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Meta “astroturfed” TikTok

Meta “astroturfed” TikTok

Is Meta’s campaign to disparage TikTok a legitimate public affairs strategy? Or an unethical smear campaign, typical of Meta’s playbook for dealing with rivals?

Here’s what you need to know this week:

  • Affairs of state: Meta paid a firm to run a campaign of “half-truths” against TikTok.

State-by-state:

  • Apple snubbed Meta’s apps
  • Activision Blizzard settled a lawsuit during Microsoft acquisition
  • Amazon workers voted to unionise
  • Google Maps faced scrutiny over competition practices
  • Tencent blocked some NFT accounts

Affairs of state: Meta “astroturfed” TikTok

Meta hired a political consulting firm to campaign against TikTok. It aimed to damage the Chinese-owned social media platform’s reputation in the US, using rumours about violent trends that actually started on Facebook.

So why does the campaign look like underhand propaganda to some, but to others like legitimate opposition research in a competitive and controversial market?

Reports in the Washington Post allege that employees at the consulting firm, Targeted Victory, were hired by Meta “to undermine TikTok through a nationwide media and lobbying campaign” which aimed to show the app as “a danger to American children and society”.

Their job was to push stories to local news outlets that claimed TikTok was a breeding ground for dangerous and violent viral trends like the “devious licks” challenge – which saw teenagers shoplifting and vandalising property. They also disseminated rumours that TikTok was prompting young people to slap their teachers at school as part of another viral video challenge (TikTok directly denied this claim). 

We spoke to Palmer Haasch, an Insider reporter who debunked the rumour that teacher-slapping was a TikTok trend. “It wasn’t happening on TikTok whatsoever.” “No one could find any instance of that challenge happening and being posted to TikTok,” she said. “Platforms like TikTok, which were sort of nascent and very unfamiliar to parents, but also moving quite quickly, were a very easy sort of scapegoat for rumours.”

Many of the stories and rumours about dangerous viral trends, some of which appear to have started on Facebook, not TikTok, make Meta’s campaign with Targeted Victory look like an attempt to distract from its own online harms and antitrust issues.

The campaign may have helped Meta stem the tide of TikTok’s user growth, which is coming at the expense of the popularity of its own platform, Instagram, especially with younger users.

But depending on who you ask, Meta’s campaign to disparage TikTok is either a legitimate public affairs strategy, or an unethical smear campaign, typical of Meta’s playbook for dealing with rivals. 

Targeted Victory was set up as a Republican digital consultancy by the former digital director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 election campaign, and describes itself as offering a right-of-centre perspective to solving marketing challenges.

The CEO of Targeted Victory said “we’re proud of the work we’ve done to highlight the dangers of TikTok” and according to a former Republican National Committee member and consultant to the Governor of Florida, it was a “run of the mill comms campaign pushing an obviously true narrative”.

But the Washington Post reported that the firm had conducted a “bare-knuckle” campaign” against TikTok, with the clear aim of doing reputational damage. In internal emails, Targeted Victory reportedly said that the “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’” using rumours and tips without basis in fact.

We spoke to Dr. Irina Lock, a professor of corporate communication and an expert in these operations, or “organisational digital propaganda”. She told us:

  • “Astroturfing” is common. Many corporate propaganda campaigns fake a grassroots movement (hence the name) by “setting up texts” and sharing them until they “escalate”. This relies on local news outlets and politicians willing to share unverified news. These types of campaigns are common, and according to Lock’s research they are “very effective until discovered” which is why the Washington Post’s reporting is important for letting the public “see behind the curtain” and judge for themselves. 
  • Unethical persuasion. According to Lock, Meta and Targeted Victory’s campaign strayed into the bad part of a spectrum – from ethical to unethical – if the allegations in the Post hold up. Targeted Victory concealed the sources of the stories they planted, and rather than “seeking to build consensus” they used “half-truths without transparency” to push the campaign. However, Zac Moffat, Targeted Victory’s CEO, said that editors who were handed tips and stories about the dangers of TikTok were aware of Meta’s involvement and that the journalists would confirm that (at the time of writing they haven’t done so).
  • This isn’t the first or last time. The last seven years have seen a spike in the types of “astroturfing” activities around social media and other digital platforms. Lock said this method has become typical in “controversial markets where reputational advantage matters”. The internet has supercharged the effectiveness of many of the underlying processes; automated texts, social media sharing and instant messaging. 

