Plain English with Derek Thompson - Should You Be Afraid of TikTok

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I’m Matt Bellamy founding partner of Puck news, and I’m covering the inside conversation about money and power in Hollywood, with my new show, the town.

I’m going to take you inside Hollywood with exclusive inside and what people in Show Business are actually talking about multiple times a week.


I’ll talk to some of the smartest people.

I know, journalists insiders, all of whom can break down the hottest Topics in entertainment, tell you what’s really going on.

Listen now, Today’s episode is about lies, dirty tricks, hypocrisy and creepiness among America’s largest social media companies.


This week, the Washington Post reported that Facebook’s parent company.

Meta is paying a republican consulting firm to slime.

The reputation of tick-tock, according to email, shared between meta and the GOP.

Firm, targeted Victory.

Facebook was seeking to blame Tick-Tock for many weird viral hopes has that actually started.


Facebook and then get various journalists and politicians to freak out about those stories so that they would bring the hammer down on a social media rival.


This is an incredibly juicy scoop with some really just delicious details.

You’re going to hear about in just a second but it sits on top of some really important and substantive questions.


Like what the hell is going on and Facebook and should we be a little bit afraid of tick-tock itself.

Today’s guests are the journalists, who broke the story, Taylor Lorenz, and Jus Harwell of the Washington Post.

Now, first a bit of background.


Facebook is currently facing a triple crisis.

It’s stuck in reputation our way down.

Its ad, business is slowing down and perhaps most importantly, it’s losing young people to tick tock this year.

Facebook announced it lost users for the first time in his 18-year history.


Then we have Tick-Tock, which is not just the fastest growing social media platform.

This It became the single most popular web domain in the world.

Edging out Google, Amazon, and Facebook itself.

And if you’ve ever spent any time on it, you immediately understand why it’s endless algorithmic feed of short form video.


That grabs your brains control center for dear life, and doesn’t let go, it is a bonanza of creativity.

It is a Marvel of technology and it is also owned by the beijing-based company.

B dance, who’s domestic business is minority controlled by the Chinese government.



A government with a horrific track record on free speech, and a deep history of propaganda.

So Facebook’s campaign to smear Tick.

Tock is laughable creepy.

Yes, but if Facebook is offering up a bunch of fake and dumb reasons to worry about tick-tock.


My question is, what’s the smart way to think about this app and what it’s doing to our minds?

I’m Derrick Thompson.

This is planning.


Taylor Lorenz, welcome to the podcast.

Thanks for having me.

Drew Harwell.

Welcome to the podcast.

Thank you so much.

So Taylor, let’s start with you.

Give me the headline news here.

What did you find in your investigation?

So we discovered that Pete Facebook had been running what essentially amounted to a massive Nationwide smear campaign against Tick-Tock that consisted of amplifying, local news stories about dubious Tick-Tock Trends and seating letters to the editor.


Op-eds and local Regional news outlets that painted Tick-Tock as a danger to children and raise concerns around privacy and its ties to China.

And when you contacted meta about this and you reached Meadow spokespeople, did they deny what you had found your?


Did they say?

Yep, you got us.

We are definitely in bed with Republican marketing firm to drum up.

To be a stories about our competition.

They did not deny it.

They actually an even I was kind of shocked by the statement that they A gave us, which is something like, you know, Tick-Tock deserves scrutiny.

I mean, I think we’d all agree on that, but I don’t know that I’d call this scrutiny, you know, they’re paying this Republican lobbying for a ton to orchestrate this campaign, but no, they confirmed that this, you know, this was happening and kind of then then they sort of were like, but also this is just normal PR.


So why you know, I would argue that maybe this is normal PR in certain circles around politics.

I think it speaks to you know where Facebook Is today, where they’re at, this level, where they’re at.

They’re feeling what they really need to smear their opponents to get a leg up.



You guys got your hands on some really 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 tick-tock memes that they could use to bash the company.


I want to first talk about the emails between Facebook.

And targeted Victory.

What were the most outrageous?

