Meta accused of hiring Republican consultancy to seed anti-TikTok rumors

Slap-a-teacher and smash-the-school crazes were carefully engineered smears, it is claimed

Facebook parent Meta, which has been struggling to compete against TikTok, has reportedly been paying a Republican-oriented consulting firm to encourage negative media reports about the Chinese-owned rival.

According to The Washington Post, Targeted Victory, a firm founded by Zac Moffatt, former digital director of Republican Senator Mitt Romney's 2012 White House run, has been working for Meta to place and promote articles designed to turn the American public against TikTok.

This would be done by, for instance, writing letters to editors, and submitting op-ed columns, calling for something to be done about bad things happening on TikTok, it's said. This coverage would then be used to fuel more anti-TikTok messaging.

The Post report cites an internal email from a director of the firm that reads, "Targeted Victory needs to 'get the message out that while Meta is the current punching bag, TikTok is the real threat especially as a foreign owned app that is #1 in sharing data that young teens are using.'"

The newspaper goes on to claim that campaign operatives were encouraged to raise concerns about TikTok that served to dilute regulators' privacy and antitrust concerns about Meta.

A Meta spokesperson characterized its marching orders to Targeted Victory as an expression of its belief in oversight – something Meta has done its best to avoid.

"We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success," a Meta spokesperson told The Register.

According to former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen, Facebook (Meta) goes out of its way to avoid scrutiny. "Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook," she said in US Senate subcommittee testimony [PDF] last October. "The company’s leadership keeps vital information from the public, the US government, its shareholders, and governments around the world."

In an email to The Register, Targeted Victory boss Zac Moffatt defended his company's consulting work. "Targeted Victory’s corporate practice manages bipartisan teams on behalf of our clients," he said. "It is public knowledge we have worked with Meta for several years and we are proud of the work we have done."

As described by the Post, this included pushing stories that blamed TikTok for the spread of the "devious licks challenge" when, according to Gimlet Media, rumors of the challenge spread on Facebook first. The devious licks challenge encouraged students to vandalize their schools and film it for TikTok; rather than start on the video-sharing app, it was actually on Facebook, it's reported.

Similarly, if you heard about teens challenging each other to assault their teachers and film it for TikTok, that did not originate on TikTok, either, and was instead spread on Facebook and by Targeted Victory, according to the Post:

Targeted Victory worked to spread rumors of the “Slap a Teacher TikTok challenge” in local news, touting a local news report on the alleged challenge in Hawaii. In reality, no such challenge existed on TikTok. Again, the rumor started on Facebook, according to a series of Facebook posts first documented by Insider.

Moffatt, in a Twitter thread acknowledging that Targeted Victory is "a right-of-center firm," pushed back against the Post's reporting.

He cites the publication's own coverage of TikTok's role in the "devious licks" affair as the basis for some of its emails. "We’re proud of the work we’ve done to highlight the dangers of TikTok," he concludes.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Yep, welcome to a free(ish) market

During Meta's recent financial call for investors [PDF], CFO David Wehner explained the antisocial ad giant's first quarterly decline in Daily Active Users by noting, among other factors, "we’re seeing an impact from strong competition, particularly from TikTok."

Back in 2016 when Meta was simply Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly tried to buy Musical.ly, a company that would subsequently be acquired by China-based TikTok-owner ByteDance and merged with an earlier iteration of TikTok to become the rival it is today.

Much of Facebook's success since its founding has been attributed to its acquisition of competitors, like WhatsApp and Instagram, as a means of monopoly maintenance – just as other tech firms have done in the past. In 2020, the US House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust issued a report [PDF] stating that Facebook "maintained and expanded its dominance through a series of acquisitions of companies it viewed as competitive threats, and selectively excluded competitors from using its platform to insulate itself from competitive pressure."

The report says that of Facebook's nearly 100 acquisitions, the US Federal Trade Commission conducted a thorough investigation for only one: Instagram, in 2012. The report found that Facebook also maintained its monopoly through anticompetitive business practices.

"The company used its data advantage to create superior market intelligence to identify nascent competitive threats and then acquire, copy, or kill these firms," it says, adding that its success in doing so has led to "worse privacy protections for its users and a dramatic rise in misinformation on its platform."

TikTok, having matured from nascent competitive threat to growth headwind, isn't going to be an easy kill. ®

Bootnote

Apple and Meta handed over customer data to fraudsters who masqueraded as law enforcement officials, Bloomberg reported today.

The pair provided basic records, such as home addresses, phone numbers and IP addresses, in mid-2021 in response to forged so-called emergency data requests. These requests do not require a court order, and are intended for life-or-death situations in which waiting for a judge to sign a warrant would be disastrous. Miscreants able to send these requests, such as by posing as police officers or using compromised official email accounts, can therefore obtain strangers' personal details from Big Tech companies using these special emergency powers.

Similar topics

TIP US OFF

Send us news


Other stories you might like