Why bin Laden’s 2002 letter became the latest TikTok moral panic.
This week, videos featuring former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s 2002 missive “Letter to America” were posted to TikTok, leading a wide swath of politicians, families of 9/11 victims, and influencers to condemn users creating the clips — and the app itself.
The story goes like this: TikTokers are “going viral” for sharing bin Laden’s arguments, and that is renewing calls to ban the app and feeding a recent fear that TikTok is indoctrinating Gen Z with pro-Hamas propaganda. The issue is, that story’s not fully true. While some TikTokers really were posting videos urging others to read the letter and getting modest views, these videos only made up a “tiny, tiny corner” of TikTok, as Jason Koebler, one of the earlier reporters to dig into the videos, explained in a post on X.
The controversy over the videos is a reminder that, often, a moral panic stems from a kernel of truth, one that is removed from its original context and coated in hyperbole. The panic over the letter is just the latest in a long line of these sorts of social media-driven scares about the dangers of the internet, which tended to create a false sense of frenzy. Did any children at all film themselves eating Tide Pods for views? Sure. Was it a wildly popular trend among Gen Z teens back in the day? No. The same goes for last year’s panic about kids baking NyQuil in chicken in order to go viral on TikTok.
What makes this TikTok panic especially potent, however, is a mix of factors. There’s bipartisan support among US politicians to restrict or ban TikTok as a national security risk. In a hearing earlier this year, lawmakers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew over the app’s ties to China (TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is a Chinese company). And although TikTok says that the average age of its 150 million active users in the US is 31, the platform retains a deep association with youth culture. This makes it the ideal breeding ground for anxiety about what The Children are up to online.
Meanwhile, bin Laden is a figure that elicits strong emotions — especially in the West — for his role in the 9/11 terror attacks and the shadow the resultant war on terror cast on American life. One of the things the letter touches on, and one of the things the videos focused on, is Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. The letter cites Israeli actions toward Palestinians, and the US’s allyship with Israel, as justification for al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US. In the wake of Hamas’s assault on Israel and Israel’s war on Hamas, those comments appear to have taken on new potency for some TikTok users. As NBC News reports, many who’ve discussed the letter have not said that they support bin Laden’s actions and his perpetration of the September 11 attacks, but note that it has made them view the US’s foreign policy in the Middle East more critically.
It seems likely that statements, tweets, and articles expressing outrage about TikTok personalities praising the letter went more viral than any of the videos in question. Regardless of how this story actually began, we’re all paying attention to it now.
The outrage over the bin Laden “Letter to America” TikTok videos, briefly explained
As with many stories about viral trends, the original source of interest in the bin Laden letter is unclear. The Washington Post noted that a small account on TikTok had posted one of the earlier videos on Monday, though its reporters write that Google search interest in the missive had been growing for days before videos about the bin Laden letter began to circulate on social media.
According to the Post, TikTok videos with the hashtag #lettertoamerica had been viewed about 2 million times as of Wednesday evening, a number the publication described as a “relatively low” figure given the 150 million accounts on the app in the US. On Wednesday night, social media influencer Yashar Ali posted a compilation of these posts on X that was viewed 38 million times, per the Post. Ali has a large, diverse, and politically well-connected following on X, giving his posts wide reach. Following his post, TikToks with this hashtag had been viewed 14.2 million times as of Thursday morning.
With all those views came backlash. The White House criticized those creating, watching, and sharing the videos: “There is never a justification for spreading the repugnant, evil and antisemitic lies that the leader of Al Qaeda issued just after committing the worst terrorist attack in American history,” Andrew J. Bates, a deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement to the New York Times. “No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden.”
Slate writer Fred Kaplan was among the media experts and political observers who believed that those who are sharing the letter may be doing a selective reading that disregarded other provisions, including its broader “attack on the modern secular world,” justification for violence against civilians, and antisemitic statements. Far-right lawmakers — many of whom backed former President Donald Trump’s efforts to ban the app — have also seized on the spread of this letter to try to reignite criticism of TikTok and calls for a ban. Because the app is owned by a Chinese parent company, some lawmakers have raised concerns that it could be used to amplify anti-American content and propaganda, an allegation TikTok has denied.
In response to this outrage, the Guardian, which had hosted an English translation of the letter since 2002, removed it from its site, citing the lack of background provided. The Guardian noted in a statement that the letter was “widely shared on social media without the full context. Therefore we decided to take it down and direct readers instead to the news article that originally contextualized it.”
For his part, Ali — as well as CNN correspondent Donie O’Sullivan — disputes the implication that his video was the sole cause of this topic’s virality. TikTok has also pushed back against the idea that the bin Laden videos went viral at all, while also taking down videos promoting the letter noting that these videos violate “rules on supporting any form of terrorism.”
“The number of videos on TikTok is small and reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe added in a statement to NBC News. “This is not unique to TikTok and has appeared across multiple platforms and the media.”
What’s in the “Letter to America”
The 2002 letter tries to answer the questions of why al-Qaeda is opposing and fighting the United States, and what the group wants from the US. It was published after the terrorist group killed nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.
Bin Laden argues that the rationale for the group’s violence is “because you attack us and continue to attack us,” citing the United States’s support of the creation of Israel and the occupation of Palestinian territories, among a number of other foreign policy actions including America’s sanctions on Iraq and bombing of Afghanistan. It also calls for more people to become adherents to Islam and criticizes the US for everything from its purported “acts of immorality” to its climate policy to its treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
In its response to these two questions, the letter also attempts to justify the killing of civilians, uses several antisemitic tropes, and attacks gay people.
In their posts, some TikTok users say that reading the letter has forced them to reflect on how history has framed the US’s culpability in geopolitics. “If you have read it, let me know if you are also going through an existential crisis in this very moment, because in the last 20 minutes, my entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived, has changed,” one user said. And while much of the backlash has suggested that these posts are broadly synonymous with praise of bin Laden, some people in the videos featured in Ali’s compilation were focused more on reflecting on America’s historical relations with the Middle East than they were on backing bin Laden’s actions.
This response has come as there has been increased scrutiny of Israel’s airstrikes and siege of Gaza, which have killed more than 11,000 civilians, and a desire to understand the history of the Israel-Hamas conflict. At the same time, TikTok is gaining in popularity as a place to learn about and understand the news. According to a recent Pew Research poll, the share of TikTok users who regularly get news on the app has doubled since 2020. Younger people, who have a large presence on TikTok, have also been among the groups who’ve been most critical of both Israel’s military response and the US’s support for it.
One expert told the Washington Post that some of the users sharing bin Laden’s letter were potentially focusing on parts that resonated with them while ignoring other parts that perpetuated damaging tropes and violence.
“It’s not the letter that is going viral. It’s a selective reading of parts of the letter that’s going viral,” Charlie Winter, a specialist in Islamist militant affairs and director of research at the intelligence platform ExTrac, told the Washington Post. “And I don’t know whether it’s because people aren’t actually reading it or, when they’re reading it, they’re reading the bits that they want to see.”