As the war between Israel and Hamas flooded social media with violent content, false information and a seemingly limitless wave of opinions, lawmakers and users have accused platforms like TikTok and Facebook of promoting biased posts.
The tech giants have denied the charges. TikTok, accused of boosting pro-Palestinian content, attributed it to “incorrect analysis” of hashtag data. Some Instagram and Facebook users circulated a petition accusing the platforms’ parent company, Meta, of censoring pro-Palestinian posts, which Meta attributed to a technical error.
Anti-Semitic content invaded X, the platform formerly known as Twitter and run by billionaire Elon Musk. X CEO Linda Yaccarino said in a post on Thursday about anti-Semitism that “there is no place for it anywhere in the world.”
However, it’s hard to know where the truth lies, according to academic researchers and advocacy groups. They said debates over content related to the war between Israel and Hamas have highlighted obstacles that complicate independent analysis of what appears on major online services. Instead of being able to conduct methodical studies of online discourse, they must attempt to capture its reach and effects using inefficient and incomplete methods.
Obscurity allows people to make dubious claims about what is dominant or popular online and allows platforms to reply with equally flimsy or distorted evidence, limiting liability for all parties, the researchers said.
“We desperately need rigorous, informed research into what the real impact of platforms is on society, and we can’t do that if we don’t have access to the data,” said Megan A. Brown, a doctoral student. at the University of Michigan who researches the online information ecosystem.
Inflammatory content (and what to do about it) continued to be a priority on social media platforms this week. More than a dozen Jewish TikTok creators and celebrities, including actors Sacha Baron Cohen and Debra Messing, confronted TikTok executives and employees in a private meeting about the platform’s handling of anti-Semitism and harassment. After Musk endorsed an anti-Semitic post on X, internal messages showed IBM cut $1 million in planned advertising spending.
Researchers also tried to understand a surge of interest in a decades-old letter from Osama bin Laden. The so-called “Letter to America” criticized the United States and its support for Israel, repeating anti-Semitic tropes and condemning the destruction of Palestinian homes.
After reviewing public posts on social media from Tuesday to Thursday, researchers from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue concluded that references to the letter increased more than 1,800 percent in X. They found 41 “Letter to America” videos with more than 6.9 million views on TikTok.
The researchers, Isabelle Frances-Wright and Moustafa Ayad, said in an interview that they wanted to do a much more sophisticated analysis. Instead, they had to search by hand using basic terms, without being able to analyze the distribution of the letter by region or language.
“Much of this content, particularly video content, is not tagged with the type of text that we can manually search for, so whatever we find is really just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms Frances-Wright said .
Jamie Favazza, a spokesperson for TikTok, said the company supported independent research and allowed more than 130 academic research teams access to analyze the site. “We are working diligently to soon expand eligibility to civil society researchers in the United States,” he said.
Meta declined to comment. X did not respond to a request for comment.
Background data on engagement, volume, and other metrics is typically retrieved through a platform’s application programming interface, or API. Major technology companies have long offered some degree of access, but researchers said that now appears to be shrinking.
This year, as Musk looked for new ways to monetize X, the company began charging thousands of dollars for monthly access to its API, effectively turning off many researchers. Meta’s support for data analytics tool CrowdTangle has waned amid internal concerns about damage to the company’s reputation.
Today, the researchers said, the data they can study is often dictated by what the platforms want to publish (“research with permission,” some explained) and is often unreliable and delayed well beyond the point of relevance.
“With data, you can always paint the picture you want when you’re the only one who has access to that data,” said Sukrit Venkatagiri, assistant professor of computer science and disinformation expert at Swarthmore College. “If we don’t have perspective on what’s happening in these spaces that have billions of users, it’s a little scary.”
TikTok has been at the center of the recent storm, in part because it is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, with some critics claiming it is pushing pro-Palestinian content to align with the government in Beijing. TikTok has been accused of amplifying pro-Palestinian videos through its powerful algorithmic algorithm and failing to address anti-Semitic content.
TikTok has issued multiple statements rejecting accusations of bias, pointing to surveys showing that young Americans supported the Palestinian cause before the company existed. The company has also tried to find gaps in data on popular hashtags that critics said revealed the pro-Palestinian slant on the service.
This week, TikTok said the #standwithIsrael hashtag had fewer videos than #FreePalestine, but “68 percent more views per video in the US, meaning more people are seeing the content.” He also pointed to public data on Instagram and Facebook, which showed millions of #FreePalestine posts and fewer than 300,000 #standwithisrael posts.