from the sockpuppetry dept
Late last year, a coordinated messaging campaign emerged on the anniversary of the repeal of net neutrality. Numerous pundits and right-wing news outlets all simultaneously issued reports on the same day claiming that because the Internet hadn’t exploded in a rainbow, that the FCC’s extremely unpopular 2017 decision to gut oversight of predatory telecom monopolies must not have mattered (it mattered).
It wasn’t a coincidence, it was a coordinated PR gambit spearheaded by the telecom industry. And it appears to have been helped along thanks to a K Street PR shop named Targeted Victory. One of former FCC boss Ajit Pai’s top assistants now works at Targeted Victory, and it lists AT&T as one of its top paying clients. Surely all coincidental, though.
Fast forward to this week, and that same lobbying, policy, and PR firm has been caught in brighter headlights, given it involves the only subject that appears to matters in DC policy right now: “big tech.” The Washington Post discovered that Facebook, last year, hired Targeted Victory to agitate the GOP into criticizing TikTok (which many of them were doing anyway):
“Employees with the firm, Targeted Victory, worked to undermine TikTok through a nationwide media and lobbying campaign portraying the fast-growing app, owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance,as a danger to American children and society, according to internal emails shared with The Washington Post.”
There’s been no shortage of contrived freak outs about TikTok over the last few years. Like, remember when the GOP (a party that genuinely could not give any less of a shit about consumer privacy), suddenly expressed all manner of concern about TikTok consumer privacy (and only TikTok consumer privacy)?
Then, of course, there was that whole cronyistic effort by Trump to force a TikTok sale to his BFFs at Walmart and Oracle, which ultimately fell apart because it wasn’t based on much of anything (though, remember, it came out pretty quickly that Facebook had been whispering to Trump to go after TikTok). From the sounds of things, it wasn’t particularly hard for Targeted Victory to get certain DC tech and political access journalists to play along as well:
In one email, a Targeted Victory director asked for ideas on local political reporters who could serve as a “back channel” for anti-TikTok messages, saying the firm “would definitely want it to be hands off.”
In other emails, Targeted Victory urged partners to push stories to local media tying TikTok to dangerous teen trends in an effort to show the app’s purported harms. “Any local examples of bad TikTok trends/stories in your markets?” a Targeted Victory staffer asked.
“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,’ ” the staffer wrote.
It appears that they were somewhat successful in getting some of those articles placed. As we discussed last fall, there was a huge anti-TikTok moral panic around the whole “Devious Licks” challenge, and false claims that kids had planned out a series of increasingly worse challenges for each month throughout the year — including a “slap a teacher” challenge. However, as we noted, the whole thing was simply adults making shit up, based on an exaggeration that was first posted… to Facebook, not TikTok.
At the time, we suggested that the real problem was gullible parents and local media falling for it — but hadn’t considered that it was actually Facebook and its hired guns planting the entire thing. And yet… there it is:
One trend Targeted Victory sought to enhance through its work was the “devious licks” challenge, which showed students vandalizing school property. Through the “Bad TikTok Clips” document, the firm pushed stories about the “devious licks” challenge in local media across Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.
That trend led Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to write a letter in September calling on TikTok executives to testify in front of a Senate subcommittee, saying the app had been “repeatedly misused and abused to promote behavior and actions that encourage harmful and destructive acts.” But according to an investigation by Anna Foley at the podcast network Gimlet, rumors of the “devious licks” challenge initially spread on Facebook, not TikTok.
In October, Targeted Victory worked to spread rumors of the “Slap a Teacher TikTok challenge” in local news, touting a local news report on the alleged challenge in Hawaii. In reality, no such challenge existed on TikTok. Again, the rumor started on Facebook, according to a series of Facebook posts first documented by Insider.
What the Post story doesn’t mention is that there was a separate, but very, very similar scenario that happened in December, that actually resulted in a bunch of schools closing down for the day due to the claims of a TikTok challenge to “shoot up schools.” Again, there was no evidence of any such challenge, but the local media flocked to the story, making it go viral, leading plenty of schools to shut down. In other words, it’s entirely possible that Facebook’s anti-TikTok PR campaign literally resulted in school’s shutting down for a day.
Facebook’s response to this is absolutely ridiculous:
Meta spokesperson Andy Stone defended the campaign by saying, “We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success.”
That’s really bad on multiple levels. Ridiculously bad. Of course, it’s not new for the company. As it has faced antitrust challenges, one of the responses from Facebook has been to try to drag Apple into similar antitrust challenges at the same time. We highlighted how counterproductive this strategy was for Facebook, and was told by a senior exec that it was “unfair” that Facebook would receive such scrutiny, and that Apple should have to go through the same thing.
But that kind of insecurity is so incredibly counterproductive. Rather than trying to fix its own home, the desire to drag others down with Facebook seems not just stupid and counterproductive, but likely to do serious harm to the wider internet at the same time.
While it may have been possible to get someone like Donald Trump to push for plans that targeted TikTok specifically, it seems much more likely that any regulatory response to these fluffed up moral panics aren’t going to simply target TikTok, but rather the wider ecosystem of internet companies. In other words, this stupid campaign is likely to lead to regulations that hit Facebook.
Of course, as we’ve noted in the past, Facebook’s recent warm embrace of regulations is because it (stupidly) thinks that (1) it can somehow steer the regulations in a manner that it can handle, and (2) Facebook’s biggest threats cannot. In other words, just as we’ve been warning, Facebook sees internet regulations as its best tool against competition. Because even if those regulations hinder some of Facebook’s plans and products, the company believes it can weather those storms way more than smaller competitors.
And why not? After all, regulatory “attacks” on Facebook like the EU’s GDPR only served to cement Facebook’s position against everyone else.
Again, it’s not particularly hard to get geriatric millionaires in DC agitated over something with just a little cash and a few nudges, especially if you can play to their rampant xenophobia (Cisco has been exploiting this for years to prevent Chinese telecom hardware from eroding their U.S. market share). This kind of dodgy messaging happens pretty frequently and was normalized long ago.
Targeted Victory CEO Zac Moffatt tried to “defend” his firm’s anti-TikTok campaign by saying that the team is bipartisan and not just focused on GOP politicians (which is a laughable claim, given the firm’s history — and also not really an important point in the story). His only other defense is that… the Washington Post also fell for the TikTok moral panic stories. Which… isn’t exactly a defense of what Targeted Victory did, but rather a kind of confirmation of how easy it is for firms like Targeted Victory to spin up and support these kinds of moral panics in the first place.
Sure, this kind of attack the opposition may be a standard political move, but when you see it in the corporate world, it’s generally a sign that a company has lost its ability to innovate. Rather than figuring out how to better serve its users, the best that Facebook can do these days is try to tear down those who are building products that people like better. In the end, it’s just kind of pathetic.