The Social Media Bigotry Pandemic Boils Over to TikTok | Opinion

Schools are closed. Summer plans are canceled. Everyone must stay at home. So who is watching the kids? Or rather, what are the kids watching? Coronavirus shut-downs have led to increased social media use—and with it, increased hate speech on social media.

We know hatred and bigotry is a problem on Facebook. We know it's a hot topic on Instagram, on Twitter and on YouTube. But what about the most popular app for children and teenagers, TikTok? The app's popularity has skyrocketed recently, especially among Gen Z.

With this comes a frightening rise in online anti-Semitism among youth; children as young as 12 seem to think mocking the Holocaust and Jews is "edgy." This isn't radical hate spreading on the fringes of the internet, but hatred on a rapidly growing platform that has billions of users. StopAntisemitism.org, which I direct, has been at the forefront of monitoring, investigating and reporting on this trend. Since the global pandemic outbreak in mid-March, reports of anti-Semitic TikTok videos have increased ten-fold.

To understand this phenomenon, we need to understand one of the reasons TikTok is popular. The platform has a simple interface that makes it easy to record, edit and post complex videos. These tools allow anyone to create videos that have a higher production value from their cell phone.

While this has unleashed creative content, it has also provided users a platform to spread hateful messages in a more "trendy" fashion. For example, a video last month from a since-deleted account shows a teenager standing with a Nazi salute, a finger over his mouth to imitate Hitler's moustache, and the text "4/20 is Hitler's birthday." He then mimes smoking a joint with the text, "So who's smoking that gas in honor of 4/20."

The visible praise of Hitler on the platform is alarming. One video showed two teenagers asking, "who is the most famous Jewish chef?" They then answer "Hitler" with a meme of Hitler as KFC's Colonel Sanders. Another video—a duet response to a young Hasidic Jew rapping about being Jewish—showed a young boy cringing with the text, "Where's Hitler when you need him?!?!?" In yet another video, one boy started his clip with, "how to escape a concentration camp." He continued, "now that I have the Jews attention," and climbed into an oven.

To make matter worse, these anti-Semitic "jokes" are becoming so normalized that they're trending. TikTok's explore page has featured anti-Semitic content, which goes against TikTok's own community standards. To the platform's credit, nearly 20% of reported videos are removed. Anecdotally, this is better than on other social media platforms. However, the volume of content on TikTok is growing faster and the consequences are the same—if not worse—because many users are impressionable children and teenagers.

Children need to face consequences for their offensive and hateful actions. Kids must be taught that any form of bigotry and violence is not a joking matter. Last month, a student at Marlborough High School in Western Massachusetts posted a Snapchat of himself in a Nazi salute. Once the school was alerted, they revoked the teenager's sports privileges and required him to volunteer at a local synagogue. In Georgia, two high school seniors were expelled after posting a racist video that denigrated black people on TikTok.

TikTok with Chinese communist flag
TikTok with Chinese communist flag Chesnot/Getty Images

Yet there is another dangerous trend in which adults deny their responsibility to respond to this phenomenon. The Spanish River High School in Boca Baton, Florida—a city with a decent size Jewish community—has a serious issue with anti-Semitism. Last year, their now former principal denied that the Holocaust was a fact. A few months later, a TikTok video featuring Holocaust denial surfaced, produced by a student at Spanish River. The current principal denied that the video was posted by their student, and action was only taken when the superintendent was contacted. It should never have gotten that far in the first place.

When toddlers say a curse word, they at least get a time-out. But parents are hesitant to discipline children when their kids promote (intentionally or unintentionally) hateful ideologies. Children making these videos are not KKK members, but they are normalizing rhetoric that has serious consequences. Research shows that exposure to hateful rhetoric on social media is likely to lead to bigoted views. Cities with more hate speech on social media also have more hate crimes.

Parents, educators and leaders must make it clear that hate speech on social media is not benign. More than ever, we need to be vigilant in stopping rising hate on social media. Right now, we have more kids at home and online, and more social media content than ever before. This bigotry is the next pandemic we cannot afford.

Liora Rez has worked in social media since 2014 and is the Director of StopAntisemitism.org.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.