UPDATED: Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is defending its enlistment of a political lobbying firm to secretly plant negative opinion pieces about rival TikTok in U.S. news outlets — as the social giant tried to deflect attention away from its own PR headaches.
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported on Meta’s deal with Targeted Victory, a digital marketing agency that has worked on numerous Republican campaigns. The Post reported that the firm worked with “dozens” of PR firms to “undermine TikTok through a nationwide media and lobbying campaign,” including spreading reports of false rumors about harmful trends supposedly going viral on TikTok. Citing emails from Targeted Victory staffers, the report said Targeted Victory sought to portray TikTok — which is owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance — as “a danger to American children and society.” Targeted Victory says it employs a “right-of-center perspective to solve marketing challenges.”
Asked to comment on Targeted Victory’s so-called “astroturfing” campaign, Meta spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement, “We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success.”
Targeted Victory CEO Zac Moffatt said in a statement provided to Variety, “Targeted Victory’s corporate practice manages bipartisan teams on behalf of our clients. It is public knowledge we have worked with Meta for several years and we are proud of the work we have done.”
According to one email cited by the Post, a director at Targeted Victory wrote that the firm 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.” According to the report, another Targeted Victory staff member wrote in an email, “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.’”
A TikTok spokesperson said in statement to Variety, “We are 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.”
TikTok last year said it had more than 1 billion monthly users worldwide — and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, on the company’s Q4 earnings call in February, identified TikTok as major rival. Meta has tried to step up its competition with TikTok through its copycat Reels feature for Instagram and Facebook.
“We face a competitor in TikTok that is a lot bigger, so it will take a while to compound and catch up there,” Zuckerberg told analysts. “The thing that is somewhat unique here is that TikTok is so big as a competitor already and also continues to grow at quite a fast rate off of a very large base.”
Some of the narratives Targeted Victory has pushed about TikTok are unfounded, according to the Post report. For example, according to the report, Targeted Victory in October “spread rumors of the ‘Slap a Teacher TikTok challenge’ in local news, touting a local news report on the alleged challenge in Hawaii.” However, there was “no such challenge” on TikTok — and the false reports of the trend originated on Facebook, per an Insider report.
In a Twitter thread after the Post story was published, Targeted Victory’s Moffatt claimed, “Today’s Washington Post story not only mischaracterizes the work we do, but key points are simply false.” He noted that the Post itself wrote several stories about the supposed “Slap a Teacher” trend on TikTok.
The Post cited two letters to the editor, both of which were facilitated by Targeted Victory: one published in March in the Denver Post from a “new parent” saying in part that “It’s time we take a serious look at what harm TikTok is having on their mental health” and that “Many people even suspect China is deliberately collecting behavioral data on our kids (the Chinese government and TikTok deny that they share data)”; and another in the Des Moines Register that linked to negative stories about TikTok signed by Mary McAdams, chair of the Ankeny Area Democrats.
Moffatt defended Targeted Victory’s work in placing the anti-TikTok letters on behalf of Meta. “The Washington Post characterizes 2 letters to the editor as a ‘scorched earth campaign.’ That is not just hyperbolic, but laughable. We’re proud of the work we’ve done to highlight the dangers of TikTok,” wrote Moffatt, who served as digital director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
It’s not the first time Facebook has used a political lobbying company as part of its broader PR efforts.
In 2018, Definers, founded by Republican political strategists, launched a campaign linking anti-Facebook advocacy group Freedom From Facebook to billionaire George Soros. Freedom From Facebook was formed by a coalition of liberal organizations, including Open Markets Institute, whose backers include Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg denied having any knowledge about Facebook’s hiring of Definers before it was reported by the New York Times. Subsequently, outgoing Facebook comms executive Elliot Schrage took the blame for contracting with Definers.