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Behind the Petition to "Ban TikTok": Zuckerberg's Game

Jul 21, 2020 by Li Cheng
Behind the Petition to "Ban TikTok": Zuckerberg's Game

Zuckerberg and Trump from The New York Times

On July 17, US President Donald Trump's Facebook and Instagram pages were flooded with political ads. Accusing TikTok of "spying" on its users, these ads urged American users to sign a petition to "ban TikTok" in the US, as well as encouraged participants to donate to Trump's campaign.

Trump's political ads are part of his re-election campaign. Meanwhile, content with tilted interest also shined a light on the stand of the ad placement platform — Facebook. If TikTok ends up banned in the US, the biggest winner will be no other than the founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.

In the past few years, TikTok emerged as one of the most popular apps around the world, threatening Facebook as the dominant player in the global social media industry. A strict government ban on TikTok, if implemented, will help Facebook quickly claw back its lost market share.

Growing signs have shown that Zuckerberg and Trump have, to some degree, founded an alliance on mutual interests. On the one hand, Zuckerberg hopes to relieve Facebook from the burden of censorship through lobbying and cement its position in the global market. On the other hand, Facebook and its ad placements could potentially help Trump ensure a presidential victory in November. Trump has already spent $44 million on Facebook ads for his 2016 campaign, and he is sure to outdo that by a long shot this year.

As of now, TikTok has become the new confluence of interests for Zuckerberg and Trump. This China-based app and the threats it's facing in the US have uncovered the intimate relationship between US technology companies and the White House, as well as the battle between global social media giants and emerging competitors.

Anti-TikTok ads posted by Trump on Facebook
Anti-TikTok ads posted by Trump on Facebook
Anti-TikTok ads posted by Trump on Facebook

Zuckerberg's private meeting with Trump

The connection between Zuckerberg and Trump began well before the latter's presidency.

According to The Washington Post, in 2015, Trump, the then–presidential nominee posted a video calling for a Muslim travel ban. The video triggered strong indignation from Facebook's senior executives due to its blatant discrimination against certain religion. However, Zuckerberg eventually decided to keep Trump's video, even going as far to change Facebook's regulations in the name of political expression to allow the existence of such content on the platform.

The man behind Zuckerberg's resolution was Facebook's vice president of global public policy Joel Kaplan, one of the few people who is thought to have an impact on Zuckerberg's decision-making. As a Republican, he used to serve as Deputy Director in the Bush administration. According to The New York Times, Kaplan's effort was essential in building close ties between Zuckerberg and Trump.

Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren once said in a Tweet that since Warren joined the company, Facebook has spent $71 million on lobbying, nearly 100 times more than before he was hired. Besides outpouring lobbying expense, Kaplan has been "flexing his DC rolodex to help Mark Zuckerberg wage a closed-door charm offensive with Republican lawmakers."

Aside from Kaplan, the other two senior executives at Facebook's Washington Office are also senior Republicans: Kevin Martin, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Bush administration and Katie Harbath, former chief digital strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and an avid supporter of Facebook's "Political Ads policies."

According to a 2019 report from The Guardian, Facebook is more "pro-Republican" in its policies and personnel, and these Republican executives are actively pushing the company to the right. The underlying concern is that the company could face a divestiture if the Democrats win this year.

In October 2019, Trump and Zuckerberg dined together in the White House with the presence of their mutual friend Peter Thiel. Thiel is one of Facebook's seven board members and the most important donor for Trump's campaign. Since Trump's 2016 victory, Palantir, the company headed by Thiel, has been secured the most contracts in government security.

The dinner was hosted in private, as was the second meeting between Trump and Zuckerberg. The first meeting took place at the Oval Office in September 2019, during which Trump tweeted a picture of him and Zuckerberg with the captions "nice meeting".

The public meeting between Zuckerberg and Trump
The public meeting between Zuckerberg and Trump
The public meeting between Zuckerberg and Trump

Some believed that Zuckerberg reached a certain deal with Trump. The New York Times speculated that Zuckerberg has established an uneasy alliance with the Trump administration, "[he] may have gotten too close."

Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee commented that the deal between Zuckerberg and Trump may not be explicit, but is "highly utilitarian", "[it's] basically about getting free rein and protection from regulation. Trump needs Facebook's thumb on the scale to win this election."

One week before the dinner, Zuckerberg has made clear in his speech at Georgetown University that Facebook's interest is consistent with the president's: he refuses to take more action against the president's misinformation or inflammatory remarks.

