Meta paid a GOP consulting firm to conduct a smear campaign against TikTok

There’s nothing quite as tragic as businesses trying to stay relevant past their time.

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There’s nothing quite as tragic as businesses trying to stay relevant past their time. Most of them keep it to putting out corny ads that reek of the “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme. But it seems that Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, is once again taking things to the extreme: A new report shows that Meta paid a right-wing firm to conduct a smear campaign against TikTok.

In recent years, Facebook has grown increasingly unpopular with teenagers. Last year, leaked internal documents showed Meta knew “time spent” for U.S. teenagers on Facebook was down 16% year-over-year. Rather than take the L with grace, documents obtained by The Washington Post show Meta employed Targeted Victory, a Republican consulting firm, to orchestrate its anti-TikTok campaign.

Per internal emails, Targeted Victory planned to use the media to its advantage by placing op-eds, letters to the editor, and more. An email from one Targeted Victory director urges employees 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.”

While Targeted Victory wouldn’t elaborate on its anti-TikTok campaign, a spokesperson confirmed to the Post that it had worked for Meta for several years and was “proud of the work we have done.” A Meta spokesperson defended the campaign to the Post, stating, “We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success.”

Sure, scrutiny of Big Tech platforms is great. But it’s ironic that Meta would bring up scrutiny when the Post reported that employees were told to use TikTok’s growing popularity to deflect from Meta’s own privacy and antitrust concerns. One Targeted Victory employee wrote, “Bonus point if we can fit this into a broader message that the current bills/proposals aren’t where [state attorneys general] or members of Congress should be focused.”

Last year, whistleblower Frances Haugen testified on Capitol Hill that Meta’s products “harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.” And while executives can make the platforms safer, Haugen said they “won’t make the necessary change because they have put their astronomical profits before people.” Now read that alongside the Post’s reporting that one Targeted Victory staffer wrote, “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’” and your eyebrows should be all the way up.

The most alarming part of the campaign, though, is that it often painted children as the villains. One campaign Targeted Victory wanted to spread was the “devious licks” challenge about students vandalizing school property. It also sought to spread the fake “slap your teacher” challenge which got picked up by local news outlets.

As talks about misinformation online continue, it’s clear that Meta can’t be looked to as a mediator — not when it partners with right-wing businesses to churn out misinformation for its own benefit. Instead, the report highlights the continued urgency to break up platforms like Meta entirely.