by Larry Magid
A recent Washington Post article titled “Facebook paid GOP firm to malign TikTok,” accused Facebook’s parent company Meta of “paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.”
Although the political affiliation of the consulting firm is irrelevant, the allegations in the story — if true — are quite disturbing. It’s not unusual for companies to claim that their products are better than their competitors’, or to point out their own efforts to make their platforms as safe as possible for children and others, but it’s beneath Meta or any other social media company to claim that its competitors are failing to keep their members safe.
The Washington Post article quoted Meta spokesperson Andy Stone saying “We believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success.” I have no problem with journalists or safety advocates sharing accurate information on safety gaps at any company, and I support the right of politicians and policymakers to scrutinize companies on their safety policies and of government agencies to enforce rules, but Stone’s statement is not helpful nor is it productive for companies to malign other companies’ safety efforts.
Airlines don’t compete over safety and neither should tech companies
Airlines compete fiercely with each other over comfort, fares, baggage policies and just about every other aspect of their business, but you’ll never see a United Airlines ad implying that American Airlines is less safe. Instead, they have teams of people who do everything they can to make their flights as safe as possible and — guess what — these safety teams at competing airlines work together to help each other protect their passengers and crews.
For the most part, that’s also true in the social media arena. As CEO of ConnectSafely and a long-time internet safety advocate, I can say firsthand that social media companies do work together on industry-wide safety issues. Both Meta and TikTok, along with Snapchat, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and other companies have long worked with ConnectSafely and each other on safety programs. All, for example, are sponsors of our annual Safer Internet Day program where they collaborate to make sure that our messages reach the largest possible audience. Most of these companies are also supporters and board members of the Family Online Safety Institute where, among other things, they work together at safety conferences aimed at helping the entire industry up its game. I’ve seen, been on and moderated many panels at conferences with safety representatives of multiple companies, including Meta and TikTok. Back when it was called Facebook, Meta hosted one of our Safer Internet Day events where several of its competitors participated. ConnectSafely organized the first social media suicide prevention summit that was held at Facebook headquarters and attended by several of its competitors. I’m a former board member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and know first-hand how almost all the social media companies — including Meta and TikTok — cooperate to help the organization fight child sexual abuse. I’m quite sure that the safety heads of all these companies know each other by their first names.
I have seen competition over privacy, especially coming from Microsoft and Apple, which both claim their products protect user privacy better than those from Google and Meta. But even though privacy and safety are related, data privacy is not the same thing as child safety, where I have not seen this type of behavior before now.
Executives are responsible
As I understand the Washington Post story, subcontractors working for a PR firm that Meta hired allegedly promoted negative news stories about TikTok safety and encouraged the writing of letters to the editor that were critical of TikTok. If so, shame on these contractors, shame on the PR firm that hired them and shame on the Meta executives that allowed the contractors to spread these stories. If true, someone or some group of employees of Meta needs to take responsibility and their bosses, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, should be held accountable.
We contacted Meta executives as soon as we read the Washington Post story and expressed our concern in an email and a long conversation with a senior executive. This is not the first time we’ve expressed our concern with Meta and, for that matter, other supporters, and this post is not the first time we have publicly criticized Meta and other supporters. Although we do partner with and accept support from Meta, TikTok and other tech companies, our constituencies are families and other users whose best interest is our primary concern.
ConnectSafely will continue to work with Meta, TikTok and other companies to provide advice on how they can make their services as safe as possible and produce guides, videos, podcasts, broadcasts and other materials to help users protect their own safety, privacy and security. We believe that helps the industry better protect its users and helps users better protect themselves and their families. We will also continue to call for stronger protections while at the same time urging policymakers to be thoughtful about possible negative unintended consequences of well-meaning regulations.
Disclosure: ConnectSafely is an independent 501c3 nonprofit organization that receives financial support from Meta, TikTok, Google, Amazon Kids, Roblox, Trend Micro, Discord, Snapchat, Twitch, Twitter, The Meet Group and Comcast. None of these companies are represented on ConnectSafely’s board of directors.