The most interesting, the most cringe-worthy things that you found in those emails?

It’s hard to narrow it down because these emails they just radiated with like Boomer energy.


They were so cringy.

I mean, yeah.

And to Taylor’s point, you know, there is a lot of history to this kind of like negative political, you know, but throwing but these were so specific.

In terms of like, you know, we in the quote was we need to get the message out that while meta is the current punching bag Tick Tock is the real threat, especially as a foreign do nap.


That is number one, sharing data.

So it’s like, you know, it’s so over that they’re saying, like, you know, take meta out of the spotlight.

We don’t want to be pummeled anymore.

Let’s throw somebody else in front of in front of us.

The, the one that’s really stuck out to us.


I think was one where there were saying, let’s find.

You know, the worst most egregious Tick-Tock Trends in your Market.

Our Dream would be to get stories with headlines like from dances to Danger, how Tick-Tock has become the most harmful social media space for kids.

And it’s just like that just jumps off the email because from dances to danger is such a, it’s like such a ludicrous thing to look for.


And it’s also such a good representation of like they were looking for the, the, the most salacious just most totally out there thing that they could, they could pin on Tick Tock just to get themselves.

Like, up in the market.

I thought it was so interesting the way that you uncovered Facebook and this marketing firm, essentially astroturfing letters to the editor around the country.


Like, when I think of letters to the editor, I think of those as being among the more organic representations of ordinary people’s concerns, right?

Like they take time out of their busy day to craft paragraphs, and send it to their local newspaper and Facebook and targeted Victory, I think.


Noted that they noted, my assumption that this looks really organic.

And so they placed letters in the Denver Post and the Des Moines Register trying to raising concerns about fears, about Tick-Tock from dances to Danger, as you summed it up.


So let’s talk about some of the dangers that Facebook wanted to elevate about Tick-Tock, targeted Victory.

Try to drum up - Tick-Tock coverage in part by using a Google doc that you guys and covered with the title bad tick-tock.

Clips and it included among other things.


A trend known as the devious licks Challenge on Tick, Tock Taylor.

Tell me a little bit about devious licks.

And what people were trying to say about Tick-Tock by referring to devious licks.


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 Facebook police officer meme guy or something he had Posted, you know, a screenshot of alleged Tick-Tock trends that went so viral within parenting groups and concerned, you know, police departments and stuff.


School districts that actually they shut down schools in certain districts because of these Trends first.

For, you know, children were missing education for several days because they were scared of these alleged Tik-Tok Trends, which consisted of like we said, slapping a teacher thrashing, school property, bringing a gun to school, you know, these are not legitimate Trends, but once Go viral enough.


It’s a little bit like the tide pod thing, right?

Once something goes viral and off or allege challenge goes viral enough.

People will do it, ironically for views.

And so that’s kind of where the harm comes in as well.

Like, you know, slap a teacher challenge, that’s not real devious licks.

We saw actually kind of people engaging in that stuff because it was so viral on Facebook, just be clear you to devious licks is, is kids acting out in school, and it’s them, like, whatever taking letters off of like School signs.


Taking my size.

I think, right?


So devious Lex 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 that targeted Victory and Facebook were trying to say we’re spreading on Tick Tock, but in reality, they were totally overblown.


They like these.

These things didn’t weren’t actually happening at, nearly the scale that that targeted victory in.

Facebook representing, exactly.

I mean some of them were completely non-existent some of the trends that they were reporting to support, right?

Like didn’t exist devious likes, 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 outraged about devious licks.


Not the, you know, challenge itself, right?

And true.

What I thought was so interesting and this was in your piece, but also definitely highlighted in the reaction to your peas.

Is this enormous irony.

That Facebook is accusing Tick-Tock of spreading harmful memes that may very well have started on Facebook rather than Tick Tock.


There was one report in Insider that cat that came to the conclusion that slap a teacher.

That Tick-Tock challenge or Foe.

Tick-Tock challenge was actually, first documented on Facebook.

It started on Facebook.

There was another investigation by Anna Foley, at the podcast Network gimlet.


The found that the rumors of this devious licks thing that Taylor died.

Talking about that also seem to have started on Facebook.

So the trend here seems to be part one, a fake teen Mayhem Trend starts on Facebook and then part two Facebook pays this PR firm to convince people that the trend actually started on Tick Tock like it’s unbelievably twisted and weird.


Yeah, and it just shows how silly at all is because it’s like, you know, Pepsi dinging Coke for selling soda.

It’s like me both do the same thing.

Like and it just goes, you know, 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 acting like this is, you know, causing the teens to go wild and we can pray on that.

But it just it, you know, when you see how a lot of this stuff arose, you realize like this is just a function of the internet.

This is the stuff that people Been shouting at Facebook for four years.


And so for Facebook to turn around and use that as their own kind of ammunition, it really just in my, in our minds.

Like, it kind of, was just such a symbol of how afraid meta is of tick-tock, how worried they are about losing that cloud, losing that audience, that they’ll go to this totally desperate Playbook of dinging, you know, social media dinging a platform that young people use when really Facebook, Would it would kill to have what Tick-Tock has right now would kill to have that kind of Leverage and and mind Sharin attention that Tick-Tock has gained over the years.


Yeah, and it’s important to say here.

You know.

Tick-Tock isn’t like Cub Scouts.

Tick-Tock has its own, which Huns Tick-Tock has its own bad memes and problems in many ways.

As you said It suffers from the same maladies is Facebook, but meta has no choice here except to sort of try to lay waste to the very territory and hopes to conquer, right?


Look how bad social media is.

We’re also social media company.

The metaphor that I had thought of before Pepsi Coke is kind of like it’s like cores doing ads about how drinking too much Bud.

Light can lead to unsafe driving except the advertisements only use examples of cores, consumers, drinking too much, right?


Because all these things actually started on Facebook, rather a Time Tick Tock, which is just so unbelievably ironic.

So we have to talk here about art, if this is so stupid, if it is so self-defeating, if it is so much self-sabotage.

Why is Facebook doing it?

What is Facebook’s motivation here?



Why don’t you take that?

What’s Facebook’s motivation?

Well, I mean, I think that they are Mark Zuckerberg has shown that he’s willing to do anything to really squash the competition.

And I think that this is just also showing that they’re willing to engage in these kind of dirty tricks, I guess and slimy PR stuff.


I mean the irony is that they’ve you know made Tick-Tock like with all this story coming out they’ve kind of made Tick-Tock seem like the victim when Tick Tock is actually on top and ascendant and That’s what Facebook is.

So threatened.

By, is that relevance that it has among young users?


I mean Facebook just recently lost users.

I think for the first time ever.

So they’re definitely kind of getting nervous.

Yeah, it seems like if you put a lot of things together, Facebook isn’t a really really tough spot.

They are losing users.

Their profit is being dinged by among other things changes to iPhone privacy Tick-Tock, as you mentioned, is eating their lunch in terms of new user acquisition.


And they’re pivoting to this strategy.

The metaverse that’s like 10 years out.

So they’re trying to escape from this island that sinking into the sea, but the landmass that they are trying to build the bridge to that bridge is going to take 10 years to build.

So that, like, what can we do in the meantime, we can try to it seems to me, get the government to come to our side and attack Tick-Tock Drew.


Do you see that as somewhat?

The strategy here is to enlist the government, which is in the Present-day against Facebook, right?

With their sort of antitrust regulations, making it hard to Facebook to acquire new businesses.

They’re saying, let’s take the government and use it to hurt our competitors Tick Tock.


Is that part of the motivation?

Yeah, I think that’s it.

And, you know, part of it is to that a lot of people on Facebook feel like they get too much scrutiny.

They feel besieged.

They feel like, you know, we have been in the hot PC for so long and they have, you know, it’s been since 2016 really that there’s been this huge.


Each conversation of we need better regulation.

We do have questions about this information or privacy or what have you so they feel like, you know, we’ve been tarnished with this for so long.

