Meta allegedly has a new preferred strategy for dealing with its social media competitors: If you can’t beat them, smear them!
That’s according to recent reporting from The Washington Post based on internal company emails claiming Meta hired a GOP linked consulting firm to spread negative articles in an attempt to influence public opinion against TikTok. As part of the alleged nationwide reputational attack, the firm, called Targeted Victory, would plant op-eds and letters to the editor in news outlets, many highlighting supposedly troubling trends emerging on TikTok. It turns out many of those trends actually started on Facebook.
One of the uncovered Targeted Victory emails reportedly referred to Meta as the “current punching bag” and said it was time to get the message out that “TikTok is the real threat.” The emails advised Targeted Victory workers to focus on public concerns around TikTok Chinese ownership and its prevalent use amongst teens.
Targeted Victory reportedly worked to amplify a number of strange TikTok trends that would end up going viral, like the “Slap a teacher challenge” and the “devious licks” challenge, which involved students stealing objects from school buildings.
“Any local examples of bad TikTok trends/stories in your markets?” one staffer wrote according to the Post. “Dream would be to get stories with headlines like ‘From dances to danger: how TikTok has become the most harmful social media space for kids.” Ideally, one staffer wrote, focusing on TikTok could even take some of the current legal and regulatory heat off Facebook.
“Bonus point if we can fit this [attacks onTikTok] into a broader message that the current bills/proposals aren’t where…Congress should be focused,” one email reportedly reads. Targeted Victory also sought out local political reporters who could potentially serve as a “back channel” for messaging critical of TikTok, the Post notes.
The recently released emails drew the attention of Meta’s top critics and even former employees. In a statement emailed to Gizmodo, a TikTok spokesperson said the company was “deeply concerned that the stoking of local media reports on alleged trends that have not been found on the platform could cause real-world harm.”
Then, in a Tweet, Brian Boland, Facebook’s former VP who worked at the company between 2009-2020 said revelations of his former employer’s tactics were “Not surprising.”
“Meta handles problems through PR tactics rather than focusing on studying and fixing the broken parts that cause real-world harm and undermine societies and communities,” Boland wrote. “Don’t underestimate what you are led to believe while there.”
Meta critics, like watchdog group The Tech Oversight Project, meanwhile, saw the company’s alleged attempts to discredit TikTok as more of the same.
“It should come as no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are again trying to escape blame for knowingly spreading disinformation—with US security interests on the line,” Tech Oversight Project Executive Director Sacha Haworth told Gizmodo. “It’s past time to make any company, including Facebook, TikTok, and other platforms, pay for spreading disinformation, predatory business practices, and endangering teenagers and families.”
Meta, for its part, did not deny the Post’s reporting but instead told Gizmodo it believed TikTok should receive its fair share of scrutiny. “We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success,” the Meta spokesperson said.
In an email sent to Gizmodo, Targeted Victory CEO Zac Moffatt tried to downplay the findings and said he stood by the company’s work with Meta.
“Targeted Victory’s corporate practice manages bipartisan teams on behalf of our clients,” Moffatt said. “It is public knowledge we have worked with Meta for several years and we are proud of the work we have done.”
Moffatt was far less diplomatic on Twitter however where he unleashed a volley of tweets calling out the Post for supposedly mischaracterizing the company’s work and accused the authors of being “Democrats.”
“Today’s Washington Post story not only mischaracterizes the work we do, but key points are simply false,” Moffatt wrote. The CEO referred to his firm as “right of center,” and took offense to the Post’s characterization of them as supporting Republicans. Moffatt criticized the Post’s reference to two letters to the editors as “scorched earth campaigns” and said that was “not just hyperbolic, but laughable.”
Strangely, Moffatt accused the Post of omitting the company’s full statement in its report. I say strangely because Gizmodo received a statement from Targeted Victory hours after the Post story went live and saw no meaningful difference between the statement provided to the Post and the one above provided to Gizmodo.
Regardless of what one might think about Meta deploying D.C. style political attack tactics to its competitors, Zuckerberg’s right to worry about TikTok. Unlike Facebook, which recently saw its first quarterly decline in daily active users in the company’s history, TikTok’s growth appears red hot. (According to the Post, at least some of the emails aimed at targeting TikTok occurred after Facebook announced its first-ever growth decline).
To put a finer point on it, a forecast released by Insider Intelligence last year suggested TikTok saw 59.8% growth in users in 2020, followed by 40.8% growth the next year. Facebook by contrast saw just 6% growth in Q4 2021.
More importantly, TikTok’s growth is being driven by a key demographic Facebook’s currently hemorrhaging: teens and young users. Facebook and even Instagram to a lesser extent have struggled for years to stay relevant among younger users, which, in the social media game, can potentially lead to disastrous results.
“They [Meta] have proven they cannot be trusted, and it’s time for Congress to pass measures that rein these companies in and make them pay for the damage they’ve caused,” Haworth said.