Did Israel Hack My TikTok?

Last week my TikTok Account got hacked. It was a profoundly weird experience, and it’s very hard to avoid the suspicion that it was politically motivated. In today’s video I talk about this experience, and I speculate as to why this happened. The internet is a very weird place, and I expect it’s only going to get a lot weirder. Last week I got to personally experience one of its weirder aspects, and I think it’s worth documenting. We hear a lot about on-line disinformation, it was unpleasant, but educational, to involuntarily experience one of its newer forms.

This video also explains why I’m attempting to branch out to TikTok in the first place. Being on one platform is no longer working out for me, so why not two?

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Video Transcript after the jump…

Hey there. My name is Rob, and I am a failing political YouTuber. But today I don’t want to talk about politics, I want to talk about something strange that happened to me when I attempted to branch out to TikTok to publish a skit about Israel Palestine. I think it’s kind of fascinating, kind of disturbing, and well worth documenting.

So a year or two back, YouTube made the decision that it wasn’t going to boost independent news and politics commentary anymore. If you search something controversial, the YouTube algorithm will now only push you towards mainstream channels like CNN or FoxNews. I am not one of those people who claims that YouTube is censoring me. I am old enough to be amazed that the platform exists at all, and am grateful for it. Every week I still get to reach an audience of 1000 or so dedicated viewers and that’s awesome. YouTube is a business, and the decision to squash independent channels that talk about controversial issues was a business decision they felt they had to make.

Unfortunately The effect of this business decision on my channel has been grim. I went from a channel that regularly had videos in the 10s or even hundreds of thousands of views, to one that rarely crosses 2,000 views. I have tried many things. More videos, different formats, catchier thumbnails, longer videos, shorter videos. None of it is working.

So, out of desperation, last month I decided to Get serious about posting on TikTok. I am mostly just repackaging old YouTube content over there, but I am occasionally attempting to embrace some of the whackier aspects of the platform. It’s honestly a ton of fun. The technology and the culture around it are fresh, new and exciting, or at least seem that way to this middle aged guy.

A couple weeks back, in the middle of the night, the perfect TikTok script came to me. This can be one of the most exciting parts of being a video creator. Especially with history and politics, videos can take loooong time to research and write. But the most successful videos often come to me all at once, in the middle of the night. The only thing that gave me pause was that the script was about Israel Palestine.

I really hate this issue. The amount of energy that goes into covering the travails of about 15 million people out of a planet of billions has always bugged me. I mean, I get it, the United States doesn’t fund the horrors of Xinjiang or South Sudan the way it does the crimes in Israel Palestine, but all the coverage seems kind of pointless. It’s pretty obvious that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal. but it’s equally obvious to me that nothing is going to get any better. So I generally avoid the topic unless Israel is actively killing Palestinians in large numbers. There is one other thing that will reliably get me talking about the topic though…

And that’s when Israel comes after my rights as an American citizen. As the Israeli ambassador was dumb enough to point out a couple weeks back, a number of US states have enacted flatly unconstitutional laws restricting free speech on the Topic of Israel. And a couple weeks back Israel decided to launch a Jihad on a company founded by two old Jewish men which chose to stop selling ice cream in the occupied territories. That’s primarily what my script was about.

It was sort of a standard TikTok back and forth sketch, making fun of myself more than anybody else. I uploaded it on YouTube as well, you can see it at the link here. A couple days later something awesome happened. The tiktok started to go a little viral. 45,000 views ain’t much, but for me in 2021, it’s pretty great. Thanks to YouTube’s algorithm changes I haven’t had that feeling for like three years.

As expected, the viral push died off, but it continued to drive people to my channel in a small way, taking me from like 50 to over 1000 followers on the platform. Pretty great right? Until last Wednesday. I opened TikTok to find I had been hacked. And not just hacked, but hacked in a very specific, very violating way.

My TikTok account is fine. I have changed my passwords, and I have access to it. But my one very successful TikTok video had been replaced. I didn’t get hacked, TikTok did. My debatably amusing sketch had been replaced by a vile piece of antisemitic trash, proclaiming that Jews celebrate the deaths of children. As soon as I saw this I contacted TikTok and they fixed it, but I have no idea how long that other video was on my account.

