Videos posted on the app glorify crime, include explicit threats, and escalate clashes inside Arab society – sometimes leading to physical violence. The police have been collecting information on the app, and researchers say it is a minority trying to build their self-esteem through likes.
It was late evening in one of the Bedouin communities in the Negev. G., the father of a family with many children, made sure all of them were in their beds and turned off the lights in their rooms. When he went to sleep at about 10 P.M., the house was silent.
He woke up at dawn to the sounds of breaking glass. Someone had fired a volley of shots at his house, and G. had no idea who it could have been.
When the police arrived, G. insisted that his family had no enemies and made it clear that all his children were at home in their rooms all night. The police officers’ answer surprised him: “You’re right, the children were in bed, but under the blankets one of your sons spread dirt on TikTok about a girl from another Bedouin tribe.”
The incident, and many other similar ones that have occurred over the past few months, demonstrates the central place TikTok has taken in rising crime in the Arab community in general, and in Bedouin society in particular.
“Everything is happening there,” says a senior police official. “The older generation isn’t able to understand it. Parental authority is disappearing, let alone that of the sheikhs, and it’s doubtful they will be with us for much longer.
“The adults in the Arab community don’t understand that now their child can cause a huge amount of trouble from their room on TikTok, to the level that the next morning the family will be forced to leave town – and we’ve already had such incidents, and more serious ones, too.”
In an incident that took place last year, a video was posted to TikTok in which a young man from the Bedouin city of Rahat could be seen crudely and incessantly insulting the members of another tribe because of a conflict with a family the tribe had taken under its wing. He insulted the entire tribe in the video, which spread quickly among residents of the city.
The response came quickly. Within less than 24 hours, a relative of his, 20-year-old Ramadan Abu Latif, was shot and killed while driving his car. TikTok was also where the murderers chose to spread the news, posting video of the car covered in bullet holes. “Allah have mercy, he flexed his muscles,” was written at the bottom of the video.
Since TikTok became commonplace among young Israeli Arabs around three years ago, the app has become one of the main catalysts for amplifying conflicts and crime in the Arab community – mostly among young people from lower socioeconomic classes or with criminal backgrounds.
Videos regularly posted to the app glorify criminal actions, such as shooting guns in the street, drug and weapons possession, high-speed driving and threats of murder. Enormous sums in cash are shown openly and ostentatiously, which can be assumed to have been obtained through illegal activities, because the law bans cash transactions of over 6,000 shekels ($1,750).
Rashid Abu Khiet, a graduate student in psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is researching new media for his thesis, says that over the past three years, TikTok has become the tool young Arabs from lower socioeconomic backgrounds use for expressing themselves, and many of them use it to extol criminal behavior.
“The choice of TikTok stems from the ease in using the app, because it does not require broad technological knowledge or experience with media, and because it makes it easy to combine visuals to music. Most of the Arab population now sees TikTok as the backyard of criminals and at-risk youth,” says Abu Khiet.
These groups’ move to TikTok also made it necessary for police to focus on the app in an attempt to prevent crimes before they happen. “I’m stuck on my phone half the day,” says a senior officer in the police’s Southern District, adding that police use the app to gather information about disputes that could very well end in violence, incitement and other crimes.
“If they are there, we must be there,” says another police official, who admits that enforcement often occurs after the Tiktok videos documenting the crimes reach the traditional media and other social media platforms.
As a result, the Southern District’s intelligence department employs three police officers who scan the app regularly. But sometimes they run into a problem: The challenge of proving that what looks like criminal activity really does document a crime. Many times, the weapons the suspects show in the videos turn out to be toy guns, and popular cash-counting videos – in which people are filmed counting tens of thousands of shekels in cash – turn out to be innocent attempts to brag.
“We made a few attempts to arrest those in the videos, but it turned out that part of the money was counterfeit or they had just recently sold a car. It’s not easy to prove that the source of the money is crime,” says a police official.
‘A dangerous phenomenon’
In June, a video was posted on TikTok in which a young man from Lod was seen sitting in his car and threatening the lives of a family living in the city. Alongside him sat another young man from Lod, who didn’t say a word. Even though the second man didn’t make any threats against the family, he paid a price for the video’s dissemination
“We began to receive threats and we didn’t understand what was happening,” his father, Ibrahim, says. “I started making calls to understand more, but it seems that things got out of control quickly. Those people started threatening my son with murder just because he could be seen in the video. He didn’t leave the house for two weeks out of fear.”
