Facebook hired a large consulting firm to undermine its competitor TikTok, The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell reported in an eye-popping scoop on Wednesday. The secret campaign specifically targeted local reporters to help amplify questionable claims about the platform.
It seems many local outlets couldn’t resist the bait.
Online searches show hundreds of local news outlets repeated negative stories about TikTok, the social video platform that’s become one of the most downloaded apps on the planet, and harmful “trends” that supposedly originated there. (If you’re wondering why Facebook is nervous about TikTok in particular, you might have missed that their own internal research found teens are spending twice as much time TikTok than on Facebook-owned Instagram.) Local TV stations were the primary culprits, but local websites and newspapers also published pieces.
How did it work?
[The consulting firm] Targeted Victory worked to amplify negative TikTok coverage through a Google document titled “Bad TikTok Clips,” which was shared internally and included links to dubious local news stories citing TikTok as the origin of dangerous teen trends. Local operatives working with the firm were encouraged to promote these alleged TikTok trends in their own markets to put pressure on lawmakers to act.
One trend Targeted Victory sought to enhance through its work was the “devious licks” challenge, which showed students vandalizing school property. Through the “Bad TikTok Clips” document, the firm pushed stories about the “devious licks” challenge in local media across Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.
… In October, Targeted Victory worked to spread rumors of the “Slap a Teacher TikTok challenge” in local news, touting a local news report on the alleged challenge in Hawaii. In reality, no such challenge existed on TikTok.
Much of the local news coverage was framed, reasonably enough, around local school boards or law enforcement warning students of consequences for participating. The Omaha World-Herald, for example, ran a piece about Nebraska school groups announcing there is “zero tolerance” for the “slap a teacher” challenge on TikTok.
Last December, I spoke with @EmilyDreyfuss and @JosephineLukito about the tendency of TikTok “trends” leading to sternly worded press releases and breathless media coverage without verification for a @KCBSRadio story.https://t.co/X03wxl9ndb
— Marcus White (@marcuspwhite) March 30, 2022
Some of the local media picking up the “Slap a Teacher” challenge included a local TV station in Houston. On Facebook, the piece earned thousands of impressions.
KRON, in San Francisco, ran a segment about “why you need to watch out for the hashtag devious licks” and Oakland’s KTVU ran one saying, falsely, the trend’s “origins are based in the social media platform TikTok.” (Investigations by Gimlet and Insider have shown the trends initially spread on Facebook, not TikTok.)
The Santa Fe New Mexican was explicit about pointing fingers. “[T]here has been a sharp increase in national vandalism over the past month. You can blame it on the ‘Devious Lick,’ a new TikTok trend that administrators worry could be costing schools hundreds of dollars in repairs.”
1. Fake teen mayhem trends spread on Facebook.
2. Facebook pays PR firms to convince people the trends started on TikTok.
— choire (@Choire) March 30, 2022
Other outlets took a more conversational approach when talking about the trends. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution encouraged teachers and parents to write in with stories of talking to children about “so-called TikTok challenges.”
The local reports made their way up the news food chain. USA Today, drawing on local TV stories and a local school board announcement, reported that students in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Massachusetts were facing disciplinary consequences after “being inspired by a TikTok challenge.”
When it wasn’t planting and amplifying local news stories to fit an agenda, Targeted Victory was hiring a fleet of public relations firms to help place anti-TikTok opinion pieces, The Washington Post reported. Similar letters to the editor from a “concerned parent” ran in the Denver Post and Des Moines Register earlier this month, and the Targeted Victory team claimed credit for them in internal emails.
Given the number of moral panics enthusiastically embraced by local media — remember the Momo hoax? — it’s not exactly shocking media played a role in helping spread unfounded anxiety about the platform.
Why does this work so well, again and again? Nervous parents and older adults worried about tech’s impact have to be part of the answer. As Alice Marwick, a professor of communication at the University of North Carolina, wrote in a worthwhile thread on Twitter: “New tech? Kind of scary to adults! New tech that KIDS USE that they DON’T UNDERSTAND? *terrifying*”
I have SOMETHING TO SAY about this batshit crazy story. Basically: the media LOVES a teen technopanic.
The PR firm easily exploited a hundred-year old moral panic over kids and tech. Here’s why. https://t.co/wY0Y3Kg64W
— alice e. marwick (@alicetiara) March 30, 2022
One small comfort? I could not immediately find any local news outlets that fulfilled the campaign director’s “dream” outcome and printed “from dances to danger” as a headline.
Incredible story, what seems particularly curious is the way they targeted local news specifically to plant boomer-bait satanic-panic type stories about Tiktok causing teens to be naughty https://t.co/ujWao6T61z
— Katie Notopoulos (@katienotopoulos) March 30, 2022
This story should raise questions and concern for @LIONPubs (of which I’m a member), @LocalMediaAssoc, @Report4America, @ICFJ & others that accept funding from Meta. This lays bare that Meta is working to manipulate local news outlets. https://t.co/U1ic4ND7UH
— Don Day (@DonLDay) March 30, 2022
I love that I’ve spent the better part of my career trying to debunk social media-based moral panics like the Slap a Teacher “trend” or the Devious Licks challenge, and it’s all for no reason because Facebook just….pays people to legitimize them anyway https://t.co/Mxv2RLDDlO
— Ej Dickson (@ejdickson) March 30, 2022