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Bin Laden's "Letter to America": TikTok and Information Warfare

01 Dec 2023
By Professor Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann and Dr Mohiuddin Ahmed
Disinformation on Social Media. Source: Copyright © R. / Stevens / CREST (CC BY-NC-SA) /

Australians are increasingly at risk of disinformation campaigns, many of which have rapidly escalated on social media platforms like TikTok in recent years. A serious discussion needs to be had on the unfettered influences these platforms can have and how their worst effects can be mitigated. 

In information and cognitive warfare, state and non-state actors use psychological operations (PSYOPS) to influence public opinion. Also known as psychological warfare, it involves the  use of propaganda and other operations to influence the opinions, emotions, and attitudes of opponents and/or targeted audiences. Both Russia and China  have been heavily employing  such operations for their own interests in recent years. From COVID-19 disinformation to the support for Hamas, the public is being targeted by such operations in the cognitive domain. Publics in democracies like Australia and the US, among others, have shown their vulnerability to manipulation, highlighted by the extent of anti-COVID-19 activism and now the current demonstrations in conjunction with the present Hamas–-Israel conflict.

Cognitive warfare in the context of this war aims to influence public support for “Hamas and Palestinians, and also reignite hatred for Israel. Early signs that this part of Hamas’ plan is going well [include] ‘victory’ celebrations… in countries in the Middle East and even in Berlin and New York, with pro-Palestinian groups cheering Hamas’ killings and other atrocities.”

At a time of heightened tension in the region and globally, an increasing division in civil society regarding the nature and the actors at the centre of the Israel – Palestine conflict comes the news of a new TikTok craze: Bin Laden’s letter to America, which is justifying “Jihad against the aggressors as a form of great worship in our religion” and tying the fight against the West’s “oppression” to Israel’s occupation and “killing our brothers in Palestine.”

The “success” of this letter on TikTok among the so called Generation Z is being disputed by the Beijing based TikTok. Given that 60 percent of all TikTok users are comprised of Generation Z, there is a real danger that the letter can be used to grow support for Islamist terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and now Hamas. It has the potential for being a severe national security threat and has dangerous consequences. Acknowledging these risks, The Guardian removed the letter from its website.

Deliberate disinformation and wilful misinformation are potent tools of cognitive warfare. MSM domains like TikTok amplify such operations as a trend. The current craze of Bin Laden’s “letter” has the potential to convince Generation Z that the 9/11 attacks were justified, for instance, with direct implications for the shaping of views on  conflicts in the Middle East.

TikTok adds a force multiplier effect for disinformation. Such examples include deep fakes that can lead to false campaigns – and there are many free resources to create deepfakes and other fabricated material for blackmailing and mass influence. With more than two billion TikTok users, a strategically crafted misinformation campaign can have a high chance of success. That may lead to a historic catastrophe in modern society, much as the disinformation campaign by Russia that disrupted the 2016 US election and potentially helped elect Donald Trump.

The Chinese parent company of TikTok, ByteDance, accesses US TikTok data on a regular basis. What this illustrates is that sophisticated state-based threat actors can use such MSM organisations to launch more customized misinformation campaigns to target Gen Z to manipulate both history and presence.

These connections demonstrate that we need to work on whole-of-government approaches to counter this cyber based threat to an open democracy. Potential solutions can include social media and disinformation awareness in national security curricula, as well as the adoption of technical countermeasures in cyberspace.

What it means for Australia 

Australia is one of the wealthiest countries. Hence, cybercriminals have consistently targeted Australia’s critical infrastructure (Optus and Medibank, just to name a few) and its Internet users. It is also important to note that the Australian population is approximately 26 million, and it is estimated that by 2025 there will be 23.36 million Internet users. There are 22.4 million Facebook users and 8.5 million TikTok users. Australians spend an average of 29 hours and 36 minutes monthly on the platform, a 6-hour and 12-minute increase (26.5 percent) since last year. These numbers illustrate how exposed Australian Internet users are towards disinformation. Susceptibility to trends such as panic buying of toilet paper during COVID-19 demonstrates how influential the platform can be.

How Australia’s newest national Cyber Security Strategy can help.

The 2023-2030 Australian Cyber Security Strategy emphasises keeping Australians safe by uplifting the consumer standards for Internet-enabled hardware and software. Earlier this year, the Australian government banned TikTok on all government devices. However, given Australia’s 8.5 million TikTok users, this ban will hardly impact the cognitive warfare domain, in which these consumers are all prospective targets. Considering recent events such as #lettertoamerica, the Australian government must re-strategize to avoid similar incidents.

We must welcome innovation and the advancement of technology to improve our lives and our information intake. However, it should not be a double-edged sword that will act against us. Hence, the usage and impact of TikTok needs more profound analysis, and hopefully, the latest cyber strategy will deliver a sustainable governance framework that moves protections against forms of psychological warfare forward.

Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann is Professor in Law and Co-Convener National Security Hub (University of Canberra), University of Canberra, and a Research Fellow with the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University. He is also a Fellow  with NATO SHAPE – ACO Office of Legal Affairs where he works on Hybrid Threats and Lawfare.

Dr Mohiuddin Ahmed is a Senior Lecturer of Computing & Security within School of Science and a core member of Security Research Institute  at Edith Cowan University. He is also an affiliate member of National Security Hub at University of Canberra.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.