"I don't think it's right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy," said Zuckerberg, "[we] don't do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying."

Facebook's targeted attack against TikTok

During his Georgetown speech, Zuckerberg attacked TikTok, claiming that "on the Chinese app that is growing quickly around the world, mentions of protests are censored, even in the US."

Zuckerberg first proposed his Chinese enterprise threat theory during a congressional hearing in April 2014. He claimed that a divestiture would only allow Chinese Internet companies to grow stronger.

Zuckerberg's about-face came quite suddenly, given his high-profile visit to Beijing back in just 2016. In a bid to tap the China market, Zuckerberg did a morning run along Tiananmen Square, delivered a speech at the prestigious Tsinghua University, and presented himself as a "good son-in-law of the Chinese people" through his Chinese-American wife Priscilla Chan.

Zuckerberg on his morning run along Tiananmen Square
Zuckerberg on his morning run along Tiananmen Square
Zuckerberg on his morning run along Tiananmen Square

But as TikTok saw tremendous global success since 2018, Zuckerberg and Facebook became highly vigilant about this app launched by a China-based company.

According to Sensor Tower's 2019 list of Apps by Worldwide Downloads, 4 out of the top 5 highest-performing apps were Facebook-owned, with only No. 2 being conceded to TikTok. TikTok's ranking disrupted years of Facebook dominance on the list. Additionally, data from third-party platform YPulse indicates that TikTok has already surpassed Facebook-owned apps to become the favorite among America's younger generation.

2019 Apps by Worldwide Downloads
2019 Apps by Worldwide Downloads
2019 Apps by Worldwide Downloads

Facebook has traditionally resorted to acquiring or copying off its close competitors before ultimately outdoing them. In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, one of the then most popular App Store apps, in a $1 billion acquisition deal. It then acquired WhatsApp, the world's second largest messaging app at the time for a mammoth $19 billion in 2014. Two years later, Snapchat turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook, only for Instagram to duplicate Snapchat's core features that produced the phenomenal Instagram Stories. Consequently, Snapchat suffered 3 years of stagnation in user growth.

But acquisition or duplication, neither option seems to work on TikTok. In 2019, Facebook introduced its TikTok clone Lasso, but recently announced the app's shutdown after it struggled to gain traction. Against a seemingly unstoppable TikTok, Zuckerberg began politicizing the competition on top of its moves to dominate in market. The "Chinese enterprise threat theory" was borne from this very strategy which, in light of now, converges with the White House's interests.

In the past month, White House officials have been highly vocal in measures against TikTok. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 6 that the US was "looking at" banning TikTok for security reasons, followed by confirmation from President Trump. On July 16, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow stated his belief that TikTok will become a US company as CFIUS may force TikTok to restructure and operate independently from its parent company ByteDance. According to a report in the Financial Times on July 17, the US government may consider adding TikTok to the entity list. In response, James Lewis, technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) commented, "The administration has all the cards...TikTok can't resist."

An editorial published by Forbes in July pointed out that since 2018, Facebook has been working to replace TikTok. With the support of the White House, the company finally has the opportunity to realize that goal.

The US government's potential ban on TikTok will clear out a huge market for Facebook, and we've seen a similar scene playing out in India. On June 29, India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) banned 59 China-related apps, including TikTok. The sudden departure of TikTok which enjoys 200 million monthly active users in India has created an unprecedented gap in India's short video market. Within a week, Facebook rapidly filled the gap left by TikTok by launching the Reels feature in the India market.

Unlike the independent app TikTok, Reels, a feature within Instagram, shows that Facebook is going by its playbook again. Some believe that this attempt is not unlike Facebook plagiarizing off Snapchat a few years back. Up to now, the feature is only available in Brazil, France, Germany, and India. Facebook spokesperson confirmed last week that Reels will be available in the US at the beginning of August this year, which some consider to be Facebook's second targeted attack against TikTok.

If it was successful, Facebook will gain tens of millions of new users or double its screen time, rolling in billions of dollars in ad revenue. Perhaps only then can Zuckerberg finally put his concerns about TikTok's Chinese background to rest.

Li Cheng

Li Cheng is a reporter from PingWest. PingWest is one of the premier tech media companies in Greater China, with an audience spanning China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and beyond. Our work is to bring to light everything that matters in the tech world, from breaking news to longterm trends, and to open up channels for global entrepreneurs, investors, experts, and consumers to connect, communicate, and collaborate.

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