Ibrahim says he turned to relatives of the family making the threats, but they refused to stop. He didn’t want to involve the police for fear that they would arrest those making the threats and make things even worse. The only thing that helped was a request to the sulha (conciliation) committee in Lod.
“There are people who made sure the video would continue to spread online because they wanted to inflame the conflict. It was a nightmare,” Ibrahim says of that period. “After that incident, I closed all my son’s accounts on TikTok, we didn’t want to get in trouble again.”
Abu Khiet says many videos on TikTok include explicit threats of violence, and even murder, but the company does not remove them. “There are those who threaten indirectly; for example they use a song that includes the lyrics ‘if you mess with us, we’ll shoot you,’ and there are those who do it in a direct way and say the explicit names of those being threatened in the videos,” says Abu Khiet.
“Even though the phenomenon is spreading, TikTok usually does not take down these videos. It seems no one asks them in an organized fashion. In most cases, the response to the threatening video will be a threatening video from the other side, and in some of the cases it can lead to violence.”
During the period that TikTok took off among young Arabs in Israel, songs with violent content began to be played at weddings and private parties in the Arab community, he says. “It became easy to combine these songs with pictures or videos of a violent nature, and this combination made those songs and videos go viral. This phenomenon is very dangerous among young people because it provides a foundation for the culture of violence, crime and criminality, and in the situation that the Arab community is in, it will be very hard to control this content.”
The only way to win respect
Researchers from the Baladna – Association for Arab Youth nonprofit group released a study this year on violence and crime among young Arabs in Israel, in which they interviewed 70 teenagers and young adults currently or previously involved in crime, experts in social services, and lawyers who deal with criminal cases. One of the researchers, journalist and translator Khaled Elsayed, says that “the TikTok issue entered the research by accident, when a friend who works in the media directed us to videos, a phenomenon that was then at its beginning. When we got onto the app, we were truly amazed by the number of videos that had crude and violent messages in the context of crime, especially among young Arabs.”
Another member of the research staff, lawyer Weaam Baloum, says the researchers collected over 300 TikTok videos of this type and analyzed 200 of them. Most of the videos documented shows of force, wealth and crime. The videos that earned the most likes and shares showed people firing guns, counting money, and praising criminal organizations; weddings where songs with violent content could be heard in the background; and people filmed alongside guns.
Videos with fewer responses and shares showed people boasting of drug smuggling, pictures of weapons (without a person alongside them), and threatening messages. “It is important to emphasize that many of the accounts where the videos were posted were fake,” says Elsayed.
The people who posted these videos to TikTok were mostly aged 15 to 25, and only a few of them were over 30, says Baloum. “According to our analysis, most of the young people who posted such videos or used TikTok in order to send threatening messages and criminal content were at-risk youth from poor families, or from families with known criminals or those identified with criminal organizations – in other words, those who live in criminal surroundings,” he adds.
“These TikTok videos express the culture of crime among young people in criminal circles,” says Elsayed. “The young people show in these videos that in their view, crime is something that earns respect, criminals are daring and admired, and prisoners are heroes, and this reflects the social status those who post the videos belong to. The motivation of those same young people is to show they are strong and belong to criminal organizations or powerful families, or that they or their families are in criminal circles, because they see that is the only way they can earn respect.”
Asma Ganayem, a researcher of the internet and a lecturer who was not involved in the study, notes that the rise in TikTok use at the expense of other social media apps is a worldwide phenomenon. The widespread use of TikTok among young Arabs is in part the result of a lack of educational and cultural programs and frameworks during leisure hours.
It’s also caused by a vacuum that exists in the Arab community – a desire to rebel against tradition and family values in the face of a lack of modern alternatives. “There is a firm link between the rising crime in Arab communities and the violent videos – after all, the internet reflects and strengthens what exists on the streets,” Ganayem says.
She emphasizes that those who choose the path of violence are a minority “that is trying, as part of the culture of likes, to get a feeling of value in this way, while most young Arab people are watching from the sidelines – and here lies the danger of the expansion of the violence.”
Ganayim says that “the enormous number of hours during which young people consume the violent content will without a doubt somehow influence their thoughts, positions, views, and maybe violent behaviors, too, and the fear is of the creation of behaviors that will not be possible to change.”