TikTok faces escalating accusations that it promotes pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel content. “Shame on you,” Sacha Baron Cohen said on the call.
More than a dozen Jewish TikTok creators and celebrities confronted TikTok executives and other employees in a private meeting on Wednesday night, urging them to do more to address a surge of antisemitism and harassment on the popular video service.
The meeting, held on a video call for about 90 minutes and joined by more than 30 people in all, included the actors Sacha Baron Cohen, Debra Messing and Amy Schumer. It was led by Adam Presser, TikTok’s head of operations, and Seth Melnick, its global head of user operations. The executives said they wanted to know more about what the creators were experiencing to improve the app, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.
The celebrities and creators described, sometimes with fiery rhetoric, how TikTok’s tools did not prevent a flood of comments like “Hitler was right” or “I hope you end up like Anne Frank” under videos posted by them and other Jewish users.
“What is happening at TikTok is it is creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis,” Mr. Cohen, who does not appear to have an official TikTok account, said early in the call. He criticized violent imagery and disinformation on the platform, telling Mr. Presser, “Shame on you,” and claiming that TikTok could “flip a switch” to fix antisemitism on its platform.
Mr. Presser and Mr. Melnick of TikTok, who are also Jewish and based in the United States, were largely conciliatory in the meeting. “Obviously a lot of what Sacha says, there’s truth to that,” Mr. Presser said, referring to Mr. Cohen’s remarks that social media companies needed to take more action. Mr. Presser later said there was no “magic button” to address all the concerns raised.
Sacha Baron Cohen said TikTok was feeding young people antisemitic content.Credit…Buck Ellison for The New York Times
TikTok is urgently trying to push back against escalating claims that it is promoting pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel content through its powerful feeds. Several Washington lawmakers have renewed their calls to ban the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, arguing that Beijing may be influencing the content promoted through the platform’s algorithms.
Antisemitic and Islamophobic hate speech has surged on many online services since the Israel-Hamas war began. Antisemitic content soared more than 919 percent on X and 28 percent on Facebook in the month since Oct. 7, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group. TikTok has gained particular attention because of its ties to China, and its powerful algorithm drives content to 150 million users in the United States.
“If you think back to Oct. 7, the reason why Hamas were able to behead young people and rape women was they were fed images from when they were small kids that led them to hate,” Mr. Cohen said in the meeting. He accused TikTok of feeding similarly incendiary content to young people.
“We recognize this is an incredibly difficult and fearful time for millions of people around the world and in our TikTok community,” TikTok said in a statement. “Our leadership has been meeting with creators, civil society, human rights experts and stakeholders to listen to their experiences and feedback on how TikTok can remain a place for community, discovery and sharing authentically.”
TikTok arranged the Wednesday meeting with the creators in response to an open letter they sent last week criticizing the company.
One TikTok user, who couldn’t be identified through the recording, was incredulous about a “Letter to America” written by Osama bin Laden two decades ago that started going viral on TikTok this week, finding some support among young Americans. In the letter, Bin Laden justified the killing of Americans, and expressed hatred of Jewish people and anger about Palestine.
The letter, the person said, had become the “talk of the app,” and added: “In regards to trending topics right now as we speak, this trend needs to end. This app needs to ban this letter.”
TikTok said it was “proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform.”
Miriam Ezagui, a TikTok creator and nurse with 1.9 million followers, said some popular editing features on the site were being used by some users to twist her words in a video and send waves of hatred her way.
Mr. Presser said the use of the tools to perpetuate hate was another “important flag” for the company to follow up on.
“We can do better,” he said.
Ms. Messing, who has more than 37,000 followers on TikTok, pressed executives on TikTok’s moderation of the pro-Palestinian slogan “from the river to the sea,” which many Americans regard as a call to eradicate Israel. It has been deemed antisemitic by the Anti-Defamation League and has appeared in messages and comments to many Jewish TikTok users, regardless of what they’re posting.
Mr. Presser said the phrase was up for interpretation by TikTok’s 40,000 moderators.
“Where it is clear exactly what they mean — ‘kill the Jews, eradicate the state of Israel’ — that content is violative and we take it down,” he told the group. “Our approach up until Oct. 7, continuing to today, has been that for instances where people use the phrase where it’s not clear, where someone is just using it casually, then that has been considered acceptable speech.”
The notion of the term being used “casually” upset several participants.
Ms. Messing asked the company to reconsider its stance, saying: “It is much more responsible to bar it at this juncture than to say, ‘Oh, well, some people, they use it in a different way than it actually was created to mean.’ I understand that you are in a very, very difficult and complicated place, but you also are the main platform for the dissemination of Jew hate.”
TikTok said in a statement, “We don’t allow content with this phrase when it’s used in a way that threatens violence and spreads hate.”
Several creators asked why they could not directly reach individuals at TikTok for help with the harassment. One creator said that when she reported harassment, it took three to five days for TikTok to respond.
The executives said that while TikTok used to have managers for each creator, that became harder as the company grew. It’s now trying to reorganize its creator management teams to get more individual or community support for bigger accounts, Mr. Presser said.
“To hear that this place, this platform, this community that has brought you so much joy and helps each of you as individuals is becoming a place that feels like somewhere that you’re not sure you want to spend time on, I mean, that’s devastating,” he said.
“This is where we get the feedback, this is where we hear what isn’t working,” Mr. Presser said as the call concluded. “A lot of it, honestly I am embarrassed to say, is new. I haven’t heard a lot of it.”