It’s worth emphasizing how weird this is. All of the comments and likes were preserved. The video description I had put in was still there. But my video, on my channel had been replaced. To make it even weirder, it was only replaced under certain circumstances. Sometimes, for some friends clicking on certain links it was my video, and sometimes it was an antisemitic blood libel. I know this was a TikTok problem and not a me problem, because this is not a functionality that users have. Users can’t edit videos once they are up, or point links within the app to different videos. This wasn’t some standard account hijacking, this was sophisticated and terrifying. As you can tell from my initial response.

So I am clearly throwing a hissy fit here, but it really does feel like a violation. According to TikTok my video had been shared 635 times when I discovered the hack. How many people saw my video when they clicked on those links, and how many saw my brand associated with vile bigotry? Did my now vanishingly rare moment of viral magic fade on its own, or because people were seeing this boring hate video instead of the video that people actually liked?

Last week a girl canceled a second date with me unexpectedly. To be fair, there are a lot of reasons why she could have done that, but she did have my TikTok, she probably would have clicked on my most popular video and she may now see me as a creepy antisemite. I don’t get a lot of second dates, it would be a real bummer if TikTok is what sank this one.

So who did this? Even though the hack video is basically Hamas propaganda It’s pretty clear to me that it was a supporter of Israel. For two reasons. One is the complexity of what was done here. This wasn’t a simple crashing or stealing of my account. This was a hijacking of the technology of one of the biggest social media companies on the planet. Either TikTok’s security is a sad joke, or the hacker had some cutting edge technology at their disposal. Pretty sure they don’t have that kind of tech in Gaza. The second reason is the effect. My surprisingly popular, debatably amusing questioning of the way the US public thinks about Israel was replaced by vile antisemitic trash. Even critics of Israeli policy, like myself, find the hack video disturbing. This experience is terrifying, not just for me and my brand, but for the 600-odd people who shared what they thought was my content, but now might look to like Hamas supporters to their friends, families and possibly employers. Many of these 600 odd people may decide to avoid Israel-critical content entirely in the future.

This hack was a very effective way to kill a viral video, and tarnish criticism of Israel as support for hate and terrorism. Will I think twice about posting about Israel and Palestine on TikTok in the future? Absolutely. If I wasn’t a middle aged self employed white man with a law degree who likes fights, I probably wouldn’t be posting this video either. It’s clear to me that a supporter of Israel did this. But it’s important not to make the blanket statement that “Israel hacked my TikTok”.

I am pretty full of myself, but I don’t imagine my little video is of any real importance. It’s possible that some talented individual hacker noticed my video and took offense to it. But what I think is much more likely is that the hack was the product of a barely human directed algorithm. At most, I imagine there was some entry level sub-sub-contractor, in an office park in suburban Tel Aviv, or Washington DC, who watched the video once, and approved it for the same treatment that another dozen small TikTok videos got that hour. I suspect that the technology behind this hack was impressive, but the human interaction was almost nil. To be clear, I am just speculating here, but based on the sophistication of the attack, my insignificance, and the fact that I know this has happened to other people, I think that a barely discriminate industrial scale operation is the most likely culprit.

So yeah, Israel supporters, are probably engaged in a manipulation of US and world politics that is vastly more technically capable, much more illegal, and much more frightening than anything any Russian has ever done around any US election. But just as with the Russians, I think it’s important to hold on to the nuance here.

The layers of distance between an online misinformation actor like the private Internet Research Agency, and the goals of the Russian government they thought they were serving are important. It’s not just about plausible deniability, as the US government would have you believe in the Russian case. These actors really are independent from the governments they are trying to support, and the effort to treat private company actions as acts of war makes the world a more dangerous place. This is especially true for Israel, a country that has a very capable government, but also has a lot of supporters in the US, who are to put it politely, complete fucking morons. I am not just talking about the bible humping evangelicals here, I mean Any Israel supporter who thinks attempting to crush US free speech will help their favorite country’s cause.

So no, I don’t think Israel hacked my TikTok. I think a poorly advised Israel supporter probably did, but we should be very, very careful about connecting internet crimes to governments, no matter which country we are talking about. I hope my story can help people think more critically about what they do and don’t see on TikTok, and everywhere else in this delightfully chaotic world.

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