During the violent outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May 2021, pro-Palestinian activists called for global solidarity and protest. For the first time, the video platform TikTok played a major role in the medialization and mobilization of the conflict – with far-reaching consequences for the form and orientation of political participation.
The short video by the Dubai-based comedian and gamer Kourosh Vejahati, uploaded on May 14th, 2021, on the channel @callmekoosh, is pointing out new strategies of a young generation of pro-Palestinian activists on TikTok, transcending regional and national borders as well as those between on- and offline participation. What was referred to by some as the “TikTok Intifada” and circulating under #GlobalizeTheIntifada in activists’ social media, forms a loose frame of reference for the diverse content, which in its modes of expression explores the scope between popular cultural imagery and the creator functions of the app.
In a conflict situation that is characterized by disinformation in both of the conflicting parties, the activation of antisemitic and anti-Arab resentments, and identitarian or impulsive-driven siding, pro-Palestinian TikToks run the risk of reproducing antisemitism with their rather playful and immediate activation of public perception and by doing so, undermining the idea of a pacification of the Arab-Israeli relations.
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The eleven seconds long video by content creator Kourosh Vejahati, who gathers a relatively large community around him – primarily through platform-typical, often slapstick-like comedy, gaming, and reaction videos to other TikToks – has 9.3 million views and 2.4 million likes. Within the ranks of videos circulating under the hashtags given in the caption, #freepalestine (a total of 8.7 billion videos), #savesheikhjarrah (927.3 million) and #palestine (12.3 billion), Vejahati’s short clip is one of the most successful.
The interplay of different media levels is particularly striking for the aesthetics and the spreadability of the video. On the visual level, the video consists of two parts: Firstly, a short intro with Vejahati himself as the actor in a scene displaying arrest, during which he moves his head towards the camera and smiles. In a second part, it contains video snippets and photographs of young Palestinian women and men in similar situations of arrest or fixation, who also look into the camera with a smile and thus seem to address the viewers directly.
The editing rhythm is adapted to the underlying song “Doubt” by the US crossover duo Twenty One Pilots. However, the song itself circulates on TikTok under the name “original sound – Faisal Bensaud” and thus refers to the video of the TikToker Faisal Bensaud (@faisalbensaud), who three days earlier – one day after the start of the military conflict on May 10th – released the ‘original’ Mash-up video of the smiling detainees. Due to the combination of imagery and sound, the lyrics of the song get a special meaning: The text sequences “Don’t know what’s inside of me” and the following chorus “Don’t forget about me; Don’t forget about me” clarify the intention of Vejahatis intro and the sequence of images following. In that manner, the video poses the question of why Vejahati and the detainees smile in such an intimidating situation. Furthermore, a connection of solidarity and identification is established between Vejahati as the protagonist of his own video and the following series of figures of the Palestinian ‘resistance’. In combination with the lyrics and the gaze addressing the audience directly, this process of identification becomes clear as a challenging “message”:
“Don’t forget about me”.
The question about the internal reason for the rather incomprehensible smiles is brought up again in an overlaying text fragment at the beginning of the video: “They’re in pain but still smiling”, along with a heart emoji and the Palestinian flag. In addition to the symbolic content of the images as a call to watch, remember, and empathize in solidarity, the feeling of pain (of arrest/oppression) gets addressed, marking the smile as an expression of strength and conviction of the Palestinian cause.
Looking at Kourosh Vejahati’s video as part of TikTok’s media environment, we can find out on the ideological and discursive position of the TikToks claiming solidarity with Palestinians, and how they change from spontaneous forms of expression into strategical but still uncoordinated motors of political participation.
The central infrastructure of the app is the customized “ForYouPage”, whose much-discussed algorithm compiles a never-ending broadcast of videos, arranged by factors like location, trends, content consumed and shared so far, attention span and comment activity. Regardless of the number of followers, videos can ‘trend’ and appear in the “ForYouPage” of countless users. In addition to the use of the video tools, popular filters and mash-up functions offered by TikTok, networks of users surrounding certain hashtags, sounds, tools, or challenges can be quite effective in gathering attention. For example, a video can be ‘boosted’ and its virality increased by the amount and spelling of the comments (capitalization, exclamation marks) or the general sharing behavior of its viewers. Therefore, the form of the content should have mimetic qualities that encourage playful imitation and appropriation.