Now, there’s this up-and-comer that hasn’t really dealt with any of this.

Maybe we can use that against them.


I think that’s got to be part of it.

So, I want to do a pivot here.

That might catch some listeners by surprise.

I want to scrutinize Tick-Tock because I don’t think it’s correct that Facebook is grimy and old and bad.


And Tick-Tock is fun and new and totally perfect.

I think the tick tock is problems.

It has problems that are endemic to social media like witch hunts, but it also has a very unique ownership structure and relationship with the Chinese government.


So true tell me about tick-tocks ownership structure, and why, unlike slapping teachers.

This might be a reasonable place.

To worry about Tic-Tac.


So the basic part of it is that Tick-Tock is owned by a company.

B dance that’s based in Beijing.


It’s a Chinese company.

We’ve never really had a an internet Juggernaut that has become big in the west before Tick-Tock and that is problematic.

Because we know a lot about how companies have to work inside China to remain a company.


Inside China.

You have to follow some rules.

I’m really strict guidelines run by the Chinese Communist party.

You have to give up some data that Western companies would never be asked to give up.

And so there’s a big tension there because you have this extremely interesting cultural product.


In Tick-Tock.

You have so many creative people using it as this new platform, and it’s a good platform, right?

There’s, there’s a lot of people who love the algorithm.

They The content that and yet, there are some really legitimate questions over.

How are, you know, Americans data going to be protected when it’s going to a company whose developers are based in Beijing who have to abide by certain, you know, rules set by China, you know, we’ve always kind of taken for granted that a lot of the social media companies we have used were made in the good old USA, right?


There’s been that kind of Of assumption of freedom of speech.

Even if it’s not always the reality, but now we’re kind of having to realize what it’s like to have a real Global product or real product, that comes from a place where the rules are very different to us.

And now I have to say, you know, to step back and say Tick-Tock knows all of this.


They and they have said, you know, we’re taking all of these steps to distinguish, you know, Tick Tock, USA from from B.

Dance, B dance, actually runs a tick tock in China, called Diane that has, you know, Some be a separate kind of infrastructure, separate data privacy rules.


And yet these are, these are real questions.

And these have been questions for several years.

There’s been questions of, you know, where they censoring the Hong Kong.

Protests on Tick-Tock, you know how, our Chinese government rules around censorship and and suppression of topics that the Chinese government doesn’t want to see.


How are those playing into how they, how the algorithm runs?


I just think we should be careful to just to note like a lot of these are questions and we Don’t have the answers yet.

Say more about that.

Well, I think like, I mean, this is what’s so Insidious about this Facebook campaign is like, these are really legitimate questions that deserve more reporting like Drew’s noting.


We’ve never had a Chinese Tech.

Conglomerate have such cultural stronghold but there’s no smoking gun.

So it’s really hard for lawmakers, or people sort of interested in regulating the stuff to, kind of point to something.

Like, hey, look, we’ve been able to do this and Tick-Tock has gotten out of this, by sort of, you know, Sharing their data, their data centers, you know, and sort of like setting up these structures that they claim protect us data, but I think without that without that proof, it’s just hard and there’s lots of speculation and so it’s very easy to kind of inflamed that that you know, that space I guess.



Taylor, let me ask you about this.

I have heard two different categories of concern about Tick-Tock, the Privacy concern and the disinformation concern.

The privacy concerns says, oh Tick-Tock is owned by B dance bike, dance.

Minority owner, Chinese Communist party.

What if American teen data is shared with the Chinese Communist party, that would be bad.


It’s the Privacy concern.

That is disinformation concern.

What if in a top-down kind of way?

Shina, once certain kind of message has to be Amplified to go viral on Tick-Tock, couldn’t they, theoretically in the future make that happen in such a way that American teenagers would be Downstream of a propaganda effort, instigated by RG.


Political foe, China, which of these concerns strikes.

You as the most important, the Privacy concern or the disinformation concern.

