What is the TikTok war and why is Israel losing it?


“Hello, everyone. Today I’m going to introduce you to Muhammed Bakr. He is a person with special needs. His dream was to fly a kite like other children and play with them. So now, we made his dream come true and got him a kite. Alas, his father has been killed, and he himself has been displaced from the north and came to the south. We have made his dream come true. Hopefully, the war will end soon.”

The speaker is a loquacious nine-year-old named Lamal Jamous, now sheltering in Rafah. She stands next to her new friend Muhammed. This is the English translation of her 28-second TikTok video, made with a smartphone. Lamal has hundreds of thousands of followers. Her short video clips focus on the plight of Gazan children. 

Military experts can debate whether the IDF is winning the six-month Gaza shooting war. But is there any doubt that Israel is losing the TikTok war – the crucial war for hearts and minds – defeated by, among others, a smart little girl 10/10 in verbosity and armed only with a phone? She and other Gazans are sending images and heart-wrenching stories to the world. 

Israel has a response to Hamas rockets. But not to Hamas TikTok. 

This is the first TikTok war. And it is a public relations disaster for Israel and for the Jewish people in general who support Israel.

Giovanna Gonzalez of Chicago demonstrates on Capitol Hill following a press conference by TikTok creators to voice their opposition to the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act on March 12. (credit: Craig Hudson/Reuters)

Let us dig a bit deeper to understand how and why.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a short-form video hosting service owned by the Chinese Internet company ByteDance. Users submit videos, mostly 15-30 seconds in length. Users can choose to follow them. TikTok is one of the world’s most popular platforms. Its algorithm is expert at connecting content creators with new audiences. TikTok is a social medium that instantly met two needs, especially for young people: visual content, and brief enough to match the minuscule attention span (shorter than that of a goldfish) of young people. 

Does China control TikTok?

TikTok Ltd. is registered in the Cayman Islands and is based in Los Angeles and Singapore. Its parent company ByteDance, is owned by its Chinese founders, Chinese investors and other global investors. One of ByteDance’s Chinese subsidiaries is owned by a state-owned Chinese fund which holds a 1% “golden share,” giving it overriding voting control. 

How popular is TikTok today in the US and in Israel?

TikTok is hugely popular in the US, largely among the young. Some 170 million Americans use TikTok regularly, about half the population, or a 44% penetration rate among social media users.


Research shows that regular US TikTok users spend an average of an hour and a half daily and open the application 19 times per day. That comes to about once an hour, during waking hours. A majority of TikTok users (two out of three) are between the ages of 18 and 34. The growth rate of TikTok users is about 20% yearly. TikTok is rapidly coming to dominate the 268 million US mobile Internet users. 

The TikTok war for the hearts and minds of young Americans, including young Jews, is being lost. In fact, Israel never even tried seriously to compete.

TikTok is far less popular in Israel than elsewhere. True, there are a reported 3.2 million users. But in terms of usage and popularity, TikTok ranks sixth, behind WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and Telegram. 

WhatsApp has 90% penetration in Israel and is used widely – for example, by health maintenance organizations to manage queues for doctors.

How and why have the US and India tried to ban TikTok? 

At least two major countries are confronting TikTok: the US and India. 

The US House of Representatives passed a bill on March 13 that, if passed by the Senate and signed by the president, would initiate a nationwide ban of TikTok if its China-based owner doesn’t sell its stake. Lawmakers expressed concerns that the company’s ownership structure is a security threat to the US. 

The law, if enacted, may face years of legal wrangling, culminating in a right-wing Supreme Court decision that will likely favor extreme First Amendment free-speech rights.

India has done much better. TikTok came to India early, in 2017. TikTok was clever; it offered its application in dozens of India’s many languages and quickly established a wide “hyper-local” user base, perfectly adapted to India’s huge rapidly expanding mobile network. TikTok became a platform for businesses, as well as for casual viewing. 

It took TikTok just a few years to build a market in India of 200 million users – its biggest market worldwide. Then India lowered the boom. 

On June 29, 2020, the Indian government, led by Narendra Modi, banned TikTok, along with a large number of other Chinese apps, after a bloody episode at the Chinese-Indian border. TikTok disappeared in India overnight.

The people of India are resilient. They quickly shifted to Instagram and other social media, never missing a beat. Bye bye, TikTok!

Why is it worrisome that Israel is badly losing the TikTok war?

Here is what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote on March 19: 

“TikTok was designed for a war like this — 15-second videos of the worst human suffering, beamed out constantly. In the face of that media tsunami, Israel needed a clear message of commitment to a postwar peace process, heading toward two states. Israel had none. As a result, Israel is not only alienating many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, Biden administration officials say, but it is also in danger of losing support among an entire generation of global youth (including part of the base of the Democratic Party).”

Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, “…[in today’s age] the medium is the message.” Israel lost the TikTok war twice. First, because it did not have a message (a postwar peace process). Second, because it did not have a presence in the key medium that largely determines global public opinion.

What is most worrying is the age gap issue. In the magazine Jewish Review of Books, Cole S. Aronson notes that an October 17, 2023, US poll, ten days after the Hamas massacre, found a “thirty percentage point gap between voters older than fifty and voters younger than thirty-five, on whether America should arm Israel against Hamas. It is difficult to think of another political topic with that degree of fracture.”

Could Israel have predicted that the next Gaza War would in part be fought on TikTok?

For sure. We should have listened carefully to Tom Friedman and read his column written just after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War, in February 2022:

“This is the first war that will be covered on TikTok by super-empowered individuals armed only with smartphones, so acts of brutality will be documented and broadcast worldwide without any editors or filters. On the first day of the war, we saw invading Russian tank units unexpectedly being exposed by Google Maps because Google wanted to alert drivers that the Russian armor was causing traffic jams.”

Friedman continues: “‘….It’s been less than 24 hours since Russia invaded Ukraine, yet we already have more information about what’s going on there than we would have in a week during the Iraq war,’ wrote Daniel Johnson, who served as an infantry officer and journalist with the US Army in Iraq, in Slate on Thursday afternoon. ‘What is coming out of Ukraine is simply impossible to produce on such a scale without citizens and soldiers throughout the country having easy access to cellphones, the internet and, by extension, social media apps. A large-scale modern war will be livestreamed, minute by minute, battle by battle, death by death, to the world. What is occurring is already horrific, based on the information released just on the first day.’” 

Columnist, are you not exaggerating the impact of TikTok? It’s just a mobile phone app!

So, don’t just listen to me. Consider what Stephen Pollard wrote in The Jewish Chronicle on February 1:

“Those of us who are older than ‘Gen Z’ (mid-20s or younger) have no conception of the dominance of the platform in that age group’s digital lives. Nothing else comes close, and nothing else really has an impact on them. Research shows that Gen Z [those born between 1997 and 2012] spends at least ten percent of its waking hours on TikTok, and unpublished Google data is reported to show that the primary search engine for 40 percent of Gen Z is TikTok. What TV is to us, TikTok is for Gen Z.”

By any chance, is there a Jewish connection to TikTok?

There always is a Jewish connection. In this case, it is a savvy 67-year-old Jewish investor named Jeffrey Yass, who grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Queens, New York. 

Yass is a co-founder and managing director of the Philadelphia-based financial trading company Susquehanna, specializing in options. He was a major early investor in TikTok and has personal wealth of $28 billion. 

Yass’s politics are hard Right. In 2022, he became vice chair of the board of directors of the Cato Institute, a US libertarian think tank that pushes for a limited governmental role in domestic and foreign affairs.

Yass has had a major impact on politics in the US and Israel. 

In the US, he is said to be the largest donor to Trump in the 2024 presidential campaign, donating $46 million to the Republicans. In March, Yass met Trump, after which Trump changed his position from supporting a TikTok ban to opposing it. Yass’s Susquehanna invested heavily in Trump’s Truth Social, at a time when Trump needed cash to fund his huge legal bills.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Yass funded the Israeli think tank Kohelet, which in turn “funded and designed the anti-democratic [judicial] reforms of Netanyahu, Rothman, and Levin.” 

What are the implications of losing the TikTok war?

In a stunning speech on the Senate floor, US Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jew ever in an elected office, warned that Israel could become a “pariah nation.” 

The word “pariah” comes from parai in Tamil or para in Malayan. It refers to a type of large drum designed to announce the king’s notices to the public. The people who made a living using the parai were called paraiyar; in the caste-based society they were in the lower strata, hence the derisive paraiah and “pariah.”

People (or countries) who do not follow social norms become outcasts. When Israel is perceived by the world on TikTok to be a country that does not follow social and ethical norms, it becomes a pariah. 

The consequences are dire for Jews in the Diaspora, for Jewish students at colleges, Israeli start-ups, Israeli exporters, Israeli travelers, and for Israelis’ future well-being in general. 

It may not be too late to get back in the ring and snatch victory from the jaws of TikTok defeat. Perhaps that is just as important as attacking Rafah.■

Media wars

Each new war in the age of the Internet, and long before, has had its own star technology. Vietnam was a TV war. The First Iraq War, 1991, was a cable news war, which launched CNN. The Second Iraqi War 12 years later was the Fox News war. Then came social media. 

  • The Twitter war: On November 14, 2012, the IDF launched Operation Pillar of Defense against terrorists in Gaza. It was the first war of tweets. The world tracked the battlefront with Twitter, the short-form medium that initially limited messages to 120 words. Twitter is now owned by Elon Musk and is known as X.
  • The YouTube war: In 2013, the Syrian civil war broke out. It has been called the first full-blown war presented to the world on YouTube.
  • In 2016, Time magazine announced the “first Facebook war,” referring to a live stream of Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting to oust the Islamic State from Mosul, in northern Iraq. 

Notably, ISIS became the first terrorist group claimed to hold both physical territory and digital territory. To this day, ISIS continues to recruit strongly, and communicate regularly, via social media. 

  • The TikTok war: After Israel declared war on Hamas following its massacre on October 7, 2023, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserted that “this is the first big Israeli-Palestinian war fought in the age of TikTok.” 

 Among the massive laundry list of Israel’s current government’s failures is its total incompetence in recognizing the crucial role of social media in winning hearts and minds and investing resources and experts to wage the media wars. 

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion. He blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com.