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On a recent evening, Pasha Boyer, a thirty-two-year-old father and professional sports bettor who lives in Missoula, Montana, logged on to TikTok to continue what has become an unpaid full-time job: debating Israel vs. Palestine over TikTok Live. As usual, his screen resembled a nightmarish Zoom call, with the seven other interlocutors locked in a perpetual state of disagreement. “They said literally everything I was saying was wrong,” he told me. The acrimony did not deter him. He stayed on hour after hour, as fourteen hundred viewers came and went, and he eventually settled into a debate with a fellow-Jew who disagreed with Boyer’s pro-Israel stance. By the time Boyer logged off, it was 3 P.M. the next day; eighteen hours had elapsed. “You know what the crazy part is?” he said. “The other guy was on until three o’clock in the afternoon as well.”
With TikTok’s cultural influence well established, many of its users are now exploring whether the platform can host constructive debates. Boyer is one of several dozen people who have pushed this question to its limit, hashing out one of the world’s most contentious and intractable issues on TikTok Live, the app’s most freewheeling feature. Whether Boyer and his fellow-debaters can change minds is unclear. But, given the opportunity to engage with real people in front of large audiences, staunchly pro-Israel and pro-Palestine users have decided to join live streams that allow them to express their views—and argue with others—seemingly forever.
Adam Ventura, a thirty-two-year-old restaurant manager based in Denver, Colorado, who moderates one of the most popular recurring streams, told me that he wanted to provide a platform for anyone who felt excluded from the public conversation. “Everybody keeps saying, ‘People don’t have a voice,’ ‘You guys don’t let people talk,’ ‘Conspiracy this, conspiracy that,’ ” he said. At first, in the days following October 7th, he struggled to capture five concurrent viewers as he discussed his hopes that Israelis and Palestinians could coexist. But, when a few people started leaving comments, Ventura invited some to speak live. As more viewers asked to join the discussion, Ventura decided on a format: eight guests at a time, four pro-Israel, four pro-Palestine. Within days, the stream was drawing several thousand concurrent viewers, with one multi-hour debate attracting more than a hundred thousand total viewers. A month later, the streams are still going. His follower count has risen from twenty thousand to thirty thousand, and he’s gained a loyal stable of commentators.
To prevent the conversations from descending into complete chaos, Ventura tries to enforce a few rules. You are supposed to criticize the ideas of other people, not the people themselves; you are not allowed to fault someone for their religion; you should respect other people’s opinions even if you don’t agree. Predictably, though, if you pose the question “Is this Israel or Palestine?” over a picture of Jerusalem, and then open the floor to a self-selected group of extremely opinionated people, the result is generally disharmonious. Scroll through the handful of debate live streams on TikTok at any given moment and you will likely find yourself in the throes of a shouting match. Commenters flood the chat with Israeli and Palestinian flags, egging on speakers and asking for opposing ones to get booted. Some send monetary “gifts” to the TikTok Live moderator, hoping that they will be promoted to a speaking role. (Ventura, who gives “gifters” higher priority in the queue, says that the total amount of money he receives is negligible. Another host said she receives a few dollars per each hours-long session.) If it seems like the debaters are not listening to each other, it might literally be true. “There’s times when I just have to lower the volume on my phone and just speak,” a frequent participant named Noura told me. A pro-Israel woman of Egyptian-Israeli descent, who asked that her last name be kept private for safety reasons, she feels that her perspective is unique. “If my voice can trump everybody else’s,” she said, “I’m just gonna keep talking.”
Though not everyone is muffling their debate partners mid-discussion, most agree that convincing the other side of anything is essentially impossible. Instead, they’re aiming for audience members who don’t yet have strong views on the topic. Jen, a Florida-based jewelry-business owner who frequently hosts and participates in Israel-Palestine debates (and also asked that her last name be kept private), told me that when she hosted streams on the same topic last year, before the latest war in Gaza, only a few people joined. “I would say, ‘Free Palestine,’ and they’re, like, ‘Where’s Palestine? Palestine, Texas?’ ” As horrific footage from the region has flooded people’s social-media feeds, this confusion has largely resolved. Logging into any social-media platform now puts users directly in front of pundits, provocateurs, and outspoken peers who urge them to do their own research. Without significant effort, anyone can read antisemitic musings from Elon Musk, the current owner of X; watch discourse on the validity of Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America”; and observe surges in both antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate speech. Now Jen views her role as pushing back against what she sees as pro-Israel sentiment that Americans might pick up from mainstream media. “I’m just hoping to plant the seed—even a little bit of doubt,” she told me. “So people can be less indoctrinated.” Of course, it’s indoctrination that pro-Israel debaters say they’re also fighting against. Noura told me that the pro-Palestine people she argues with have “made up their minds.” “And not only that, but they have a huge community behind them, telling them that they’re right,” she continued. “So now I’m the black sheep, trying to tell them something else.”
Though it’s hard for participants to gauge their influence, Jen knows from her own experience that online debates can alter beliefs. In 2018, when she would debate on Clubhouse—a social-media site that offered audio-only live streams—she argued that Jews “had always been [in Israel], that the land was given to them, that they didn’t steal anything.” In subsequent months, she tried to learn as much as she could from both sides, “because there were things that I didn’t understand.” She read the books that other debaters recommended—“The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” by Ilan Pappé, “Righteous Victims” by Benny Morris—and listened to countless anecdotes. After six months, she started arguing that the state of Israel amounted to illegal occupation of land that rightfully belonged to the Palestinians. “As a Puerto Rican,” she said, “it resonated more with me.”
She switched to TikTok on the recommendation of a friend who told her about the popularity of TikTok Live, and jumped straight into some of the most controversial issues debated on the site: white privilege, abortion, critical race theory. (Her friend has since pivoted from standard debates to TikTok Live’s much more lucrative “battle” feature, where two competitors face off to see who can earn the most donations. Jen described the format as “brain-dead.”) She thought at first that the debates would be in good faith but then realized she was “completely wrong.” Jen told me that she usually attracts “the crazies” and ends up with debates that resemble reality TV. She still finds it worth doing, partly because of her own conversion experience and partly because of her nature. “I guess I just like fighting with people,” she said.
Ventura recognizes that many of his live streams devolve into fights over the same few issues, but this reflects, he thinks, “the nasty reality of what’s going on.” Between the yelling, the incessant crosstalk, and the repeated accusations of lying, people share stories of profound personal loss: an Israeli man whose neighbors were killed, a Palestinian man who lost a nephew. “You’re showing common ground,” Ventura said, “that both people are losing something, both people are being affected by what’s going on out there.”
Even as social media companies like Meta, X, and TikTok continue to deëmphasize news, they remain the main source of information for many people, their window to the world. Users can watch scores of first-person reports from Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, or learn about the history behind the current fighting. Pasha Boyer feels that YouTube and podcasts are much more useful and balanced sources of information than TikTok—but, for now, the views on TikTok are higher, so that’s where he’s going to stay, for as many hours as it takes to win a few converts. “I’m not a quitter,” he said. “I’ll never give up.” ♦