Facebook Inc.-owned parent Meta Platforms Inc. paid a prominent Republican consulting company to smear its rival TikTok, according to a report published by the Washington Post today.
The report states that the firm, Targeted Victory, was hired by Meta to taint the reputation of the Chinese social media app, planting op-eds, news stories, and letters in newspapers around the U.S. with the message that TikTok was a danger to the well-being of the young people that use it.
This news comes just after Meta announced a disappointing first quarter, that included a large stock loss and for the first time in 18 years, a reduction in active monthly users. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg tried to put a positive spin on matters, but the lack of growth at the company will have worried investors.
One of the problems for Meta is losing young users, many of whom have retired their old Facebook accounts and gone over to other more fashionable apps such as TikTok. Leaked emails last year showed that Meta researchers said TikTok was becoming vastly more popular than Instagram. It seems Meta is fighting back in perhaps not the most ethical manner, with the Post saying the company is now employing “bare-knuckle tactics” to smear its rivals just as politicians have done in the past.
According to an email obtained by the Post, a Targeted Victory director told some of his staff that they needed 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 same staff was told to focus on this new TikTok dominance to re-direct the public’s attention away from the countless Meta scandals of late and also the current talk about the company’s anticompetitive behavior. “Bonus point if we can fit this into a broader message that the current bills/proposals aren’t where [state attorneys general] or members of Congress should be focused,” said one of the emails.
Other emails showed Targeted Victory asking to recruit political writers to smear TikTok and to generally push stories with an anti-TikTok message. One email sent to staff asked, “Any local examples of bad TikTok trends/stories in your markets?” A staff member replied, “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’.”
Targeted Victory did not respond when approached about the matter, although Meta’s PR lodestar Andy Stone tried to play down the matter, telling the Post, “We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success.” TikTok itself said it was “deeply concerned” about someone trying to find problems that aren’t there.
The emails show that in some cases Targeted Victory’s staff promoted negative rumors about TikTok which turned out to be groundless. If some negative TikTok news did have an element of truth, staff were asked to try and exaggerate the danger. Indeed, letters to newspapers were intended to create a social panic around this new Chinese app being “harmful to children’s mental health.” One of the last emails, sent a week ago, asked, “Colorado and Iowa — Can you talk about the TikTok Op-eds you both got?”
This is not a good look for a company that has been through the wringer of late after being accused of embracing a growth at any cost mentality.