Editorials, Opinion

Meta smear campaign co-opted local papers

The Washington Post was the first to report that Meta (Facebook’s parent company) had hired the right-wing consulting firm Targeted Victory to run a smear campaign against rival TikTok.

Targeted Victory describes itself as “digital first agency built for the mobile age” that “bring[s] the best of campaigns and a right-of-center perspective to solve marketing challenges.” It’s biggest customers are Republican political campaigns and PACs, including America First Action and even Capito for West Virginia, which paid the firm $52,000 between 2019 and 2020, according to OpenSecrets.

That Meta hired someone to slander its arch rival should not come as a surprise. Before its name change, Facebook previously hired the right-wing firm Definers Public Affairs (also a favorite of the Republican Party), which in 2018 was found to be discrediting Facebook’s critics using fake news or anti-Semitic memes, according to TechCrunch. And this is not Meta’s only contract with Targeted Victory; the social media platform had been working with Targeted Victory as far back as 2017 on, of all things, ad transparency.

But business is business, right? Not quite. It’s not that Meta hired a company to launch a smear campaign against TikTok — it’s the form that campaign took.

Under its agreement with Meta, Targeted Victory flooded regional news stations with stories, op-eds and letters to the editors about “dangerous” TikTok challenges. It highly publicized and exaggerated the “devious licks” challenge, where students vandalized or stole school property, and then started spreading rumors about the “slap a teacher” challenge. The “slap a teacher” challenge never appeared on TikTok; talk of it actually originated in private Facebook groups (“devious licks” likely did, too) before spreading to public pages and eventually being picked by media outlets as authorities warned of its (hypothetical) dangers. 

Targeted Victory brags about this service on its website: “Our field teams can deploy anywhere in the country within 48 hours ….” According to the Post, “In addition to planting local news stories, [Targeted Victory] has helped place op-eds targeting TikTok around the country, especially in key congressional districts.” The Denver Post ran an anonymous letter to the editor orchestrated by Targeted Victory that espoused the dangers of TikTok for children’s mental health and privacy.

This type of mudslinging campaign is the most insidious: It makes corporate propaganda look like community concern. After all, we tend to trust our neighbors more than we trust Big Tech.

This is one of the reasons The Dominion Post limits letters to the editor to people in our coverage area, and why letters must be signed. It’s also why guest essays are from individuals in our state or region who have expertise and experience in their topic. Keeping things local — and verifiable — helps us insulate our readers from propaganda campaigns like the one Meta and Targeted Victory launched against TikTok.