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Anti-Tiktok PR Campaign Shows More Right-Wing Ties for Facebook

The relationship between Facebook and a public relations firm that promotes right-wing lawmakers — including some who voted against the certification of Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election — was brought to light amid other moves linking the social media platform to similar operatives.

As the Washington Post reported, Meta Platforms (Facebook’s parent company), paid the firm, Targeted Victory, to generate and place stories and op-eds attacking the video-based platform TikTok:

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.

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 director for the firm wrote in a February email.

The group’s chief executive officer, Zac Moffatt, questioned the newspaper’s reporting, saying that though it was a “right-of-center” firm, it worked in a “bipartisan” way.

“Targeted Victory’s corporate practice manages bipartisan teams on behalf of our clients,” Moffat wrote on Twitter. “It is public knowledge we have worked with Meta for several years and we are proud of the work we have done.”

A review of payments to the firm catalogued by the non-profit group OpenSecrets shows that its roster of clients is dominated by Republican Party members, including at least four lawmakers — Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Devin Nunes, and Rep. Steve Scalise — who voted in January 2021 against the Electoral College certification of U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.

The story was published shortly after Meta Platforms also hired Rick Dearborn as a lobbyist.

Dearborn worked as deputy chief of staff in former United States President Donald Trump’s administration and was identified in news reports as the recipient of a June 2016 request to arrange a meeting between Trump — then in the midst of his campaign for the presidency — and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That request came from a West Virginia man, Henry Clay, who later told CNN that he made it on behalf of a friend he could not identify:

Clay, 54, said his friend was a devout Christian who had come in contact with Russians through their work in Christian organizations. Clay could not recall the names of the Russians, and he did not disclose the name of his friend who sought the meeting, only saying he lives part of the year in Alaska and part of the year in Pennsylvania.

“The thought was if there was an opportunity there to get two sides together to talk about Christian values, then that’s important,” Clay said of a Russian meeting with senior-level Trump officials. “That was the gist of it, and it didn’t go anywhere.”

Dearborn, who was working as an aide to Trump at the time of Clay’s request, reportedly did not move the issue forward. His hiring, though, is the latest in Meta’s years-long habit of hiring right-wing and far-right operatives; the company’s vice president of public policy, Joel Kaplan, was part of the George W. Bush administration and reportedly called for a subsidiary of the Daily Caller blog to be included in the Facebook “fact-checking” project.

READ MORE: Facebook Spread Fake News, Hired ‘Trackers’ to Smear Critics

Another right-wing blog, Breitbart, was included in the platform’s “news” service in October 2019 despite a history of disinformation and hateful content. Facebook has never responded to our inquiry as to how that blog was selected for the project.

And as The Guardian reported in November 2019:

Facebook’s Washington headquarters also includes Kevin Martin, vice-president of US public policy and former chairman, under Bush, of the Federal Communications Commission – where a congressional report said his “heavy-handed, opaque and non-collegial management style … created distrust, suspicion and turmoil”. He has forcefully spoken out against proposals to break up Facebook.

Katie Harbath, the company’s public policy director for global elections, led digital strategy for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee. She has been the principal defender of the company’s decision to allow political adverts, even those including blatantly misleading claims, a move that earned a sharp rebuke from the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin among others and put it at odds with Twitter, which announced this week that it will refuse such ads.

Facebook’s association with Targeted Victory is also not the first time it was caught smearing and attacking its perceived rivals; as the New York Times reported in November 2018, the platform contracted with a separate firm, Definers, to target progressive billionaire George Soros after he criticized the platform:

Definers pressed reporters to explore the financial connections between Mr. Soros’s family or philanthropies and groups that were members of Freedom from Facebook, such as Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, as well as a progressive group founded by Mr. Soros’s son.

Color of Change’s president, Rashad Robinson, recounted this campaign in reacting to news of the association between Facebook and Targeted Victory, saying on Twitter that his group was targeted for speaking out against Facebook’s practices.

“They don’t want to let go of their stranglehold on the public. Makes you wonder who else they might be targeting,” Robinson wrote. “This is why we need anti-trust regulation—and for the [Federal Trade Commission] to be equipped with the resources necessary to hold FB accountable.

As long as FB sees no consequences for this behavior, this cycle will repeat itself, just as it has for the fossil fuel industry, the food industry & more. A corporation that will stop at nothing to avoid regulation is not one that can be trusted to regulate itself.”

Facebook did not respond to an email for comment.

The platform’s involvement in yet another public campaign was brought to light in May 2022, when the Washington Post reported that Meta was the founder of another company, American Edge, that has promoted both advertisements and op-eds pushing back on anti-trust legislation that would impose more restrictions on tech platforms.

According to the newspaper, however, Meta’s involvement is not revealed even as American Edge’s posts reflect its viewpoint:

In advertisements and op-eds, American Edge plays on fears about the tech prowess of China, a talking point of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The group also argues, in ominous tones, that new antitrust laws will weaken the American tech sector, hurting the tools used by minority-owned small businesses and dismantling companies that could provide a line of defense against cyberattacks from an increasingly aggressive Russia.

“Facebook can’t be the messenger,” an unidentified person “familiar with the organization” told the newspaper. “If we are out there saying it, people won’t believe it as much, so the conversation is how can you set up a proxy.”

For example, an August 2021 op-ed that ran in the Dallas Morning News by Frances Townsend identified her as part of the group’s “National Security Advisory Board,” but it does not mention American Edge’s ties to Meta:

“Our elected leaders must be wary of the unintended consequences that may result from anti-competition policies being debated in Washington that could weaken America’s technological and economic edge, put Texas jobs in jeopardy, and leave us vulnerable to harmful cyberwarfare,” Townsend wrote.

We have contacted the Dallas Morning News to request more information.

Update 5/17/2022, 2:26 p.m.: Updated with notes on Facebook funding another group, American Edge, to promote its viewpoints through advertisements and op-eds. — ag