Jewish TikTok influencers including comedian Amy Schumer and actress Debra Messing penned an open letter to TikTok, released Wednesday and obtained by USA Today, that called on the platform to counter a rise in antisemitism.

“This isn’t just ‘digital harassment.’ There are real world implications. We are scared to leave our homes. We feel compelled to hire armed security,” the letter said, per USA Today. “We are frightened to post for fear of receiving more suffocating digital hate. We fear that only an unfathomable tragedy befalling a Jewish TikTok creator will lead to change. Is that what you are waiting for?”

The company responded to USA Today and said, “We’ve taken important steps to protect our community and prevent the spread of hate, and we appreciate ongoing, honest dialogue and feedback as we continually work to strengthen these protections.” TikTok reportedly did not address the concerns mentioned in the letter.

There is an information war being waged on social media between Israel and Hamas, as TikTok and other social media platforms have become the news outlet of choice for young people.

News spreads like wildfire on these platforms. Between interaction with content — watching it, liking it, sharing it — and how the algorithm boosts posts, a video can become a viral sensation, even if it’s not true.

After a rocket caused an explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, a Facebook post circulated online that appeared to be from the Israeli’s military social media page, taking responsibility for the blast at the hospital. The Israel Defense Forces and a top-ranking Arabic-speaking group spokesperson said this statement was not posted on official Israel Defense Forces accounts and that it was not true, The Associated Press reported. The account the post originated from seems to have been deleted.

Israel has denied responsibility for the explosion at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital and White House spokesperson Adrienne Watson said U.S. intelligence indicated Israel was not responsible for the blast.

Even though the post wasn’t true, it still spread around the internet. There isn’t an accurate way to estimate how many people saw the initial fake Facebook post, or a guaranteed path to informing all those who saw it that the post was fake.

The Wild West of TikTok creates a different media atmosphere as compared to legacy media. For example, after The New York Times initially reported incorrect news about the explosion at the hospital, the outlet issued an editor’s note, which said, “The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.” The Times cannot guarantee every person who read the initial reporting would see the correction and the editor’s note, but there’s a process in place for correcting incorrect or incomplete information as well as a code of ethics.

Before the age of photoshop and social media, faking an official statement from a military party and disseminating it to tens of thousands — if not millions — of people would have been an onerous task. But in the era of social media, it doesn’t take much.

TikTok as news for Gen Z and millennials

Younger generations’ trust in mainstream media outlets has hit a new low and social media has emerged as Gen Z’s most frequently used news source. TikTok, in particular, has become a primary news source for 1 in 5 young adults ages 18 to 24, per a report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, posts about the war have flooded social media. On TikTok, videos with #Palestine and #Israel have amassed over 75 billion views (these numbers include views prior to the war), Axios reported.

TikTok doesn’t have to adhere to the same rules as legacy media.

On TikTok, every person with a smartphone can disseminate information with little recourse and oversight. For those disgruntled by the legacy media’s performance, this might be positive. At the same time, it also means much of the information viewers digest on platforms like TikTok hasn’t been vetted.

Hamas is banned from most social media platforms because of its designation as a terrorist organization. But those sympathetic to Hamas have been able to still join platforms and post their messages. The New York Times reported that on Telegram, “users directed one another to upload gruesome footage of Israeli civilians being shot to platforms like Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube” alongside instructions of how to make it difficult for TikTok and other platforms to moderate this content.

Unless TikTok takes down these kinds of posts — the company has said it has efforts in place to remove extremist violent content and misinformation — these posts have the ability to go viral via the algorithm.

Some legacy media outlets like The Washington Post and Reuters have joined TikTok, but many news organizations don’t post as regularly on TikTok as they do on other social media platforms like X and Facebook.

How content can go viral on TikTok

Not all details of how the TikTok algorithm operates are known. The user has some influence over the algorithm, but so does the company, which is owned by ByteDance, headquartered in China.

The algorithm tailors content to you based on what you stay on the longest and predicts what kinds of videos you’d want to see, The Wall Street Journal reported. High engagement and similarity to accounts you follow are factors that determine if TikTok will recommend a video to you.

But some, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, have questioned if the algorithm “drives narratives” that polarize Americans, according to Bloomberg News.

Without a completely transparent algorithm, it’s impossible to know precisely how it works.

In the context of the Israel-Hamas war, Republican senators have raised concerns over whether or not TikTok is using the algorithm to boost pro-Palestinian content more than pro-Israel content, according to the New York Post.

From Oct. 23 to Oct. 30, content with the #StandWithPalestine has received 221 million more views than posts with #StandWithIsrael. The number of posts with #StandWithPalestine (87,000) is much higher than posts with #StandWithIsrael (9,000), per Axios.

This data shows that there are an order of magnitude more posts with #StandWithPalestine than there are #StandWithIsrael, but the average #StandWithIsrael video has more views than the average #StandWithPalestine video. Without seeing a comprehensive analysis of other hashtags, this data provides just a snapshot into what is happening on TikTok.

Polling from CNN and Harvard shows that younger generations are more likely to express support for Palestine (about half of them doing so). Of those ages 18 to 24, 32% responding to the Harvard poll said “it is a false story that Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 Israeli civilians by shooting, raping and beheading people.”

The skew toward a higher volume of #StandWithPalestine content could be due in part to generational differences. Younger generations are on TikTok, creating content, and they are more likely to support Palestine than older generations are.

The big picture of the information war on social media

The fog of war amplifies issues around accuracy of information and verification. Information shapes public perception and the content a user sees can contribute to their views shifting.

“No one person can have more than a soda-straw view at any one moment,” Steve Lee Myers wrote for The New York Times. Finding and verifying information during a time of war requires patience to sift through propaganda, reports without adequate context and other challenges to arrive at the truth. It’s not an immediate process.

Social media has the power to provide immediate amplification to propaganda, and can also provide an illusion of proximity. Americans scrolling on social media may feel as though they’ve been transported to the front seat of the war even as they don’t have to face any of the very real consequences.

As misinformation about the war circulated, the Israel Defense Forces screened raw footage from Hamas attackers’ body cams, cellphones, Israeli security cams and dash cams to a group of journalists. “These videos show pure, predatory sadism: no effort to spare those who pose no threat; and an eagerness to kill nearly matched by eagerness to disfigure the bodies of the victims,” Graeme Wood wrote in The Atlantic.

The New York Times had previously verified some of the footage shown.

“Why did Israel put together these pictures and sounds and show them to reporters? There is already copious testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors,” Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Hamas has never bothered to deny what it did. But the world needs proof it can’t forget or sweep away.”