According to that, calls for imitation, participation, and mobilization can be identified as a dominant visual element in Vejahati’s Video. By sampling the video of Faisal Bensaud, Vejahati uses popular images of various Palestinians forcefully detained by Israeli security forces at the time of the conflict. These include well-known activists such as Mariam Afifi, Muna Al-Kurd and Ahed Tamimi, but also unknown, mostly young people from the Palestinian Territories. They were arrested during the confrontation between Israeli demonstrators linked to the ultra-nationalist group Lehava and Palestinian extremists in East Jerusalem, which was also triggered by Palestinian TikTok-challenges. Additionally, arrests made during the violent clashes in so-called ‘mixed’ cities in Israel are shown. But above all, the focus lies on the ones made during the protests against the controversial police eviction of the house of the Palestinian Al-Kurd family in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah (Shimon HaTzadik) neighborhood. Alternating versions of the original mash-up video also contain the respective target groups of the call: the American model Bella Hadid, whose father is of Palestinian-Lebanese origin and who showed vital solidarity with the Palestinians during the global protests. But also, imitations of the arrests created by other users are inserted between the media images. The expression itself signifies the affordance of mimetic, audio visually depictable and thus divisible solidarity.
The gesture of smiling, which is central for the mimetic process, had already been stylized in previous conflicts by Arab-Palestinian media as an act of resistance against the alleged Israeli oppression and occupation before it was disseminated via TikTok. The photographs initially circulated on the websites of Arabic newspapers, in Internet forums of Islamic communities in Southeast Asia, and on Twitter. The morally reinforcing function of the pictorial icons, decoupled from the context in which they were created, was already revealed here: Perpetuating the symbolic notion of ‘David versus Goliath’ they were presented primarily to the Islamic world as a testament to the asymmetric military confrontation between a civilian-acting Muslim-Palestinian minority and a disproportionately reacting and generally illegitimate Jewish-Israeli majority. What is being propagated thereby is a reversal of the drafted conditions through inner-Islamic unity and religious solidarity, and in conclusion, the end of the state of Israel as a Jewish state.
The religiously connoted perception of the smile as supposedly motivated by ‘knowing’ that Allah values the acts of the Palestinian resistance as just and therefore will avenge the atrocities of their enemies – according to the comments either Israel, Zionism, or ‘the’ Jews – can also be found in the comments on Vejahati’s video, on the original video by Faisal Bensaud, or on the imitations using Bensaud’s “original sound” and “duetting” Vejahatis video. Instead of introducing his video with a gesture of imitation, Bensaud opens his mash-up-sequence with the words: “They are smiling because they know what Allah will do”. The openness of the wording is an invitation to complete the thought yourself: What will Allah do?
In the diverse series of adaptations of the videos discussed here – they range from make-up tutorials from the Texan diaspora, fan accounts of well-known TikTokers to Italian and Dutch pin-up-boys who professionally produce their content in provided “TikTok-houses” – two aesthetic tendencies stand out: firstly, the adaptation of prominent symbols, hashtags and topoi of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests following the racist murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020; secondly, the reference to popular K-pop bands.
At least since a rumor going around on TikTok that the Korean K-Pop band BTS showed themselves to be sympathizers with the Palestinian cause at a concert, attempts have been made to use media images of the band to mobilize their fan base to share the Palestinian agenda in so-called duets or reaction videos. This approach became relatively successful when fan accounts with large numbers of followers called for donations to Palestinian organizations and for solidarity. Well-connected fan accounts of prominent K-Pop bands had already shown a similar effectiveness in political conflicts during the Black Lives Matter protests. Besides mobilizing within their networks, K-Pop fans also took on another political role: They founded their own fundraisers, distributed educational resources, infiltrated Donald Trump’s campaign events, spammed hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter with fan content or prevented the Dallas police from identifying Participants in a BLM demonstration.
