TikTok faces fresh calls for ban over Hamas content

Platform is under scrutiny once more as terrorist videos proliferate online.

TikTok is facing fresh calls for a ban after it emerged the social media app is awash with videos glorifying Hamas.

A search for a well-known Hamas term in Arabic returns hundreds of results that appear to support the terrorist organisation.

One clip features news footage of the attacks with the caption: “The unforgettable day”. Another shows Israelis running away from the Supernova music festival, where 260 people were murdered, while a caption refers to the citizens “fleeing like mice”.

The sea of pro-Hamas material comes despite TikTok’s own guidelines banning any content that praises or glorifies extremist organisations. The media regulator Ofcom said it had written to TikTok and others over the risk of harmful content related to the Israel-Hamas war being accessed by users.

While disinformation and pro-Hamas propaganda can also be found on other social media sites, politicians have warned about TikTok’s founder ByteDance, which has previously come under scrutiny for its links to the Chinese state.

While Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for an immediate ceasefire, Beijing has failed to explicitly condemn the Hamas attacks.

MPs accused the social media company of failing to do enough to tackle terrorist videos more than three weeks after the conflict started.

Alicia Kearns, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, said: “TikTok is fast becoming a platform for misinformation at best, and extremist-glorifying content at worst, regarding the current conflict in the Middle East.”

“Although Beijing is trying to portray itself as a neutral broker for peace in the Middle East, it has notably refrained from condemning the appalling actions of Hamas.

“The appearance of Hamas propaganda on TikTok is particularly worrying.”

Former Tory leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, said the prevalence of pro-Hamas content on TikTok added weight to calls to ban the platform
Sir Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: UK Parliament/Maria Unger/PA Wire

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party, added that the content “just strengthens the call for the Government to ban TikTok”.

The emergence of Hamas material on TikTok comes just days after new rules cracking down on harmful material on social media were signed into law.

The Online Safety Act places legal responsibility on tech giants to remove illegal content or face fines worth billions of pounds.

Ofcom, which has been granted powers to enforce the new legislation, said it will set out how the laws apply to terrorism next week. TikTok is regulated by Ofcom in the UK.

A spokesman for Ofcom said it required video-sharing apps to put in place appropriate measures to protect children and other users from terrorist content and material that incites hatred or violence. 

They added: “We have already written to our regulated services – including TikTok – about the increased risk of their users encountering harmful content stemming from the crisis in Israel and Gaza, and the need to protect users from such content.”

However, TikTok’s failure to remove these videos glorifying Hamas, which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the Government, will raise concerns that the app is helping to fuel anti-Semitism.

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews said: “The Online Safety Act 2023 empowers Ofcom to take robust enforcement action if companies fail to safeguard users and do not adhere to their own guidelines on hate speech, abuse, and extremist content.

“We remind these companies that Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and others are proscribed terrorist organisations under the Terrorism Act 2000, and UK users promoting or celebrating these groups are breaking the law.”

TikTok said it was reviewing the Arabic search term and would remove anything that violated its community guidelines.

A spokesman added: “Since the start of the conflict we have mobilised significant resources and personnel to help maintain the safety of our community and integrity of our platform and strongly reject baseless claims to the contrary.

“We have removed over 775,000 videos and closed over 14,000 livestreams for violating our Community Guidelines, including for misinformation and hate speech.”

The European Commission has demanded information from TikTok over how it has curbed the spread of Hamas content. A spokesman for Thierry Breton, the commissioner for the internal market, said the EU had sent a formal request for information on October 19.

“We can confirm that the company is cooperating and providing information in response,” the spokesman said.

TikTok has spent years with the threat of a ban looming over it after then-US President Donald Trump first raised the prospect in 2020.

However, ByteDance successfully challenged an order for the company to sell off its US operations or close down.

While TikTok has since been banned from government phones in countries including the US and UK, the threat of a full ban has subsided in recent months.