Facebook paid Republican strategy firm to discredit TikTok

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Facebook’s parent company, Meta, is paying one of the largest Republican consulting firms in the country to organize a nationwide campaign to turn the public against TikTok.

The campaign includes placing columns and letters to the editor in leading regional news outlets, It’s actually questionable stories about TikTok trends popping up on Facebook that are forcing political reporters and local politicians to help take down their biggest rival. Long prevalent in the world of politics, these simple tactics have become increasingly noticeable in a tech industry, where companies are vying for cultural fit and Facebook comes at a time when it’s under pressure to win back younger users.

Employees of Targeted Victory worked to undermine TikTok through a nationwide media and lobbying campaign depicting the fast-growing app owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance. He is viewed as a danger to American children and society, according to internal emails shared with the Washington Post.

“Despite the fact that Meta is the current punching bag, it should send the message that TikTok is the real threat, as an app for foreigners that is #1 in sharing data, especially used by young teens,” wrote a director of the firm. a February email.

Campaign operators were also encouraged to use TikTok’s prominence as a way to distract from Meta’s own privacy and antitrust concerns.

“Bonus points if we can fit this into a broader message of where current invoices/quotes are not. [state attorneys general] or Congressmen should focus,” one Targeted Victory employee wrote.

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The previously unreported emails show the extent to which Meta and its partners will use opposition research tactics on its multi-billion-dollar Chinese-owned competitor, which has become one of the world’s most downloaded apps and often lags behind. Even Meta’s popular Facebook and Instagram apps. In an internal report leaked last year by whistleblower Frances Haugen, Facebook researchers said teens are spending “2-3 times more time” on TikTok than Instagram, and Facebook’s popularity among teens has plummeted.

Targeted Victory declined to answer questions about the campaign, saying it has only represented Meta for a few years and is “proud of what we do”.

In an email, the director of Targeted Victory asked for opinions on local political reporters that could serve as a “back channel” for anti-TikTok messages, and said he would “definitely seek divestment” of the firm.

In other emails, Targeted Victory urged partners to relay stories to local media linking TikTok to dangerous teen trends to illustrate the app’s alleged harms. “Do you have local examples of bad TikTok trends/stories in your markets?” a Targeted Victory employee asked.

It would be a dream to get stories with headlines like, “From dances to danger: How TikTok became the most harmful social media space for kids,” the staff said.

Meta spokesperson Andy Stone defended the campaign, saying, “We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success.”

A TikTok spokesperson said the company is “deeply concerned” by “stocking up local media coverage of alleged trends that are not available on the platform.”

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Targeted Victory sought to broaden negative TikTok coverage through an internally shared Google document titled “Bad TikTok Clips” that included links to questionable local news that cited TikTok as the source of dangerous youth trends. Local operators working with the firm were encouraged to promote these alleged TikTok trends in their own markets to pressure legislators to take action.

One trend that Targeted Victory sought to develop through its work was the “foolish licks” challenge, which showed students damaging school property. Through its “Bad TikTok Clips” document, the firm ran stories about the “devious licks” struggle in local media in Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Washington DC.

This trend has prompted Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to write a letter in September urging TikTok executives to testify before a Senate subcommittee, saying the app has been “repeatedly abused and abused to encourage behavior and actions that promote harm.” it happened. and destructive acts.” But according to a study by Anna Foley on the podcast network gimlet, Rumors of the “sneaky licks” challenge initially spread on Facebook, not TikTok.

In October, Targeted Victory tried to spread “Slap the Teacher TikTok challenge” rumors in local news by touting a local news report about the alleged challenge in Hawaii. In reality, there was no such difficulty in TikTok. Rumor again started on facebookAccording to a series of Facebook posts documented by insider.

A coalition of state attorneys has launched an investigation into whether TikTok harms children and teenagers

The firm tried to use both real concerns and unfounded concerns to cast doubt on the popular app. An email summarizing recent negative TikTok stories has largely stirred reasonable questions about TikTok’s corporate ownership and practices, and more exaggerated stories recording young users behaving badly – ​​social media panics that have long plagued major social networks, including Facebook.

The agency was also working to ensure Facebook “proactive coverage” of local newspapers, radio segments and TV broadcasts; This included letters and opinion pieces that spoke passionately about Facebook’s role, for example, in supporting Black-owned businesses. These letters made no mention of the Meta-funded firm’s involvement.