Part of the controversy is that TikTok is far from an innocent bystander. The “devious licks” trend did spread like wildfire on TikTok, and former employees at the social media app have testified that it is tightly controlled by its Chinese parent company, ByteDance – offering access to TikTok’s American user data, and giving the Chinese state a means of spreading misinformation and propaganda in the US. 

This is why opinion about Meta’s campaign against TikTok is so divided. Republican opposition to TikTok is strong, and the party’s relationship with the Chinese app has remained sour since President Trump threatened to shut it down in the US over claims that it was a national security risk. 

But in light of Meta’s turbulent public relations journey over the past 18 months – which has seen it accused of harming young people’s mental health, promoting outrageous misinformation, and ignoring internal research in pursuit of profit – those on the left have been quick to see Meta’s strategy against TikTok as foul play. 

Mark Zuckerberg has been open about the “threat” from TikTok for years. The key to his strategy has been to paint Facebook’s interests in defeating a commercial rival as aligned to America’s interests in defying a dangerous foreign interest. So when Zuck blamed TikTok for Facebook’s first ever drop in daily usage, he was also careful to stress that TikTok doesn’t share the American tech state’s “commitment to freedom of expression”.


Apple: App Store snub

Apple left Meta’s apps off its “Must Have” list. In its app store, Apple curates a list of apps that they recommend to enhance the experience of using your brand new iPhone. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are conspicuously absent, despite being three of the most popular apps on the planet. Since rolling out its App Tracking Transparency measure last year – which limited the amount of third-party data tracking on apps, and gave users a clear way to turn it all off – Meta’s apps have been in a slump, and so has its ad revenue. This piece in Inc. makes the point that the apps at the top of Apple’s “Must Have” list – SnapChat, TikTok, YouTube, and Google – are all of Facebook’s biggest competitors.


Microsoft: Abuse settlement

Activision Blizzard has reached an $18-million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), closing one of many lawsuits against the game maker – which Microsoft is acquiring in a $68-billion deal. The lawsuit, over harassment and discrimination against female employees at the company, is part of a wider controversy around Activision Blizzard. At a press conference given by the EEOC, claimants told stories of the damaging effects that senior staff at Activision Blizzard had on them; including allegations of sexual harassment, gaslighting, abuse, coercion and neglect. Anna Park, a regional attorney involved in the case, told us that this type of accusation is “not unique to Activision Blizzard” and harassment and discrimination are endemic in the gaming industry.


Amazon: Unionisation landmark

Workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island have become the first to vote for unionisation. Amazon is the US’s second largest employer (after Walmart) and the vote is a landmark moment in labour relations in Amazon’s largest market. The vote comes despite the fact that Amazon has used every trick in the book to discourage unionisation over the years. In a settlement with federal regulators in 2016 the tech state swore off using interrogation, threats and “unspecified reprisals” against union supporters, but it continued to face accusations of practices like surveillance and removing union literature from breakrooms. This is more likely the beginning than the end of the union struggle for Amazon, with workers at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse narrowly voting against unionisation (with more than 400 disputed ballots, and a second Staten Island warehouse set to vote later in April.


Google: Maps competition

Google Maps doesn’t just show you how to get from A to B, it also connects to a host of other Google apps and services. When using Google Maps, Google navigation, Google Assistant and the Google Play app store are readily linked – a US Department of Justice probe is investigating whether this represents an illegal anti-competitive practice according to Reuters. The probe is also allegedly concerned with the use of Google Maps data by third-party apps and developers. Google’s terms of service prevent the use of Maps to create apps that could compete with the tech state’s own offerings. With competition law maturing in the EU (around the Digital Markets Act), these sorts of claims against Google’s neglect of interoperability may become a trend.


Tencent: Block on NFTs

China’s tolerance of NFTs and other crypto-based assets may be waning. China famously banned trading in cryptocurrency last year, but the market for non-fungible tokens has remained a grey area. Unlike in the US, Chinese traders must buy and sell NFTs using yuan values, and are not allowed to subsequently trade the cryptocurrencies used in transactions. Tencent’s WeChat has now blocked 10 different public accounts linked to NFT trading across the platform. It has also cracked down on programmers who build special software to automatically buy and sell NFTs, and those suspected of money laundering and fraud. 


Thanks for reading,

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah