A confidential memo from a top TikTok lawyer urges the company to fight the “relentless onslaught of false and misleading narratives” about TikTok that the counsel claims are being pushed, in part, by journalists.
A top TikTok lawyer has warned employees that the media is part of a disinformation war being waged against the company, according to an internal document obtained by Forbes.
The memo, which appears to be from this year and is marked “Privileged and Confidential,” outlines how the company should respond to “anti-TikTok disinformation” and “anti-TikTok narratives” that the attorney claims are being perpetuated in part by news organizations.
“TikTok is experiencing an unprecedented negative media cycle that is substantially harming our corporate brand and reputation,” the document starts, describing the company as being “under the pressure of this tremendous and relentless onslaught of false and misleading narratives.”
“The current media cycle is at least partially the result of a disinformation campaign (or attack), and as such, should be understood to be an enterprise security challenge that needs to be addressed by a dedicated Cognitive Security function that is charged with identifying, mitigating and disrupting disinformation campaigns and attacks against TikTok,” the document says, using italics for emphasis.
The lawyer defines disinformation as “the intentional promotion of false, misleading, or misattributed information with the goal of influencing the beliefs or actions of a large group of people,” according to the memo.
The lawyer calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach to fighting “the spread” of these narratives, urging TikTok to stand up a team focused on “minimizing the harm caused by disinformation, influence operations and other attempts to manipulate the beliefs of people and communities.” (They describe this as “social engineering at scale.”)
The team would “drive external statements, policy positions and media/regulatory responses that address false narratives and promote trust and credibility for the TikTok brand,” they say. It would also create a "‘fact-checking’ website” that “disproves frequent false statements and narratives” and shares information about TikTok’s data collection practices. They advise TikTok to hire outside counsel and threat intelligence experts “to give a formal intelligence report under legal privilege that presents a full analysis of Disinformation Campaigns and Attacks against TikTok, with recommended courses of action.”
“They're constantly spinning things in the news... constantly saying that information is false.”
After publication of this story, TikTok spokesperson Alex Haurek asked Forbes to update the company’s comment to the following: “Like most companies, we have teams that regularly evaluate threats to the business, and it's common for documents to be created without implementation. That was the case in this instance and it is simply false to suggest our efforts to correct the record and clarify facts with some media outlets were in any way guided by this draft document.” Asked to point Forbes to any examples of published media coverage that, as the lawyer behind the memo claims, have spread disinformation about TikTok, the company did not respond. The lawyer appears to have recently left TikTok. Longtime chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas also announced last week they were stepping down.
TikTok has been the target of influence campaigns in the past: One of its fiercest competitors, Meta, last year paid a major Republican consulting firm to undermine trust in and sour public opinion about TikTok, including by feeding stories to local and regional news outlets about the app’s alleged harms to children and national security risks. (This example was cited in the TikTok lawyer’s memo.) That, coupled with some lawmakers’ lackluster understanding of social media, has at times resulted in legislators publicly blaming TikTok for dangerous content and trends that may have originated on rival platforms or elsewhere. But the latter is misinformation, not false information spread deliberately—and journalists have often been responsible for bringing those incorrect statements to light.
But inferences that journalists are involved in pushing fake narratives about TikTok appear to be an escalation of its strategy to counter storm clouds over the company, which is staring down a potential ban in the United States over national security and user safety concerns. (They also appear to be different from an earlier PR strategy focused on downplaying TikTok’s ties to China.) And the kind of language used by the TikTok lawyer in this confidential memo is being used more broadly, and externally, as the company engages with the media and outside parties.
Last fall, after Forbes reported that TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, planned to use the app to surveil the locations of individual American citizens, the company forcefully denied the report—putting out a statement that it “[lacked] both rigor and journalistic integrity”—only to admit two months later that ByteDance had, in fact, used TikTok to monitor the physical location of Forbes journalists.
And just last month, TikTok publicly denounced a Wall Street Journal report as “wrong” and “misleading,” while internally blasting a New York Times report as riddled with inaccuracies. A recent company document obtained by Forbes, dated May 25, advised employees on how to speak to “key external partners” about that story, stating that details in the report (including claims from TikTok staff) “do not accurately depict how we handle protected U.S. user data” and that “our teams have already corrected some inaccuracies in the piece.”
“They're constantly spinning things in the news... constantly saying that information is false, and that's not what we do or practice,” a current TikTok employee in Texas told Forbes.
“This is... a form of PR in its own right—of making people think that every time they see a piece of information that is negative about TikTok that it must be disinformation.”
Disinformation expert Claire Wardle, whose research from the nonprofit she cofounded, First Draft, is cited in the memo from the recently-departed TikTok lawyer, reviewed the document and called the language about the media “exceptionally dangerous.”
“My frustration with this is that there's a collapse, I think, of content that is just harmful to the company reputationally—which is very distinct from somebody knowingly creating and sharing false information designed to cause harm for the company,” she told Forbes.
“This, to me, feels like an attempt to undermine,” she said. “This is, I would argue, a form of PR in its own right—of making people think that every time they see a piece of information that is negative about TikTok that it must be disinformation.”
“My fear,” she added, is that “in the same way… politicians have said to journalists, 'You are fake news,' it's a way of discrediting the source.”
Got a tip about TikTok or ByteDance? Reach out securely to the author, Alexandra S. Levine, on Signal/WhatsApp at (310) 526–1242, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most major social media platforms have been breeding grounds for disinformation, and TikTok is no exception. (It has deployed significant resources to fight disinformation on the app.) But the reverse narrative—that TikTok has become the victim of “unprecedented corporate disinformation”—is a newer tack. It’s also one that has been amplified by China, which earlier this year accused the U.S. of spreading disinformation about TikTok. The company would not say what “anti-TikTok disinformation” campaigns the author of the memo was referring to, or who, specifically, TikTok thinks is behind them.
The memo calls for a TikTok team expressly dedicated to fighting disinformation to build relationships with outside organizations that can help it “correct false narratives.” Finally, the document advises TikTok to position itself as a thought leader in this space—including by launching a campaign highlighting “the economic losses and harm caused” by “Corporate Disinformation Attacks” and holding a summit to share its experiences firsthand. TikTok would not say whether any of the recommendations outlined in the memo have been adopted.
"What's frustrating,” added Wardle, the disinformation expert, is that “TikTok partners with fact checkers. [And] if they went to fact-checkers and said, ‘Is this example of this Forbes article disinformation?’ The fact checkers would say no.”
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