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Did a letter written by Osama bin Laden really go viral on TikTok this week?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, videos began circulating on TikTok, resurfacing a decades-old letter by al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. This sparked fears that TikTok is radicalizing young people. When our reporters began looking into it, they found the story is not quite as simple as that. NPR's Shannon Bond and Odette Yousef are here to help us make sense of this social media saga. Good to have you both here.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Odette, let's start with you. What is this letter? What's in it?

YOUSEF: So this is a letter that Osama bin Laden wrote in 2002, criticizing the United States, justifying the September 11 attack. And it's replete with antisemitism, homophobia, sexism and calls for attacks on civilians. Really, what it is, Ari, is a manifesto - very similar to what we sometimes see from mass shooters. But what's different is that this has been widely accessible online for decades. And so in these videos, people were accessing an English translation of this document through the website of The Guardian. And after traffic to that page on The Guardian's site went up, The Guardian pulled it down.

SHAPIRO: And this was not a new page on the Guardian website. So Shannon, why was this suddenly resurfacing after decades?

BOND: Well, there are these questions about whether this might have been, you know, a coordinated campaign, but we just don't know enough yet. There's not evidence of that to say that yet. What we did find is one of the earliest videos we could find on TikTok about this was posted Monday by a user with under 400 followers. And like many of these videos, it was really focusing on specific portions of this document, critiquing U.S. support of Israel and blaming America for the oppression of Palestinians. And this was being very much presented through the lens of the current war between Israel and Hamas. And in these videos, you hear many users saying, you know, reading this letter changed their view of what they've been taught about U.S. history and foreign policy. Here's one of the examples.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm thinking, like, you know, they're terrorists. Like, oh, my God. But who's really the terrorists? Who's really been out here terrorizing people? Who?

BOND: But at the same time, Ari, these videos - they're, you know, based on a very selective reading of this document and ignoring a lot of what, you know, Odette pointed out - this really hateful stuff.

YOUSEF: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: When I saw this first reported, a lot of outlets referred to it as a viral trend. What can we actually say about its reach?

BOND: Well, it looks like this was initially circulating among some wellness influencers on TikTok. But what really seemed to launch it as a national media story was a tweet from an influencer on X - the platform formerly known as Twitter - rounding up some of these videos. TikTok says, before that happened, there were less than 300 videos using the hashtag #lettertoamerica. And collectively, those had about 2 million views. Now, you know, 2 million is a lot of views, and we do know there were more videos not using that hashtag about this letter.

At the same time, though, you know, (inaudible) which has 1.6 billion monthly users, this is not particularly high. So it's kind of unclear just how much reach this had. We do know that, after the tweet and the media coverage began to draw attention to it, TikTok says views of that hashtag jumped to 13 million. But, you know, ultimately, Ari, it's kind of hard to vet these numbers that TikTok's releasing or really dig deeper into where this originated because TikTok's really opaque. We just don't have a good look at the data inside the platform.

SHAPIRO: Is TikTok doing anything to respond to this?

BOND: Well, it says it's aggressively removing many of those videos. And, you know, we're seeing those come down, but also videos criticizing some of these earlier videos and news coverage. And the company is also blocking searches for the hashtag and the phrase letter to America.

But, you know, this has thrust TikTok back into the hot seat, Ari. We already know there's lots of skepticism because of the app's Chinese ownership. And since the war broke out in Israel, Republican lawmakers and others have accused TikTok of intentionally boosting propaganda, pro-Palestinian content, and not doing enough to curb antisemitic content. Now, TikTok denies this, but I think it's important to note NPR's own polling shows there's a real generational divide around attitudes towards Israel and Palestine. Younger Americans are much more supportive of the Palestinian cause, and that is TikTok's core audience. So what you saw here is this uproar over these bin Laden videos, you know, fitting right into this narrative about radicalization.

SHAPIRO: Back to you, Odette. Extremism is your beat, and so do you think there's reason to be concerned about the renewed interest in this letter?

YOUSEF: Well, you know, first, Ari, I think it bears reminding that, when it comes to terrorism in the U.S., the most persistent and lethal threat continues to be violent white supremacists. This is what we know from federal law enforcement authorities, and it's what the data show. I think what's concerning here is that so many people took this letter at face value without recognizing that it's propaganda - you know, that it's meant to justify mass killings, it's meant to inspire others to do similar violence and that it contains lies. You know, another concern here is that we are in a moment of uncertainty, where people are deeply upset by the war. They feel powerless to change it, and they are receptive to explanations or narratives about why this is happening. And so in these kind of moments of uncertainty, we often see that extremism and conspiracy theories spread.

I think, finally, you know, there is a lesson for the media here about - you know, how do we correctly assess whether something's gone viral? Because if we amplify content without knowing that, we could risk further polarizing Americans.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Odette Yousef and Shannon Bond, thank you both.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

BOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
Shannon Bond
Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.