I wrote a bunch about this around the tick, tock ban actually, and it’s very much in.


These are tech companies interest to say.

Oh, look at look at Tick-Tock.

They’re the bad data privacy guys, right?

Like they and yes, there are serious concerns there.

But also, we have huge data, privacy issues with Facebook and other American.


So I think, you know, by painting Tick Tock as the bad guy American, you know, Tech conglomerates are escaping widespread data privacy rules, which I think we should just be put us in a stronger position, undeniably across the board.


The misinformation.

Like you said, Derek I think is really important and overlooked.

I think people think of it, more of this top-down thing of ooh, China’s spreading, you know, propaganda, that’s not really how things play out.

As we know with Facebook to it’s actually it’s much more organic.


I would say users on Tick Tock have almost zero media literacy.

I’ve never seen an app with such a it’s terrifying.

People will believe anything they see.

And it’s presented to them visually in this way.

That is just so much more visceral like and, you know, people follow influencers there as a content creator driven platform.


We know that people are more likely to trust influencers over, you know news organizations.

So I think it’s a huge problem and we’re already seeing I mean, we’re already seeing propaganda.

Run rampant on it.

It’s just more individual influencers that are susceptible to these views instigating those campaigns.


I Tick, Tock has sort of done certain things that they say to down rake it.

I would say there’s just no it is like Lord of the Flies on that app, you know, Twitter, there’s tons of media people and journalists and academics that can kind of squash rumors Facebook.

It’s obviously a huge, huge problem.


But also they’ve had such a spotlight on them, but they’re kind of there’s a level of transparency as well because it is American Tick-Tock.

There’s Everyone will believe everything single thing.

They see in every video and there’s no, like academic.

There’s no way to kind of like squash things are fact-checked things very well in real time.


So just, I mean, the Wayfarer rumor is a perfect example, if you guys remember that, you know, there was this rumor that children were being sex, trafficked on Wayfarer and because they were selling these large cabinets with women’s names that took off and I cannot tell you, I mean, there was videos with millions and millions and millions of views.


Were you even to this?

A on Tick Tock.

You cannot convince people that.

That was not true.


So you’re adding a third category of concern for Tick-Tock.

There’s number one, the Privacy concern number to the hypothetical propaganda concern.

And then number three, you can call it.

The old-fashioned social media concern, social media is generally a place where media literacy goes to die.



All these platforms are basically fun house mirrors and it’s what makes them enjoyable, but it’s also it makes them confounding when you rely on them.

For learning important truths about the world.

Is that misunderstanding of what?

Say no, definitely.

I mean, I think that’s it.

They do have controls.


They do have like, you know, they prevent misinformation around certain things.

If you’re posting anti-vaccine formation at theoretically should be taken down.

Of course, we know that these are never perfectly enforced, but I just think there’s something about the nature of the content that makes people and and the fact that the for you page is the primary way that people are consuming content.


You don’t have to opt into anything and when one of these conspiracies, go viral, it’s all over.

I mean, it will Just it reaches a level of the masses, that it would take weeks to reach on Facebook.


So Drew taking into consideration, both what you wrote, and what together.


It says.

It was here.

Just said, it seems like you guys are on a similar page here.

How would you clearly disentangle the wrong way to worry about Tick Tock?

And the right way to worry about Tick Tock here.

We’ll start with the wrong way, right?

Because that’s probably the easiest the wrong way is to commingle a lot of these very different issues into one.


A big scare tactic and that’s kind of what you, what you saw with Facebook, where they were mixing, a lot of dubious, you know, slap a teacher stuff that had no founding with some, you know, reasonable concerns, that we need more information on.

So, you know, I think we need some Nuance here.


The thing about Tick-Tock that people who don’t use tick, tock may not realize is so core to what is interesting about it.

And what the big paradigm shift is what I was just talking about before you page, right?

On other social media.


It’s all about who you’re following, you know, the personalities that you’re following you, you get a sense of I’m following the New York Times or the Washington Post.

So I’m going to get news.

I’m following, you know, this person.

