Facebook’s parent company Meta took another public swipe on Wednesday after an investigation found the social media giant was employing prominent Republican consultancy Targeted Victory in its effort to smear public perception of the platform. competing social media form TikTok.
According to internal emails obtained by The Washington Post, Meta paid Targeted Victory to create an anti-TikTok campaign that included promoting stories focused on dangerous trends that allegedly spawned on the platform, writing editorials who pushed forward these claims that were aired in major news services and the development of a list of local political figures to help push these narratives forward. The company teamed up with “dozens of PR firms across the United States” to launch an offensive against the app as Meta platforms struggled to combat its rapid growth.
One such letter to the editor signed by the chairman of a local Democratic political action committee that appeared in the Des Moines Register on March 12 included links to the same negative stories promoted by Targeted Victory. An email from a Targeted Victory director praised the official’s name being attached to the letter, saying it “will carry a lot of weight with lawmakers and stakeholders.” The director encouraged other partners in the firm to use the same strategy to expand the effort in the same email. A similar letter appeared in the Denver Post the same day.
A number of stories promoted by Targeted Victory have focused on social media challenges that have been characterized as endangering America’s youth. Among these, the “Devious Licks” trend has made national headlines thanks to videos of students supposedly stealing items from increasingly popular schools. Targeted Victory collected questionable stories focusing on dangerous trends allegedly generated on TikTok, including the “Devious Licks” videos, in a Google document aptly named “Bad TikTok Clips” and used this document to send reports on “Devious Licks” at local outlets in multiple states and Washington, D.C.
Targeted Victory used the same strategy to stir up excitement around the “Slap a Teacher” challenge, even when there was no evidence such a challenge even existed on TikTok. Investigations by Insider and Gimlet’s Anna Foley later revealed that rumors of the ‘Devious Licks’ and ‘Slap a Teacher’ challenges originally appeared on Facebook.
As the campaign against TikTok unfolded, Targeted Victory also promoted positive editorials on Meta-owned platforms in local newspapers and TV news without disclosing that the company was currently employed by Meta.
There are legitimate concerns about TikTok’s data collection practices, which make efforts to turn the public against the platform by mixing those concerns with “dangerous” social media challenges that actually originated on Facebook. all the more harmful. “The dream would be to have stories with titles like ‘Danger Dances: How TikTok Became the Most Harmful Social Media Space for Kids,'” a Targeted Victory employee wrote in an email.
Recent events surrounding Meta show why heightened concern over TikTok’s growth may have led the company to employ the company. Facebook announced the loss of one million daily active users for the first time in a quarterly report released last month. Leaked documents from former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealed that Facebook acknowledged that teenagers’ use of TikTok had doubled to triple their use of Instagram.
This isn’t the first time Meta has used Targeted Victory either. The company hired Targeted Victory in 2018 to lobby against the Honest Ads Act as part of an effort to fight ad transparency regulations. The two also worked together on Facebook’s Community Boost roadshow, which promoted the social media platform as a hub for small businesses.
Meta spokesperson Any Stone defended the anti-TikTok campaign in a statement to The Washington Post. Targeted Victory said he was “proud of the work we’ve done.”