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Why I am leaving TikTok behind

People loved my Holocaust-survivor partner and our content right up until he made the grave mistake of being Israeli
Screenshots from TikTok and a world gone mad

It will be hard to do, deactivate my TikTok account later today. I’ve had it for three years and had over 460K followers. My life partner, Gidon Lev, and I used the app to share Holocaust education and Gidon’s message of hope. On TikTok, we felt empowered and valued. We touched the lives of millions of young people. Gidon had “fans” worldwide who left millions of heart emojis and dueted his TikToks while they cried or smiled with joy. Gidon was most beloved. He was a fixture.

But our presence on TikTok was never easy. We were beset by antisemitism daily. But we got used to it. If antisemitism is something you can “get used to.” What we finally realized was that to post on TikTok while being Jewish, there is some unwritten, unspoken fine print, and it goes something like this:

Hello, Jewish Person. Thank you for being a token minority on an app worth 228 billion dollars! Please be advised that you will be traumatized every day with messages of violence and hate (a kind of mini-pogrom for your soul, if you will!) Thank you for joining, and remember, here at TikTok, we care about your experience!

Gidon and I never made a big deal out of the fact that we live in Israel. For us, it’s just a fact. But then, October 7th happened. Overnight, we lost thousands of followers. This continued daily. Gidon was accused of “supporting genocide” or “playing the Holocaust card.” When we made TikToks expressing our sorrow and our hope that things will get better, we were told that our “response was heartbreakingly disappointing.” Many of these comments – and there were thousands – came from TikTok users with rainbow and unicorn emojis in the bios. They described themselves as “vegan-wordworking-organic-fiber-artists.” These were our followers.

People loved Gidon and our content right up until Gidon made the grave mistake of being Israeli. It hit me like a ton of bricks (and comments) – this entire time – for three years – Gidon was loved conditionally. He was a token Jew.

But honestly, that wasn’t the worst part – not even being called a “baby killer” or other things I can’t print here. No, the worst part was watching TikTok make public statements about how much they care about Jewish creators on TikTok and how they are listening to our concerns. USA Today published an article about our decision to leave the app, but the journalist got it all wrong and inexplicably glossed over some critical aspects. There is much more to this story, all of which I communicated and none of which appeared in the article. Strange.

For the past three years on TikTok, more than making educational content, we have also been sharing about the antisemitic memes, emojis, and trends we see on our account with Tom Divon at Hebrew University. I helped collect and analyze this data to help researchers better understand it. During that time, I had contact with TikTok representatives in Germany and Israel. I participated in workshops hosted by TikTok Germany in which concentration camp memorials learned how to make better content. I coordinated TikToks for Yom HaShoah with TikTok in Israel. This participation gave me special access to TikTok.

One day, I asked a TikTok rep in Germany how to verify my account. Did I need a certain amount of followers? Did I need to supply links to other press or media about Gidon? He told me he would verify the account, and he did. Just like that.

It was huge for us, that little blue badge. We gained followers hand over fist after that. But I was uneasy. Many other creators on TikTok make great content and have many more followers than we ever had. Why weren’t they verified too? That this benefited me was cold comfort. If TikTok can verify an account with the single click of a button, what else can they do? TikTok has its thumb on the scale.

Having this access to TikTok representatives meant something else. It meant I could show TikTok examples of hate content and comments I reported for “community guidelines violations” that came back as “no violation.” Repeatedly, I was told that TikTok cares about these issues and they would be resolved. After I pointed them out, individual cases were indeed “fixed” by my request. But the larger problem kept happening.

I became involved with a community of Jewish TikTok creators on Facebook, where group members posted examples of antisemitic content that had “no community guideline violations.” In the group, I also learned that many of these same creators had had their accounts “mass reported,” suspended, and even banned. I wrote to TikTok and asked about this. They said they – wait for it – care about this and even added that it must be very frustrating – but, they added, “mass reporting” does not happen on TikTok. I sent them an academic paper written by a researcher at Cornell University detailing mass reporting. No, they said. Nuh-uh.

For the uninitiated, mass reporting is when TikTok users (mostly bots, I believe) “gang up” on an account they want to silence. They report the account for community guideline violations en masse. TikTok then sees an account with fifty or a hundred reports – and suspends or even bans the account. It happened to my account once. The account of a Holocaust survivor was given a “strike” for hate speech. Oh – I fixed it, don’t worry about that. I simply wrote TikTok and said fix this, and they did. Thumb on the scale. In fact. I have asked TikTok to “fix” two other banned accounts. Moments later, the accounts were back online. One of these accounts was that of a fiery Jewish member of the LGBTQIA community. The other was of a liberal, Jewish Israeli posting measured content about the war.

I pride myself in not going down “conspiracy lane,” I really do. I have no evidence that Bytedance/TikTok actively engages in anything nefarious. Terabytes have been written about trending hashtags and the amplification of hate on TikTok. Not to mention the Osama Bin Laden “letter to America” that is currently trending. Where is all of this coming from? Who is behind it? I have no idea.

But I can say one thing with confidence: No, despite the passionate speeches from Sasha Baron Cohen (who, for the record, does not have a TikTok account), no, TikTok does not actually care, and no they are not listening to Jewish and other minority creators. Heck, if your company is worth 228 billion dollars, why should you care? Yep, it’s like that.

Despite the joy and creativity I have seen there over the years, what little faith I had in TikTok is totally broken. We have asked ourselves over and over what our responsibility is here as Jews. We need to stand with our people, and we need to keep talking about Holocaust education. We are educators.

Despite what the USA Today article seemed to indicate, we have not been driven off or forced out of  TikTok. We are not afraid of the “haters.” We are taking a principled stand. A social media platform that has a sign hanging from its logo that says “Jews not welcome here” is not a platform we will support. TikTok would not exist if it didn’t have content. We are taking our content somewhere else. Our account @thetrueadventures will be deactivated later today. Goodbye and good riddance. We can be found on Instagram, and I am migrating all of our videos to a nascent YouTube channel so that young people, when they calm down from this fever dream, can learn about the Holocaust.

About the Author
Writer, editor and content creator Julie Gray lives in Northern Israel with her life partner, Gidon Lev. Let's Make Things Better, co-authored by Gidon and Julie will be available in Fall 2024 (Hachette/Pan MacMillan).
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