Meta is losing younger audiences to TikTok. In an effort to slow its rival in the social media war for young eyeballs and creators, the company paid a major Republican consulting firm to paint TikTok in a bad light, according to a report by The Washington Post.
The social media behemoth enlisted Targeted Victory, a firm founded by the digital director of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, to create and run a nationwide campaign of op-eds and letters to the editor targeting TikTok as a threat to young people. Emails obtained by the Post show how the campaign has unfurled. Targeted Victory staffers worked to promote stories to regional news outlets about harmful trends that allegedly started on TikTok, when in fact they actually began on Facebook in some cases.
The consulting outfit created a Google document called “Bad TikTok Clips,” which included links to local news stories citing TikTok as the center of several harmful trends. In one example, the firm pushed stories about a “devious licks” challenge that involved students vandalizing school property. Clips of that trend spread across several states, leading Sen. Richard Blumenthal to call for TikTok executives to testify. In reality, that trend originated on Facebook.
Targeted Victory also helped run op-eds criticizing TikTok, including one from a “concerned” parent that ran in the Denver Post and expressed worries about the platform’s role in children’s mental health. In Iowa, the campaign even included a letter to the editor signed by a local Democratic party chair.
None of the letters to the editor or op-eds targeting TikTok have any reference to Meta, though Targeted Victory also tried to get the social media giant better news coverage by sending in letters and opinion pieces highlighting, for example, its support for Black-owned businesses.
“[Targeted Victory needs 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,” a Targeted Victory director wrote in an email last month.
The emails show how Meta wants the public to see TikTok even as Meta itself tries to re-create some of the magic that led TikTok to become the top app for young people. Mark Zuckerberg has cited TikTok as a hurdle to getting young people back on his platforms. Both Facebook and Instagram have followed TikTok's lead by pouring money into their own short-form video clones.
“We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success,” Meta spokesperson Andy Stone told the Post in defense of the campaign.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Meta's spokesperson. This story was updated on March 30, 2022.