Targeted Victory has contracted with dozens of public relations firms across the United States to help steer the public against TikTok. In addition to embedding local news stories, the company has helped deploy columns targeting TikTok across the country, particularly in key convention locations.

A letter to the editor on March 12 that Targeted Victory officials helped organize Worked at Denver Post. The letter from a “concerned” “new parent” claimed that TikTok was harmful to children’s mental health, raised concerns about its data privacy practices, and said “many people think China is deliberately collecting behavioral data about our children.” The letter also supported Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s election to join a coalition of state attorneys general investigating TikTok’s impact on American youth and exerting political pressure on the company.

A very similar letter to the editor was published by Targeted Victory. the same day At the Des Moines Register. The piece was linked to negative stories about TikTok that Aimed Victory had previously tried to reinforce. The letter was signed by Mary McAdams, chairman of the Ankeny District Democrats. Targeted Victory touted McAdams’ credentials in an email on March 7.

“[McAdams’s] name on it [letter to the editor] It will carry a lot of weight with legislators and stakeholders,” the targeted Victory director wrote. The email then encouraged partners in other states to look for opportunities to add to the campaign, especially if your state’s AG suddenly joins.

The authors of the two letters did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

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In an email to local contractors last week, Targeted Victory asked each team to “get ready to share the op-ed they’re currently working on.” “Colorado and Iowa – Can you talk about the TikTok Op-eds you both have?” a Intended Victory representative asked.

The emails show how the firm effectively promoted its anti-TikTok messaging without disclosing that it came from a firm working for Meta. None of the articles or letters to the editor were published with any indication that the Meta-funded group was involved.

Launched as a Republican digital consulting firm by Zac Moffatt, digital director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Targeted Victory routinely recommended Facebook officials over the years, including a high-profile congressional hearing after the 2016 election.

Arlington, Va. based company advertises on the following sites: website It brings “a central perspective to solving marketing challenges” and can deploy field teams “anywhere in the country within 48 hours”.

The firm is one of the biggest recipients of Republican campaign spending, earning more than $237 million in 2020. compiled data by OpenSecrets. Her biggest payouts It came from the national GOP congressional committees and America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC.

company in 2020 I said He added that he would focus his efforts on “authentic storytelling” with an “extremely local approach”, expanding its “crisis practices and corporate relations offerings” due to its clients’ growing need for “problem management and executive positioning”.

Some emails targeting TikTok were sent in February, shortly after Meta announced that Facebook was losing users for the first time in its 18-year history. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg later told investors that TikTok is a major hurdle, adding that “People have a lot of choices about how they want to spend their time, and apps like TikTok are growing very fast.” The company introduced a TikTok clone, a short video feature called Reels, and is promoting it heavily on its Instagram app.

Zuckerberg at Georgetown University in 2019 Rev. In a speech in which he summoned Martin Luther King Jr. and defended Facebook’s role in promoting freedom of expression, he criticized TikTok for its reports of banning discussion of topics deemed subversive by the Chinese government, saying, “Is this the internet we want?” (The Washington Post and guard previously highlighted these content moderation rules. TikTok said these guidelines are outdated and its US business is currently operating under different rules than its Chinese counterpart.)

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However, Zuckerberg also pointed to TikTok against concerns that Facebook has a monopoly on social media. TikTok said it was “the fastest growing app” in a keynote address at a hearing of the House antitrust subcommittee in 2020.

The anti-TikTok campaign follows a long line of Facebook-funded advocacy groups working to increase its public standing.

In 2018, Facebook teamed up with Definers Public Affairs, another Washington consulting firm founded by Republican political veterans, to challenge critics and other tech companies, including Apple and Google, during the Cambridge Analytica scandal that sparked global outrage over Facebook’s privacy rules. (The company said it stopped working with Definers shortly after. New York Times report on editing.)

And in 2019, as the company faces antitrust scrutiny for its massive impact, Facebook launched American Edge, a political advocacy group designed to convince Washington lawmakers that Silicon Valley is critical to the US economy and that clear regulation is critical to the US economy. He pioneered the establishment of The country’s competitiveness in a technology race against China.

Meta paid out more than $20 million last year, beating all but six of the nation’s largest corporations and industry groups in federal lobbying. compiled data by OpenSecrets.

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