This week, The Washington Post reported that Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has been paying a Republican consulting firm to slime the reputation of its social media rival TikTok. According to emails shared between Meta and Targeted Victory, Facebook sought to blame TikTok for viral hoaxes that actually started on Facebook and then urged various journalists and politicians to amplify these hoaxes. Today’s guests are the journalists who broke the story: Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell. They explain why Facebook is afraid of TikTok; why the campaign to smear TikTok is so hypocritical and creepy; and why there are smarter reasons to be skeptical of the app. Part of their conversation has been excerpted below.
Derek Thompson: You guys got your hands on some really incredible material: on unreported emails between Facebook and Targeted Victory and also on a Google doc on which Targeted Victory kept a list of TikTok memes that they could use to bash the company. I wanna first talk about the emails between Facebook and Targeted Victory. What were the most outrageous, the most interesting, the most cringeworthy things that you found in those emails?
Drew Harwell: It’s hard to narrow it down because these emails, they just radiated with boomer energy. They were so cringey. And to Taylor [Lorenz]’s point, there is a lot of history to this kind of negative political mud-throwing, but these were so specific in terms of like, the quote was “We need 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 no. 1 and sharing data.” So it’s so overt that they’re saying, “Take Meta out of the spotlight. We don’t wanna be pummeled anymore. Let’s throw somebody else in front of us.”
The one that really stuck out to us was one where they were saying, “Let’s find the worst, most egregious TikTok trends in your market. Our 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 that just jumps off the email, because “From Dances to Danger” is such a ludicrous thing to look for. And it’s also such a good representation of how they were looking for the most salacious, just most totally out-there thing that they could pin on TikTok just to get themselves a leg up in the market.
DT: So let’s talk about some of the dangers that Facebook wanted to elevate about TikTok. Targeted Victory tried to drum up negative TikTok coverage in part by using a Google doc with the title “Bad TikTok Clips.” And it included, among other things, a trend known as the devious licks challenge on TikTok. Taylor, tell me a little bit about devious licks and what people were trying to say about TikTok by referring to it.
Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, so there are a couple. There is devious licks and slap a teacher and some other ones. These are all pretty dubious trends to begin with and actually started on Facebook.
There’s this Facebook police officer meme guy who had posted a screenshot of alleged TikTok trends that went so viral within parenting groups and concerned police departments and school districts that they actually shut down schools in certain districts because of these trends. Children were missing education for several days because people were scared of these alleged TikTok trends, which consisted of, like we said, slapping a teacher, trashing school property, bringing a gun to school. These are not legitimate trends, but once they go viral enough, it’s a little bit like the Tide pod thing, right? Once something goes viral enough or an alleged challenge goes viral enough, people will do it ironically for views. And so that’s kind of where the harm comes in. Like, slap a teacher challenge—that’s not real. Devious licks. We saw people engaging in that stuff because it was so viral on Facebook.
DT: Just to be clear: So devious licks is kids acting out in school and it’s them like taking letters off of school signs—
DT: Right. Exactly. So devious licks is essentially an epidemic of vandalism throughout the country, theoretically, and then slap a teacher, that’s very obviously a supposed meme about slapping your teacher. And your point is these were trends that Targeted Victory and Facebook were trying to say were spreading on TikTok, but in reality they were totally overblown. These things weren’t actually happening at nearly the scale that Targeted Victory and Facebook were representing.
TL: Exactly. I mean, some of them were completely nonexistent. Some of the trends that they were purporting to support didn’t exist. Devious licks, it’s unclear if maybe there was one video or a couple videos that started, but what really got it going was actually the Facebook outrage about devious licks, not the challenge itself.
DT: What I thought was so interesting—and this was in your piece, but also definitely highlighted in the reaction to your piece—is this enormous irony that Facebook is accusing TikTok of spreading harmful memes that may very well have started on Facebook rather than TikTok. There was one report in Insider that came to the conclusion that slap a teacher was actually first documented on Facebook. It started on Facebook.
There was another investigation by Anna Foley at the podcast network Gimlet that found that the rumors of this devious licks thing also seemed to have started on Facebook. So the trend here seems to be: Part 1, a fake teen mayhem trend starts on Facebook; and then Part 2, Facebook pays this PR firm to convince people that the trend actually started on TikTok. Like it’s unbelievably twisted and weird.
DH: Yeah, and it just shows how silly it all is because it’s like Pepsi dinging Coke for selling soda. It’s like, you both do the same thing. Targeted Victory was not wrong to realize like, “Hey, we can pray on parents’, older folks’ fears about this newfangled thing that the kids love by inspiring these moral panics.” But when you see how a lot of this stuff arose, you realize this is just a function of the internet. This is the stuff that people have been shouting at Facebook over for years. And so for Facebook to turn around and use that as their own kind of ammunition, it really just, in our minds, is such a symbol of how afraid Meta is of TikTok, how worried they are about losing that clout, losing that audience, that they’ll go to this totally desperate playbook of dinging a platform that young people use when really Facebook would kill to have what TikTok has right now, would kill to have that kind of leverage and mind share and attention that TikTok has gained over the years.
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell
Producer: Devon Manze