The turn of Palestinian activists to this political discourse appears to be intentional, especially when one considers the variety of symbolic and hashtag-based keywording and addressing of Black Lives Matter. An outstanding example is the gesture of the knee or boot on the neck, introduced by Vejahati’s video and often imitated, which reminds of the brutal murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans by this ‘technique’ of fixation. While disregarding the differences of the struggles, the supposed commonality of the fight against racist and colonialist oppression is symbolized and solidarity with Palestinians is demanded.
The oppressors, who never get depicted in concrete terms (they are mostly symbolized solely by military clothing), are countered by the empowering smiles of the Palestinian resistance figures. In this context, the symbol of resistance does not have religious connotations, but is staged as a general human gesture in the face of ‘inhumanity’ or the threat to human rights. In most of the examples viewed and in the comments on Vejahati’s video, the illustrated solidarity with anti-racist struggles is either represented by #PLM (Palestinian Lives Matter) and phrases such as “We Can’t Breathe” and “Palestinians can’t breathe since 1948”, sharpened or supplemented by further pictorial elements such as wounds and traces of blood, or a shut mouth, usually with “Zionist”, “Media” or a Star of David as an inscription on the hand holding it shut. Another style-defining modification is the use of the soundtrack “Stand Up” from the 2019 film “Harriet”, which deals with the history of slavery in the USA.
Such strengthening of connections between the struggles of Palestinians and those of contemporary anti-racist movements could also be observed on other social media such as Instagram or Twitter during the conflict. Above all, feelings of responsibility were aroused here within political milieus that identify with anti-racism and human rights but did not yet have a pronounced interest in or knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Especially within the US-American and Western European left, this is reflected in two not so new tendencies in political discourse: on the one hand, there is a decline in sympathies for the State of Israel, which can also be seen among younger American Jews and which – next to long-term dynamics in ideological preferences and patterns – could be considered a possible result of campaigns on social media; on the other hand, there is a widespread anti-Zionism represented by for example popular political actors like the “Squad” of the Democratic Party, consisting of MPs Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, Activists like BLMs Melina Abdullah and Shaun King, or former Leader of the Labour-Party UK Jeremy Corbyn.
This anti-Zionism became also evident during last year’s conflict by perpetuating antisemitic conspiracies of ‘Jewish Supremacy’, which are also referenced in the videos of the series discussed. Tendentious buzzwords such as “Settler Colonialism” or “Apartheid” in relation to the multi-ethnic, Jewish, and democratically constituted state of Israel established a connection to post-colonial discourses and marked Palestinians per se as victims who wage a just, albeit violent struggle against their oppressors. Integrating this Manichaeism, historical backgrounds and a differentiated political analysis of the conflict gets suppressed. Instead, this narration relies on conceptual templates that delegitimize the Jewish state and its population in the eyes of a public supposedly interested in human rights and critical of discrimination, thus demonizing Israel as ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’.
This pattern can be shown by a myth that has often been taken up and which is symbolically accentuated in the motif of the knee or boot on the neck. The gesture recalling the killing of George Floyd became a signification of racist police practice during the 2020 global protests. Already at that time it was associated with Israel. A range of anti-Zionist groups in the US, including BDS, Jewish Voices For Peace and the Nation of Islam, claimed that the Minnesota police force responsible for Floyd’s death was taught this practice of fixation by Israeli security forces in an exchange program. This claim, which has been reproduced many times up till today and appeared on social media on a big scale, has been proven to be a false accusation: unlike in Minnesota at the time the exchange program took place, this and similar practices were and still are prohibited by law in Israel and are not taught in the training of Israeli security forces and their exchange programs.
Against this background, the playful moment of the TikToks distorts into a force taking on propagandistic and antisemitic traits. To the harm of Jews outside and inside of Israel, this force also translated into the global solidarity protests in May 2021 and marked Jewish people and institutions as objects of aggression and antisemitic terror.
The low threshold of adaptability, the mimetic potential, and the fluid distribution of activist TikTok videos contribute to a global perception of the real suffering of Palestinians and thus enable users to easily access political activism – also Palestinians themselves. However, this takes place under social and platform-specific conditions that favor the kindling of old and new antisemitic slanders, the spread of disinformation and a Manichaean perception of the conflict, and ultimately stand in the way of a solution that balances the interests of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.