During the last year, the use of the TikTok social media platform has skyrocketed, amassing more than a billion users worldwide. TikTok is a digital platform that allows its users to upload, share and watch short videos that last between 15 seconds to one minute (depending on the video’s format). The videos are uploaded with original or recorded text or music in the background.
Recently, TikTok has become a major instigating factor in recent incidents in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, which led to extensive public discourse about the application’s role in the flow of events. For example, videos containing the hashtag #freepalestine garnered 6.6 billion views on TikTok. One video, in which a young Palestinian slaps a young ultra-Orthodox man on a train in Jerusalem went viral, and, to a certain extent, triggered additional cases of Palestinian violence in then city. During the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza in May, many more videos documenting fighting between Israelis and Palestinians flooded TikTok.
Internet giants such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp want us to spend as much time as possible on their platforms, so they provide us with a constant stream of information, which is tailored to our social relationships on the web and our online interests based on our searches. TikTok does the same, tailoring the content it streams to users.
The application’s main page, FORYOU, is the central feed through which the algorithm streams videos that are presumed to be highly interesting to the user. With FORYOU, a user does not have to be a network “star” or does not have to have a lot of followers in order to go viral. If a particular video suits the taste of many, then its exposure increases, regardless of the number of followers the uploader has. This makes TikTok particularly addictive, as the videos that the app pushes to the individual user are customized to his personal taste.
The tools that TikTok provides for its users are, in a sense, the secret of its charm and its power. Users are able to quickly and easily upload and edit a video, choosing from a plethora of filters and adding the sound of their choice from original music, to a recorded voice over, or unique music for the video among many other options. This variety of editing options and musical additions differentiates TikTok from Facebook and even Instagram. The editing process is usually done from the camera of a smartphone and is uploaded almost immediately to the platform.
The app also allows for a number of different camera modes which affect the type of documentation. For example, sometimes the phone functions as a hidden camera, while with other settings, it is clear that people are aware of being recorded.
The abovementioned video taken on the Jerusalem train shows that the ultra-Orthodox boy who was slapped did not know that he was being photographed. This video, which has since been removed from the network, prompted me to look again into the content uploaded to TikTok from the viewpoint of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
I discovered several videos that show Israeli policemen or soldiers on their routine patrols, but after being edited, the asymmetrical relationship between occupier and occupied is reversed by mocking the soldiers. Some of the videos also show women soldiers in uniform, which adds an important gender element to our understanding of how Israeli female law enforcement officers are portrayed.
I will refer, in a preliminary analysis, to three videos uploaded during the last round of fighting between Hamas and Israel which was also characterized by riots between Arabs and Jews within Israel during the month of May.
In the first video, soldiers are photographed at a checkpoint. The video is recorded from the car window where viewers can hear the original conversation between the soldier and the driver. The driver wants to cross the checkpoint to get to work, but the soldiers tell him that it is forbidden and ask him to show his identity card. The video was uploaded to TikTok with the caption “Enough hahaha” in Arabic.
This video garnered over 50,000 likes, but had relatively few comments – only 604. As in the other videos, the reactions can be divided into two categories: support for Palestinians and support for Israel. The mocking element in this video is admittedly quite limited, mainly because there is no use of music. However, while the music has little effect, the driver – who is also filming the video – responds to the soldier in a tone that undermines the latter’s authority, thus strengthening the mocking element.
The camera in this case becomes a documentary weapon for the TikTok user in order to tell his/her side of the story. In this case, by uploading this video to TikTok, the individual user has a chance to tell his story of his attempt to get to work that morning. Also, the fact that he films the soldier’s face, making him visible to the public, implies a reversal of the balance of power between the parties.
The second video shows a female Border Policewoman in service, standing by the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.
This is a simple video in which the photographer merely follows the soldier with the camera, without any action or visual change in the situation. The voyeuristic element turns the photographer into the dominant party. With a love song in the background, at first glance one might think that there is an element of infatuation here, but when the video is uploaded three laughing emojis with tears are added, and we then realize that this is actually a mockery of the subject being filmed.
The video received 22,400 likes and 1,306 comments. Comments showing support for the Palestinian struggle use laughing emojis and the Palestinian flag symbol. Responses expressing support for Israel were both verbal and visual, using heart emojis and Israeli flags.
The third video shows one female and one male soldier standing at a checkpoint. It is not clear whether the female soldier knew she was being recorded when she approaches a car to ask for documents.
Again, this is a routine situation where the balance of power is predetermined. But when the photographer adds music that produces a different, even humorous, reality and uploads the video to TikTok, the soldier’s status and authority is undermined. This video was less popular than the previous one analyzed. The number of likes stands at 6,462 and the video received only 85 comments, most of which express support for the Palestinian side. This video shows the soldier’s face which appears innocent and even puzzled. Combined with a jingle used in a Jordanian advertisement for a sponge, effective and pleasant to use, which had been published during the month of Ramadan, the situation becomes amusing, if not ridiculous.
An initial analysis of these three videos points to the different ways in which it is possible to document daily life and how, after some editing on TikTok, a situation can be transformed from “routine” into ridiculous, funny, and ironic, with the effect of mocking those who are captured by the eye of the camera.
Furthermore, these videos raise the fundamental issue of privacy in the digital age. Violating the privacy of the soldiers captured in the videos undermines the balance of power between the parties, with the Palestinian side taking the lead in TikTok, which also reflects in the number of views and comments expressing support for the Palestinian cause.
Will videos such as these, in which Israeli soldiers are photographed, continue to find their way to TikTok? Just as Palestinian Facebook users realized about a decade ago that it is better not to express themselves politically on social media for the risk of facing consequences, perhaps younger TikTok users are already understanding that the use that is being made of this platform might, likewise, backfire.
Indeed, if we consider the first video mentioned above, the one about the young Palestinian slapping the Jewish ultra-Orthodox boy on the train, the footage of the incident gained a very high number of views, likes, and expressions of support. Consequently, however, the video itself served as evidence for enforcement auyhorities, and the slapper was shortly after arrested. This is precisely what restores the balance of power, leaving it intact.
Dr. Maya de Vries is a researcher and lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; her research focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on social networks.
 #freepalestine, TikTok; last accessed 17 June 2021. On the popularity of similar hashtags see: Eitan Leshem, “The ‘TikTok Intifada’ Has Become the Moment in which the Palestinian Narrative Wins”, Haaretz, 25 May 2021 [in Hebrew].
 Gilad Cohen, “Following a Video on TikTok: Suspect Arrested for Posting Video on Attack of Haredi in Jerusalem”, Ynet, 16 April 2021 [in Hebrew].
 On the legal issues of such videoclips see: Liran Levi, “‘Objectification’: District Court Criticizes Judge Who Argued that Policewoman’s Videos are ‘Flattering’”, Walla News, 6 June 2021 [in Hebrew]; last accessed 13 June 2021.
 Maya de Vries, Asmahan Simry, and Ifat Maoz, “Like a bridge over troubled water: Using Facebook to mobilize solidarity among East Jerusalem Palestinians during the 2014 war in Gaza”, International Journal of Communication, 9 (2015): 28.