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Did Osama bin Laden's Letter to America really go viral? Put into perspective.

Chronicle | Bin Laden, star of the hour on TikTok? Yes and no

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An undated photo of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

  • Jeff Yates (View profile)Jeff Yates

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Speech synthesis, based on artificial intelligence, makes it possible to generate spoken text from written text.

At Décrypteurs, we had the same reaction as everyone, Wednesday evening, upon seeing the article from Rolling Stone simply announcing that the terrorist Osama bin Laden had become a star on TikTok: “Well, let’s see. »

Twenty-one years after being published, the Letter to Americaof Osama Bin Laden goes viral – on TikTok, headlined the American magazine. The article explained that young people had published videos praising a letter written in 2002 by Bin Laden justifying the attacks of September 11, 2001, published at the time on the website of the daily newspaper The Guardian.

In the missive, the terrorist leader castigates the United States and Israel, among others, particularly with regard to the situation in the Palestinian territories. Be warned that justice is the mightiest army and security brings prosperity; you lost everything, by your own hand, when you supported the Israelis when they occupied our lands and killed our brothers in Palestine, we read.

Some TikTokers saw it as something relevant, even inspiring, at a time when the conflict rages in the Gaza Strip. To everyone listening, I want you to stop what you are doing immediately. Go read the Letter to America, said a woman on TikTok. I feel like I'm having an existential crisis right now.

After reading this letter, I understand why the government and media treated Ben Laden as a terrorist and why they killed him. They didn't want this information to circulate, said another.

I would like to know if Bin Laden was like Hamas and if the media [dishonestly] presented them as bad guys, wrote in the comments a visibly confused TikTok user, who obviously believed that Bin Laden was the name of 'a grouping or movement and not that of one of the most notorious terrorists of the 21st century.

As you can imagine, the The reaction was sudden and explosive. The Guardianremoved the letter from its site. Many people are scandalized by the nonsense that young people, radicalized on social networks, can say and believe about this conflict.

Even The administration of US President Joe Biden got involved (New window): No one should ever insult the 2,977 bereaved American families by associating themselves with the infamous comments of Osama bin Laden, the administration declared via press release.

Finally, TikTok began to delete any video that even remotely mentions Bin Laden.

A good old moral panic, in fact.

As is the case every time a story about what young people are doing on TikTok starts to freak out older people, our second The reaction of the Decrypters was to see if Bin Laden was truly viral on TikTok.

The answer: yes and no.

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Screenshot of search results for the hashtag #lettertoamerica on TikTok, Thursday, November 16, 2026.

There were indeed videos where TikTokers expressed a certain admiration for Bin Laden's letter, at most a few hundred. Some had a few hundred thousand views, but most had far fewer.

Quick note before continuing: when we talk about TikTok, some people always imagine that these are videos featuring zoomers and teenagers. In the case of these videos, however, the ones we saw were mostly posted by people in their 20s or even 30s. Your definition of what a young person is may vary, but let's just say that it doesn't really fit with the idea, put forward by some political commentators, that TikTok had brainwashed a generation into worshiping Bin Laden.

Moreover, a good part of these videos sought either to criticize those who spoke well of the letter, or to put on a spectacle of this new trend. People say Bin Laden is a hero! Oh my God! Look at this! You get the idea.

Viral or not?

In short, the phenomenon was real, yes, but can we really talk about a viral trend on TikTok? Not categorically, in our opinion.

As several observers have pointed out, the real viral trend took place not on TikTok, but on There, journalist Yashar Ali, well known for his viral stunts, claimed that thousands of videos (New window) of the type had been published in the last 24 hours.

It was a gross exaggeration, but the damage was done. His tweet was viewed 39 million times, propelling a real but relatively marginal trend to a monster audience. This is where the affair took off and the hyperventilation began. This is also where media outlets pounced on the story, bringing it to the attention of even more Internet users.

All this has pushed some seasoned web observers to wonder if we had simply witnessed a false moral panic, a storm in a vegan cashew milk latte?

