Israel or were outright antisemitic that she has significantly cut back on her social media use.

“I’ve found myself using TikTok and social media a lot less since Oct. 7 because of all the misinformation I’ve seen,” she told J. “It’s very upsetting.”

Sasha Yolles (Photo/Courtesy)
Sasha Yolles (Photo/Courtesy)

Hannah Coleman has also been disturbed by some of the TikTok content she has come across recently. During Hanukkah, the 15-year-old San Francisco resident saw a video of a Jewish creator with nearly 4 million followers, @sageasher, dancing in front of lit menorahs and wearing a kippah. The video was inundated with comments such as “Free Palestine” and “I hope for Israel to cease to be this Hanukkah.” Others chimed in to show support for him.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, he didn’t say anything about Palestine or Israel,’” Coleman told J. “I’ve also seen some people use emojis to make swastikas. It’s so weird that people spend their time doing this.”

With more than 150 million U.S. users, TikTok has emerged as one of the primary online battlegrounds of public opinion over the Israel-Hamas war. Members of Gen Z represent TikTok’s core users, and some Israel supporters fear the Jewish state is losing the so-called “TikTok war” among that generation.

“Why do high school students in San Francisco hate Israel so much?” investor Jeff Morris Jr. asked in an Oct. 25 thread on X, where he re-shared a viral video of San Francisco high school students marching through the halls chanting a pro-Palestinian slogan. “I’d assume very few of them have been to Israel, let alone have a fully formed view of a multi-generation conflict.”

Morris hypothesized that TikTok is at least partially responsible, since so many high school and college students get their news on the platform — 32% of Americans under 30, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center study. So he put out a call for data scientists to help him understand how the “TikTok narrative became so anti-Israel.”

Anthony Goldbloom — the San Francisco-based co-founder of Kaggle, an online platform for data scientists that was acquired by Google in 2017 — and a team of fellow researchers took up the challenge.

Their survey, conducted in late November, showed that Americans aged 18 to 29 who spend at least 30 minutes a day on TikTok are 17% more likely to hold opinions considered to be antisemitic or anti-Israel, compared with 6% for Instagram users and 2% for users of X and Threads.

The researchers also found that views of TikTok videos with pro-Palestinian hashtags surpass views of videos with pro-Israel hashtags in the U.S. by a ratio of 54 to 1 — and that five of the top six TikTok hashtags about the conflict are pro-Palestinian.

TikTok accused Goldbloom’s team of promoting a “false narrative,” but their survey caught the attention of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who referenced it, albeit imprecisely, during the Republican presidential candidates’ debate on Dec. 6. Likewise, Elon Musk, the X chairman who has himself been criticized for promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories, deemed the findings “interesting.”

Anthony Goldbloom (Photo/Courtesy)
Anthony Goldbloom (Photo/Courtesy)

Goldbloom sees danger for Jews in his findings. “TikTok users are more likely to believe Jewish people are dishonest in business, are disloyal to America, and have too much power in the media,” he wrote on X. “They are also more likely to disagree that Israel has a right to defend itself against those who want to destroy it.”

He added, “TikTok does not merely reflect pre-existing sentiment — it is shaping views, creating a dangerous environment for Jews.”

In an interview with J., Goldbloom said he initiated the survey due to his personal concerns, as an Australian-born Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, about TikTok’s sway over Gen Z.

“A huge amount of pro-Palestinian content is going out on TikTok in a really, really unbalanced ratio, and I think it’s something that should be widely known,” he said.

The 54-to-1 ratio of pro-Palestinian/pro-Israel video views diverges from U.S. opinion surveys about the Israel-Hamas war, which also concerns Goldbloom. A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll in mid-December found that among respondents aged 18 to 24, support was split 50-50 for each side. (Overall, 81% of respondents of all ages support Israel.)

However, it also found that 60% of 18- to 24-year-olds said that Palestinian grievances justified Hamas’ assault that killed 1,200 people in Israel.

TikTok does not merely reflect pre-existing sentiment — it is shaping views, creating a dangerous environment for Jews.

Goldbloom said the 54-to-1 ratio on TikTok would suggest that 98% of younger Americans support the Palestinians (though not necessarily Hamas) over Israel, and he has met with TikTok executives in recent weeks to discuss the discrepancy and its real-world ramifications.

“I had hoped that when we spoke to the company that they might be concerned about the connection between posts on TikTok and an increase in antisemitism,” he said. “All the people we spoke to were nice, kind and well-meaning, but no real action seems to have come from those conversations.”

A spokesperson for TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, responded in a statement to J.: “We’ve engaged with Mr. Goldbloom in good faith, providing him with factual information and access to our senior executives on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, he is cherry-picking data points to make inaccurate comparisons and draw false conclusions in support of a false narrative.”

In a Nov. 13 blog post, TikTok called an analysis of content based on hashtags alone “severely flawed,” arguing that hashtags are added by content creators, not TikTok, and that the number of videos tagged with a specific hashtag does not always correlate with actual views. In fact, the company said, videos tagged with #standwithisrael have 68% more views in the U.S. than those tagged with #freepalestine.

TikTok also said that it takes measures to prevent the manipulation of its recommendation algorithm.

For Goldbloom’s survey, research firm Generation Lab asked 1,323 Americans under 30 about their social media use and their opinions on 12 statements regarding Jews or Israel. Goldbloom and his team compared the responses of TikTok users to those of Instagram users and combined X and Threads users, as well as to people who don’t use those platforms. The team also analyzed hashtag data that is publicly available on TikTok’s website.

News site Semafor reviewed the survey’s raw data and found that it didn’t support all of Goldbloom’s claims. For example, more X/Threads than TikTok users agreed with at least two of the antisemitic statements. (Goldbloom called the Semafor article “misleading.”)

Many prominent Jews and advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have sounded the alarm about antisemitism on TikTok since Oct. 7. Last month, a group of Jewish celebrities that included “Borat” actor and social media critic Sacha Baron Cohen met with TikTok executives. During the video call, Cohen reportedly said, “What is happening at TikTok is it is creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis.”

On Dec. 15, TikTok posted a video to its official account with the hashtag #swipeouthate. “TikTok has always been a place for joy,” the narrator says. “Let’s keep it that way. There is no place for hate on TikTok.”

@tiktok TikTok has always been a place for joy. Let’s keep it that way. There is no place for hate on TikTok. Together we can #SwipeOutHate ♬ original sound – TikTok

Goldbloom said it’s unclear if his survey prompted the post.

For Yolles, the Jewish teen in Marin, the last two months have been “confusing,” as she has tried to figure out where she stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s not that I fully support all of the actions of the Israeli government or the IDF, but also I’m obviously not [pro-Hamas], so that’s also been hard,” she said.

TikTok hasn’t made this process any easier for her, she said. Does she think the platform is unsafe for young Jewish users?

“I don’t think any social media is a safe place,” she said, “but I feel Jews especially during this time are facing a lot more backlash than before.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.