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How should TikTok have handled the Osama bin Laden letter?

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FILE - In this 1998 file photo made available on March 19, 2004, Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. After 20 years America is ending its “forever” war in Afghanistan. After the terror assault of 9/11 the world rallied behind America and together the US and NATO entered Afghanistan to hunt down and destroy the mastermind Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida terrorist network. But the US and its allies have been dragged into a war between a re-emergent Taliban and an Afghan government, dominated by warlords, whose power and wealth were alienating ordinary Afghans. (AP Photo/Mazhar Ali Khan, File)

After Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” went viral—first on TikTok, then elsewhere—in recent days, some lawmakers are calling for stricter scrutiny of the popular tech platform, citing fears that anti-Israel sentiment is spreading among its users. The decades-old document, widely condemned as antisemitic, is apparently resonating with a largely Gen Z audience, who’ve read portions of the letter in videos as part of an effort to highlight the plight of the Palestinians in the ongoing Hamas-Israel war.

The sudden renewed interest in bin Laden’s letter, which has been publicly available since at least November 2002, among Gen Zers is not especially alarming, says John Wihbey, an associate professor of journalism and new media at Northeastern University. More pressing, Wihbey says, is the need for greater transparency and data about how, and by what mechanisms, social media companies amplify, curate and rein in the content shared on their platforms.  Wihbey and Claudia Haupt, professor of law and political science at Northeastern, described the letter as “lawful but awful” content — a term of art that refers to the lines drawn by free speech protections. “The First Amendment only applies to protect from the government interfering in speech,” Haupt says. She says there are numerous examples of “lawful but awful” speech that the First Amendment can’t reach.

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