So I’m going to tick tock is stream of Consciousness.

It is the for you page.


It’s it’s all based off this black box algorithm of stuff.

The platform thinks you’re going to like, based off what you’ve already shown you like by watching it.

So that can make it really, really interesting because it’s a bunch of stuff that you never would have thought to identify as something you’re interested in.


It makes it so much more Dynamic so much so much more creative.

But there’s also a lot of reasons for concern of that, right?

You have this system, that’s choosing information for you to.

Look at that.

You don’t really know why it’s being chosen for you.

And that goes to the big concern about, you know, the, the Chinese influence, right?


And this would this It would be an issue with wherever it was coming from one, big picture conclusion that I have from this is that in an ironic way.

The meta question that Facebook is asking, is kind of a good one.


Shouldn’t Tick Tock, the most popular web domain in the world have a certain amount of scrutiny when it is, essentially an algorithmic black box that has certain relationships with the Chinese Communist party, but Facebook is going about asking.

Those questions in like the creepiest possible.


Most hypocritical possible way.

Essentially doing the Bud, Light thing of accusing, cores of being a company that leads to drunk driving and using only examples of itself, tell, am I being unfair there and saying that the meta question that Facebook is asking is, is actually a reasonable one, but it’s the tactics that that are so bizarre and, and distasteful.




And it’s, it’s, it’s so hilarious because they’re kind of undermines.

Earning themselves by engaging in these assets.

And now they seem like, you know, now Tick-Tock seems like the victim at all this and it’s like, no guys.

We need to like you said, these are reasonable things to push Tick-Tock on but you’ve gone and created this entire nonsense distraction out of it.


I want to put my cards on the table here and give you my Tick.

Tock take, which fair warning is not exactly a pro Tick Tock.

Take I think Americans would be concerned if any large US based social media company, had an intimate relationship with one political party.


Like imagine if Snapchat were partially owned by the Republican National Committee.

I think would be like, that’s weird.

Not sure about that one.

I think that’s pretty bad.

Well, in the case of tick-tock and B dance, the minority owner is the Chinese government a One-party authoritarian State.


Like our geopolitical adversary has a relationship with a popular social media app.

Whose equivalent, we would feel icky about here in the US and that I think should make us critical and skeptical.

So Drew, how do we weigh?




Facebook’s creepiness here.

Facebook is poisoning, the well by conflating all of this with slap a teacher crap, like, you know, they They are taking what should be something that you know, Tick-Tock is Raising questions that are bipartisan, you know, there are ongoing Federal reviews of tick-tock and all of the questions you raised are like good ones.


Like there are their technical things.

We should know about Tick Tock and yet.

Now Facebook has not just undermine themselves and make themselves look like the bully yet.


They’ve also I think taking a lot of Air out of the balloon of these questions like they have made anybody who’s going to ask about these question whether they’re whether they’re there on the right side.


So yeah, I think it’s it’s all just really?

Yeah alarming.

And this is why you don’t do these kinds of smear campaign jump in Taylor.


Can I say one other thing too?

Is like, I mean, just two things really quickly.

One is that we should be asking questions of all of these companies like data privacy issues as we’ve seen with things like gdpr.


It’s like we need to question all of these companies American and foreign.

And I think we are, like you said, this is the first time that a foreign company has really gained for in social medias, gain relevant.

I think we’re learning what it’s like to not, really hold the reins, you know, for years Facebook has faced criticism, you know, in the global South replaces like Myanmar, right?


For not cracking down on certain things for, and I think now, we’re suddenly seeing when this big tech company comes in reshaping our culture and we don’t, we don’t, you know, we don’t hold the reins.


Slap a teacher fake.

The case for scrutinizing.


Tic Tac real.

Yes, inclusion.

I’m taking away for real Taylor Jew.

Thank you so, so much.

I appreciate it.

Thanks for having us.

Plain English with Derek, Thompson is produced by Devon.


If you like, what you hear, please follow rate and review us new episode, jobs on Tuesday.


Have a great weekend.