Let’s say that this is not our first collective delirium of this kind. How many times have dangerous trends involving young people on TikTok caused panic among their parents, when in reality there was nothing to worry about? The Blackout Challenge, the Momo Challenge, NyQuil chicken: all trends criticized in the media, but which didn't really exist.

TikTok is a platform still unknown to journalists and parents, and this can be anxiety-provoking for some. There is a kind of morbid fascination with this strange place where young people lead the world, a bit like in the novel The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

It’s an incomprehensible platform for boomers (that is, everyone over 30, according to young people) where everything seems dangerous, or at least suspicious. In this context, it is easy to feed boomers with just about any story about danger, real or imaginary, that appears on this platform.

Statistics put into perspective

In his excellent Garbage Day newsletter, independent journalist Ryan Broderick put things into perspective (New window). Even at their peak, searches for bin Laden on Google in the United States never represented more than 7% of those for Travis Kelce (for boomers, he's the new boyfriend of singer Taylor Swift and, less remarkably for young people, a star player for the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the best teams in American football).

The hashtag #lettertoamerica had a total of 2 million views on TikTok. That's far less than the 380 million for the most popular hashtag, #tiktokshopblackfriday, Ryan Broderick noted. According to his calculations, since TikTok considers that a video watched for just one second counts as a view, the most popular pro-Bin Laden video on the platform, with 2 million views, would be equivalent to a video on YouTube with 65,000 views.

In 2023, would you really care about a YouTube video with 65,000 views where someone is saying something completely stupid and offensive? he asks, concluding that the media simply doesn't understand the monster scale of TikTok, where statistics that may seem impressive aren't really.

My younger colleague, Nicholas De Rosa, told me the same thing Thursday morning when we were talking about this whole circus. I pointed out to him that one of the videos had been viewed 600,000 times. On TikTok, 600,000 views is nothing, he told me straight away.

Here I am unmasked as boomer.

Ryan Broderick ends his post on a scathing note. By amplifying this kind of false moral panic, you turn a bizarre conversation into something much bigger than was necessary. You are setting up ordinary people as villains who do not deserve to be scrutinized, he pleads.

You also look like a confused boomer to anyone younger than you, he says.

Ouch.

Yes, but…

I largely agree with his analysis. Indeed, the media tend to exaggerate dangerous trends on TikTok, a platform that they do not understand well. And by propelling an ultimately marginal movement to the forefront, perhaps the media have made it a spectacle intended to be co-opted by those seeking to censor the web.

The story, however, had another twist.

As mentioned above, most observers believe that the pro-Bin Laden trend on TikTok is growing. took off with Yashar Ali's tweet, published on November 15. That's not entirely accurate.

A source who works at the Guardiantold Semafor (New window) that Bin Laden's letter was read more than 100,000 times before being deleted, but that most of the clicks came from Google searches, and that these saw a significant spike in from November 9, almost a week before the famous tweet. The article made it to the list of most read articles on the Guardiansite the day before this tweet (New window).

So that means there was real interest in this letter, long before the media picked up the story. And let’s be honest, 100,000 page views for a letter published in 2002 is not nothing! Especially at a time when it is said that young people no longer read articles on newspaper sites.

And for my part, perhaps I am a confused boomer, but it seems to me that unlike the media which exaggerated the affair, the more skeptical observers perhaps minimized it. I understand that 600,000 views on TikTok is nothing. Still, dozens of people, at the bare minimum, found inspiring a letter that contains the passage: Your former president warned you of the devastating effects of Jewish control of capital and that a day would come when you would be reduced to it. to slavery; this day has come.

It's not buried in the text, it's in the very first paragraph, after some formalities. That dozens of people read it and still decided to speak well of it is no small thing.

And as our colleague Donie O'Sullivan (New window) from CNN pointed out: Of course, the media coverage and Yashar Ali's tweet increased the number of views. But is the media supposed to completely ignore this kind of thing, when young Americans openly post messages on TikTok saying “you know, maybe bin Laden was right?”

  • Jeff Yates (View profile)Jeff YatesFollow

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