By Lorelei Alverson; Image by CNBC
On March 7th, 2023 a group of twelve bipartisan Senators introduced the RESTRICT Act to Congress. This sweeping piece of legislation sought to address the systemic risks posed by the social media application TikTok, a Chinese-based platform which has taken the world by storm since its launch in 2016. TikTok, which is owned by the technology conglomerate ByteDance, grew to popularity among younger generations for its lip-syncing, dancing, and comedy videos, and has become a revolutionary facet of content creation in our quick-paced digital age. As the app’s user base expands into the 1.5 billions, Americans have grown more skeptical of the potential security ramifications introduced by a foreign media platform.
Enter the Islamic State; most commonly referred to by the name ISIS, this Jihadist terrorist organization has become well adept at operating social media platforms for the purposes of recruitment and propaganda distribution. ISIS’ use of Twitter and Facebook to distribute glamorized portrayals of their day-to-day routines intermixed with beheadings of Western journalists forced Western tech giants to unite in pursuit of a solution. According to Forbes magazine, “Social media companies, such as Facebook and YouTube, have had to dedicate significant resources to content moderation, beef up their algorithms and create a shared database to stem the spread of extremism on their platforms” (Sandler).
It should come as no surprise that the Islamic State has exhibited equal competency on the app TikTok. In an expose published by the Wall Street Journal, the social media intelligence company Storyful found that ISIS was targeting teenagers, young women, and other potential supporters through the video creation app. According to the Wall Street Journal “The videos—since removed, in line with the app’s policy—featured corpses paraded through streets, Islamic State fighters with guns, and women who call themselves “jihadist and proud.” Many were set to Islamic State songs. Some included TikTok filters, or images, of stars and hearts that stream across the screen in an apparent attempt to resonate with young people” (Wells). While these videos were removed by the Chinese social media company following the publication of this 2019 report, other videos of ISIS supporters have since reappeared, demonstrating the weaknesses of TikTok’s security infrastructure. A report by the Global Network on Extremism & Technology covered the trial of a 33 year old Pakistani Imam, who was sentenced to an 18 month prison sentence and deportation for his dissemination of pro-ISIS propaganda videos on TikTok. The radical terror apologist and youth educator had used TikTok in order to appeal to a younger generation of Muslims. In a video published in early September 2020, Imam Luqman Haider had remarked positively on the 2015 Paris suicide bombings, bragging that “Muslim worshippers are willing to sacrifice themselves for the prophet” (Micheron). Another video paid tribute to a Pakistani terrorist who had wounded four individuals in a knife attack outside of Charlie Hebdo, proudly exclaiming, “This is a brave man and he is now famous in Pakistan and all over the social networks. He’s famous across Europe. Thanks to the Prophet” (Micheron). The phenomenon of TikTok terror has not disappeared in recent years, despite several evolutions in TikTok’s algorithmic protocol. A report by Memri Cyber Terrorism and Jihad Lab detailed the discovery of a new TikTok page with over 11,000 followers, where a pro-ISIS US-based cleric had disseminated video lectures on his opposition to democracy and elections, and provided religious and spiritual advice to his followers (“Overview”).
Tiktok claims that its advanced algorithms and thousands of on-site content moderators have the ability to successfully detect harmful content uploaded to the app, removing the videos and deleting the accounts of the responsible parties. In an email to Forbes, a TikTok spokesperson stated that “This is an industry-wide challenge complicated by bad actors who actively seek to circumvent protective measures, but we have a team dedicated to aggressively protecting against malicious behavior on TikTok” (Sandler). On the other hand, skeptics characterize this effort as an endless game of “whack-a-mole”; where one Jihadist content creator is deleted, another can easily step up in its place. TikTok is only the most recent evolution in a long history of ISIS social media propaganda, as the organization jumps from platform to platform taking advantage of cracks in their respective monitoring systems.
However, this recent iteration has especially significant ramifications given TikTok’s appeal to younger audiences, who are particularly vulnerable to the influence of online extremism. TikTok has become the fastest growing application in the world, largely thanks to its popularity among “kids and teenagers”, who are “thrilled by the flashy, short, fast-moving videos shared by fellow comrades” and “hooked by the auto-play system and the powerful recommendations algorithm, making the platform joyfull addictive” (Micheron). The platform’s powerful algorithmic capabilities have been a significant concern in an era where media specialization has contributed to political radicalization and pipelines of violent extremist thought. ISIS has recognized this potential; as noted by Georgia Wells in an interview with CBS News, “What’s new here is ISIS is identifying TikTok as incredibly addictive.. They’re using an incredibly addictive app, that’s the hottest craze with teenagers and they’re using it to glorify their message and recruit people” (“ISIS”). While this might seem like fearmongering and a generous over-speculation of ISIS’ capabilities, a summary glance at ISIS-related TikTok content demonstrates the intentionality behind their media programming. According to the Wall Street Journal, some videos targeted younger girls using the phrase “jihad lover” and “lots of flower icons”, while others “interspersed video images of running horses and young men wearing Western clothes” in an attempt to capture the attention of younger men (Wells).
ISIS reaching the newest generation of “it” technology isn’t surprising, but it does pose new challenges given TikTok’s already precarious relationship with the United States. The RESTRICT act, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s call for a national-security review of the platform, are a few examples of the widespread concern that TikTok has inspired among Americans. TikTok represents a significant change in the tech landscape; it is not only growing at an unprecedented scale internationally, it is the first Chinese consumer app to attain widespread popularity in the United States. It’s unlikely that China has an operational interest in perpetuating ISIS content. The Islamic State of Khorasan- an Afghani branch of ISIS- has renewed tensions with China over the country’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs, critiquing Chinese imperialism and the unjust prosecution of Muslim minorities in a September second edition of its English-language magazine “Voice of Khorasan” (Ma). While the Chinese social media platform might not be directly contributing to the dissemination of this content, eliminating ISIS from their platform will be essential to maintaining the usership of United States citizens in the face of ongoing legislative battles. Balancing security accountability measures against critiques of over-censorship will also be an important consideration. A new generation of Jihadi propaganda is here; it is now a race to prevent impressionable users from seeing it.
“Isis Turns to TikTok for Recruitment.” CBS News, 20 May 2020,
Ma, Haiyun. “Afghan Militants Have China in Their Crosshairs.” Foreign Policy, 19 Oct. 2022,
Micheron, Dr. Hugo. “Praising Jihadist Attacks on TikTok and the Challenge of Protecting
Youths from Online Extremism.” Global Network on Extremism and Technology, 9 Dec. 2020, gnet-research.org/2020/12/09/praising-jihadist-attacks-on-tiktok-and-the-challenge-of-protecting-youths-from-online-extremism/.
“Overview of TikTok Account of Influential American Pro-Islamic State (ISIS) Cleric.” MEMRI,
4 Apr. 2023, www.memri.org/cjlab/overview-tiktok-account-influential-american-pro-islamic-state-isis-cleric.
Sandler, Rachel. “Isis Reportedly Using TikTok to Spread Propaganda.” Forbes, 21 Oct. 2019,
Wells, E Georgia. “WSJ News Exclusive | Islamic State Turns to Teen-Friendly TikTok,
Adorning Posts with Pink Hearts.” The Wall Street Journal, 21 Oct. 2019, www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-turns-to-teen-friendly-tiktok-adorning-posts-with-pink-hearts-11571680389.