TikTok removed the hashtag #lettertoamerica from its search function after videos about Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America” went viral on the platform and were re-uploaded to the social media platform X. Some social media users suggested that the Al Qaeda founder’s document gives an alternative perspective about the U.S.’ involvement in conflicts in the Middle East.
Throughout the week, TikTok users had been sharing the link to The Guardian’s transcript of bin Laden’s letter, which was written about a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. The Guardian took the letter down from its website Wednesday.
In the letter, bin Laden addressed the American people and sought to answer the following questions: “Why are we fighting and opposing you?” and “What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?” The letter includes antisemitic language and homophobic rhetoric.
The virality of the letter has reignited criticism of the platform, which is owned by China’s ByteDance. The app has faced mounting scrutiny in the last year as the U.S. and other countries argue it poses a threat to national security. Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, critics of the app have alleged that it is using its influence to push content that is anti-Israel and contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests. TikTok has said the allegations of bias are baseless.
Researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which studies extremism on social media, said they found 41 “Letter to America” videos on TikTok. While TikTok has now blocked “Letter to America” from within its search function, videos referring to “Letter to America” are still easily accessible under the search term “Bin Laden,” the institute said in its findings.
Bin Laden’s letter condemns U.S. support for Israel and accuses Americans of aiding the oppression of Palestinian people. Bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. special operation in Pakistan in 2011, also denounced U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kashmir, Chechnya and Lebanon.
People online have used bin Laden’s words as a springboard for discussion about American foreign policy in the Middle East. Several have said it caused them to re-evaluate their beliefs around the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While people were critical of U.S. involvement in global conflicts, many clarified that they were not praising or defending bin Laden’s orchestration of the 9/11 attacks.
Those on the platform citing the letter encouraged people to read it, saying that doing so helped them better understand the U.S.’ interventions in the Middle East and the Israel-Hamas war. The videos have also gone viral on X, where some renewed calls for TikTok to be banned.