Facebook parent company Meta took another public blow Wednesday after an investigation revealed that the social media giant employed prominent Republican consulting firm Targeted Victory in its efforts to soil public perception of competing social media platform TikTok.
According to internal emails obtained by The Washington Post, Meta paid Targeted Victory to craft an anti-TikTok campaign that included promoting stories focused on dangerous trends that supposedly spawned on the platform, crafting editorials that furthered those claims that ran in major news services and developing a roster of local political figures to help push those narratives. The firm partnered with “dozens of public relations firms across the United States” to build an offensive against the app as Meta platforms struggled to combat its rapid growth.
One such letter to the editor signed by the chair 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 lauded having the official’s name attached to the letter, saying it “will carry a lot of weight with legislators and stakeholders.” The director encouraged other firm partners to employ the same strategy to extend the effort in the same email. A similar letter ran in the Denver Post that same day.
A number of the stories promoted by Targeted Victory focused on social media challenges that were characterized as endangering American Youth. Key among those was the “Devious Licks” trend that made national headlines thanks to videos of students supposedly stealing items from schools growing in popularity. Targeted Victory collected questionable stories focused on dangerous trends that supposedly generated on TikTok, including the “Devious Licks” videos, in a Google document appropriately named “Bad TikTok Clips” and used that document to push reports on “Devious Licks” to local outlets in multiple states and Washington, D.C.
Targeted Victory used the same strategy to whip up fervor around the “Slap a Teacher” challenge, even when there was no evidence that such a challenge even existed on TikTok. Investigations by Insider and Gimlet’s Anna Foley later revealed that rumors of both the “Devious Licks” and “Slap a Teacher” challenges initially appeared on Facebook.
As the campaign against TikTok unfolded, Targeted Victory also promoted positive op-eds about Meta-owned platforms in local newspapers and TV news broadcasts without divulging that the firm was currently being employed by Meta.
There are legitimate concerns surrounding TikTok’s data-gathering practices, which makes the efforts to turn the public against the platform by mixing those concerns with “dangerous” social media challenges that actually originated on Facebook that much more nefarious. “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,” one Targeted Victory employee wrote in an email.
Recent events surrounding Meta point to why the heightened concern around TikTok’s growth may have led the company to employ the firm. Facebook reported losing one million daily active users for the first time ever in a quarterly report released last month. Documents leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealed that Facebook recognized that TikTok’s use among teens doubled to tripled their use of Instagram.
This also isn’t the first time Meta employed Targeted Victory. The company hired Targeted Victory in 2018 to lobby against the Honest Ads Act as part of an effort to fight regulation on ad transparency. 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 stated it was “proud of the work we have done.”