Leila Warah, a 25-year-old journalist in the West Bank, leaped into action when the war broke out on Saturday. Image Credit: Source: Washington Post

Washington: When war broke out between Israel and Hamas, Leila Warah, a 25-year-old journalist in the West Bank, leaped into action.

“War is erupting in Palestine right now,” she said urgently in a TikTok video. “Here’s what you need to know.”

Warah proceeded to break down the news from the perspective of a young Palestinian American living in a West Bank refugee camp, where her Palestinian father was raised and her extended family all resides.

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She tallied casualties on both sides and explained the history of Israel’s presence in Gaza.

Warah, who has a journalism degree, is just one of many people posting videos on TikTok about the events unfolding in Gaza and southern Israel.

Posting to her own account and that of Mondoweiss, a news outlet covering the region from a Palestinian perspective, her latest videos have amassed a collective 1.2 million views.

Her personal account has grown by thousands of followers in the past 48 hours.

Warah covers the news in a way that’s drawing a growing audience online. She pairs earnest, on-the-ground reporting with vlogs about her daily life in a refugee camp.

Her videos show jubilant holiday celebrations as well as struggles including having to ration water and being unable to wash her hair because of Israel’s limits on water consumption in the camp.

She presents the news from the perspective of a Gen Z Palestinian, which is a view she says is not represented in traditional western media.

“The last 48 hours have been really intense,” Warah, who did her final project for her journalism degree on social media and journalists, told The Washington Post.

Easy to understand

“I think people really want things that are palatable and easy to understand and broken down for them, but also built for social media, which is where people gain their news from nowadays.”

Since launching in the United States in 2018, TikTok has become the leading news source for millions of young people, solidifying its role as a global town square where ordinary people can weigh in and political factions can battle to control the narrative. As the audience for traditional news outlets is shrinking, 20 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds say they use TikTok as a source for news, according to a recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism - up five percentage points from last year.

Trending searches on TikTok on Monday night included “Palestine right now” and “Israel right now.”

The hashtag #Palestine has amassed over 27.8 billion views on the app, while #Israel has amassed 23 billion.

TikTok is overflowing with discussion of the conflict, and there has been a steady stream of firsthand accounts from creators such as Warah, news analysis videos, and commentary from influencers seeking to weigh in.

TikTok users say they prefer news on the app because it features a more diverse array of viewpoints.

“These TikTokers are skeptical of mainstream media news agendas,” said Jamie Cohen, assistant professor of media studies at Queens College in the City University of New York system.

These kids aren’t playing games

“They’re very aware of news agendas that are driven by capitalism, politics and access and [they] have less of an interest in participating in that.”

Cohen said that despite the fact that many TikTok creators and their fans are young, they’re deeply politically informed and often engaged in different forms of activism.

“[TikTok] is a very serious space for serious discourse,” he said. “These kids aren’t playing games.”

Jules Suzdaltsev, an independent journalist who runs an account with over 1 million followers that covers news on TikTok, said that “in the middle of extremely controversial ideological conflict like this, [TikTok] has a huge leg up on traditional news,” which Suzdaltsev said relies too heavily on “experts and academics, who frankly are being booked for their ability to articulately toe the line.”

Israeli strikes continue on Gaza. Image Credit: AFP

“On TikTok you end up seeing real organic coverage from people actually living in the conflict,” he said. “I want to hear from younger Palestinians and Israelis who are actively experiencing this, and I know that I can get that largely unfiltered through social media, while I think the purpose that traditional media pundits serve here is useless.”

It’s not just on-the-ground, first-person coverage that TikTok offers. Many creators uninvolved with the conflict have offered commentary on the events. Alex Peter, a lawyer and content creator with 810,000 followers who uses his account to document his daily life and provide humorous commentary, said that users’ preferences for getting news on TikTok “reflects a general distrust in traditional forms of media more than anything else.”

“Traditional press can be somewhat unified in certain narratives,” he noted. “There can be a throughline, or the media can determine what the focus is going to be.” TikTok, he said, breaks that.

This is why so many Palestinians have seized on TikTok as a way to get their stories heard, Warah said. “There’s a huge lack of Palestinian representation in mainstream media,” she said. “Whenever they do bring a Palestinian on the news, it’s often to twist the narrative and get them to condemn their own people.”

Sharing first-hand videos

Content creator Adnan Barq, 23, said that since 2021, Palestinians have made a concerted effort to share firsthand videos of their lives to fight stereotypes. “In 2021 Palestinians were opening their cameras on Reels and TikTok and showing these scenes and all the stuff that was happening to them on social media,” he said. “It made the world realise they’re not receiving correct information from the mainstream media.” He credits viral social media videos with leading the nonprofit Human Rights Watch to condemn Israeli authorities for crimes against humanity in 2021.

“Both sides see social media as a hugely important tool to get their messaging out,” said Mosheh Oinounou, founder of Mo News, a digital media platform.

“The [Israel Defence Forces] accounts are posting every few minutes, videos of them taking out Hamas sites. The initial terror attack was covered live by Hamas journalists. . . . Social media is its own battleground in the battleground for public opinion. You have a whole bunch of influencers on both sides, and there’s a whole social media fight happening.”

Matthew Dastmalchi, a TikTok content creator who’s been covering news of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict under the moniker “Mute the Media,” said he began discussing news on TikTok after feeling dismayed by the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. “There’s a lot of distrust of traditional media sources,” he said.

Provoking reaction

Now, Dastmalchi uses TikTok to share his opinions on political issues. On Saturday, he posted a video calling for freedom for Palestinians and condemning Israel for the violence it has inflicted on the Palestinian people over the years.

“I know what I post to some people might seem a little extreme,” he said, “but sometimes I think you have to provoke a reaction and get some people to engage and think a little bit. The goal is that I hope people will be a little more accepting of perspectives that clash with theirs and not just take things at face value.” The video garnered more than 1.1 million views and sparked a heated discussion in the comments.

Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza
Israel's Iron Dome intercepts rockets launched from Gaza. Image Credit: Reuters

For news content creators who don’t want to take a side, the landscape can be fraught. Users want the people they follow for news to be overt and clear about their opinions and allegiances, and any effort to obfuscate or push a both-sides narrative about the conflict can be met with hostility, according to Jessica Yellin, a former chief White House correspondent for CNN who runs her own media brand and posts to TikTok under the handle @newsnotnoise.

“People are taking sides in what seems to be a sporting event,” she said. “The emotional stuff gets accelerated over the information. People who report with emotion, passion, outrage and fear, their content explodes. If you’re calm and measured and you base your content in actual information, it doesn’t get pickup. I think it’s embedded in how these platforms and algorithms are designed.” Yellen said the discourse has been especially toxic on this issue, which has elicited an “intense rage and vitriol” from social media users.

But Cohen said that it’s that exact emotion and passion that’s leading so many more people to engage with news content. Young people want to be politically engaged in the world, he explained, and they don’t want to hear news from a dispassionate, imaginary middle ground.

“The TikTokers are expressing news events through their personal experience,” he said, “and that is much more compelling than someone sharing a link with commentary or an infographic.”