Despite being at the center of at least one massive antitrust probe while fielding regulatory pressure from right- and left-leaning pundits alike, Facebook’s spent the last few months doing a whole lot of nothing to tweak the monopolistic business practices that landed it in hot water with regulators in the first place. Instead, its strategy is (and has been) to point fingers at any passing distraction.
Case in point: earlier today, the Wall Street Journal reported that government officials—including the President—took a series of private meetings late last October with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Sources told the Journal that among the other topics on the agenda was the looming threat of “Chinese internet companies,” particularly TikTok. As these officials told the Journal, Zuckerberg’s talks weren’t just done in the name of national security, but to cover Facebook’s ass by painting these orgs as a bigger concern than, say, Facebook’s increasingly tight grip over the way we use the internet.
In the months since, TikTok found itself at the center of a national security review, a blanket ban across most federal devices, and most recently, an executive order demanding that the company’s Beijing-based parent company, Bytedance, completely divest itself from TikTok’s operations on US soil. TikTok’s since shot back at the administration with a lawsuit of its own, arguing that the claims in the original order about its ties to the Mainland were largely baseless (spoiler: they were).
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, retorted that any reports saying he tried stabbing TikTok in the back are equally bunk. Speaking with The Hill yesterday, the company’s policy communications director, Andy Stone, said that, sure, Mark might’ve called Chinese tech companies the biggest competitors to those in the West, with values that don’t align with “democratic ideals”—but he’s not to blame for lawmaker’s national security concerns.
“Mark has never advocated for a ban on TikTok,” Stone added.
Sadly, I wasn’t in those meetings, so I can’t confirm what he did or didn’t advocate for. But at a certain point it doesn’t matter. The Trump administration’s been stalwart in painting all of China as a threat, not only to our outsized role in the tech space, but also to our national security. Even if Zuckerberg didn’t wear a “BAN TIKTOK” t-shirt to these alleged meetings, all he would need to do is remind Trump that TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based conglomerate and wait for Trump to fill in the blanks himself—which wouldn’t be hard, considering the whole trade-war thing.
If this jingoistic song and dance sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s the same act Zuckerberg pulled during last month’s blockbuster antitrust hearing, during his 2019 screed at Georgetown University, and during his 2018 Senate hearing on Cambridge Analytica. It’s the lowest effort “look-over-there” distraction to lean on. But hey, it works—or at least it does with the current administration.
Again, I wasn’t in the room, but I have a hunch about a certain topic that didn’t make these meetings: Zuckerberg’s own ties to China. As I broke down last month, Facebook actually has dozens of incredibly lucrative partnerships based in the Mainland—lucrative enough that, over the years, Facebook’s turned the region into its second largest market for digital ads. And because Facebook’s multi-billion dollar empire is almost entirely built off of digital ads, that means the company has a considerable stake in China, no matter what its CEO says to Donald Trump, Tom Cotton, or Chuck Schumer.
Or, to put it bluntly: if these meetings happened the way the Journal is laying them out, then even if Zuckerberg isn’t guilty of calling TikTok a threat to our security, he’s very guilty of being a weasel. A weasel who isn’t afraid to cuddle up to an administration he’s ostensibly critical of, and offer up any other company, foreign or domestic, as a distraction to take the heat of antitrust scrutiny.
There’s just about three months left until the 2020 election, and I don’t doubt that Zuckerberg and his crew will continue to throw down the massive lobbying coin that they have thus far, and will keep on rallying that a win for Facebook is a win that’s synonymous with American values and American interests. I just hope that lawmakers can look past the faux-patriotism and see that a win for Facebook is only that and nothing more.