Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell, the Washington Post:
Facebook parent company Meta is paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.
The campaign includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor. These bare-knuckle tactics, long commonplace in the world of politics, have become increasingly noticeable within a tech industry where companies vie for cultural relevance and come at a time when Facebook is under pressure to win back young users.
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.
Zac Moffatt, Targeted Victory’s CEO, disputed this reporting on Twitter, but many of his complaints are effectively invalid. He complains that only part of the company’s statement was included by the Post, but the full statement fits into a tweet and is pretty vacuous. The Post says the company refused to answer specific questions, which Moffatt has not disputed.
Moffatt also says the Post called two letters to the editor a “scorched earth campaign”, but the oldest copy of the story I could find, captured just twenty minutes after publishing and well before Moffatt tweeted, does not contain that phrasing, and neither does the current copy. I am not sure where that is from.
But one thing Moffatt does nail the Post on, a little bit, is its own reporting on TikTok moral panics. For example, the “slap a teacher challenge” was roundly debunked when it began making headlines in early October 2021 and was traced back to rumours appearing on Facebook a month earlier, but that did not stop the Post from reporting on it. It appears Targeted Victory used the Post’s reporting, among that from other publications, to further concerns about this entirely fictional story. That is embarrassing for the Post, which cited teachers and school administrators for its story.
The Post should do better. But it is agencies like Targeted Victory that the Post and other media outlets should be steeling themselves against, as well as in-house corporate public relations teams. When reporters receive a tip about a company’s behaviour — positive or negative — the source of that information can matter as much as the story itself. It is why I still want more information about the Campaign for Accountability’s funders: it has been successful in getting media outlets to cover its research critical of tech companies, but its history with Oracle has muddied the waters of its ostensibly pure concern. Oracle also tipped off Quartz reporters to that big Google location data scandal a few years ago. These sources are not neutral. While the stories may be valid, readers should not be misled about their origin.