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Analysis | Trump got one thing right: Banning TikTok would help Meta (and Google)

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Former president Donald Trump is perhaps not the most credible critic of a potential TikTok ban, given that he tried to ban the app himself while in office before coming out against the bill that President Biden signed into law today. But amid a barrage of conspiratorial nonsense, unproven claims and insults as he criticizes the measure, Trump has hit on a kernel of truth: The most immediate winner from a ban would most likely be Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta.

The prospect of a TikTok ban has loomed for years, but it’s closer to reality than ever now that Biden has signed a bill giving its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, nine months to sell the app or see it banned in the United States. It’s still not a sure thing, as China has signaled it will block a sale, and TikTok has vowed to challenge the law in court.

While the bill’s stated aim is to protect Americans from Chinese spying and influence via the popular social media app, it’s true that there’s another group that stands to benefit: the U.S. tech companies that have been struggling to compete with TikTok. Those include Meta, Google and, to a lesser extent, Snap and Amazon.

For Meta in particular, the bill could accomplish what Mark Zuckerberg and his company for years have been unable to do: neutralize the biggest and most stubborn competitor they’ve ever faced.

Since it toppled Myspace 15 years ago, Meta — formerly Facebook — has solidified its hold on social media through a playbook that includes shrewd acquisitions, copycat products and strategic pivots. It bought Instagram and WhatsApp, neutralized Snapchat by copying its signature Stories feature and recently took on X by launching Threads.

But the playbook didn’t work against TikTok. Facebook reportedly tried to buy its predecessor, the Chinese lip-syncing app Musical.ly, in 2016, but ByteDance ended up acquiring it instead. So in 2020, Facebook launched Reels, a short-video app with a format and content nearly identical to TikTok’s. Though Reels has grown steadily, thanks in part to its aggressive integration with Instagram, TikTok has maintained its hold on teens while making inroads with adults.

In 2022, after Meta’s flagship Facebook app lost users for the first time, the company overhauled it to be more like TikTok.

Struggling to fend off TikTok in the marketplace, Facebook tried another tack: demonizing it.

Zuckerberg took aim at TikTok in a 2019 speech at Georgetown University. “While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the U.S.,” he said. “Is that the internet we want?”

In 2022, The Washington Post reported that Facebook had been quietly paying a major Republican consulting firm, Targeted Victory, to push local news stories and op-eds that painted TikTok as a danger to kids and society. Those included stories about dangerous viral TikTok trends, many of which turned out to be overblown or to have also spread on Facebook. Still, the narratives caught on with lawmakers, who raised them in congressional hearings.

And last year, when the Federal Trade Commission announced plans to bar Meta from monetizing the personal data of minors, the company blasted the agency for “allowing Chinese companies, like TikTok, to operate without constraint on American soil.”

To be fair, there may be valid concerns about TikTok, many of which The Post has reported on over the years. Still, Meta’s scare tactics against a rival were out of the ordinary in Silicon Valley, where companies usually try to crush each other in business rather than in politics.

Whether those tactics played a role in building support for a ban is unclear. The company has not taken a public stance on the bill that passed Tuesday night, and Meta spokesman Andy Stone said on Tuesday that the company did not lobby on the bill.

But Meta stands ready to reap the rewards if TikTok disappears. And it won’t be the only beneficiary.

Months after Meta launched Reels, Google’s YouTube debuted its own short-form video feature, YouTube Shorts. While Google has not gone after TikTok the way Meta has, neither has it stood up for the company. And it stands to gain nearly as much as Meta if TikTok is taken out of commission.

The industry analyst eMarketer predicts that Meta could capture an estimated 22.5 to 27.5 percent of TikTok’s U.S. ad revenue, bolstering the company’s bottom line by more than $2 billion in 2025. It envisions Google capturing more like 15 to 20 percent.

“Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts is where most TikTok users would migrate to,” said Jasmine Enberg, eMarketer’s principal social media analyst. While neither is a perfect replacement for TikTok, “they’re the most natural fit” for both users and advertisers seeking an alternative for short videos.

That’s what happened when India banned TikTok.

“When TikTok was banned in India, creators moved to Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of Global Business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “Of course, they had to rebuild their audiences and some of the appealing features of TikTok were lost, but life moved on. Meta and Google were the beneficiaries — their products served as good-enough alternatives. You can expect the same in the U.S., until a clever disruptive entrant emerges.”

Enberg of eMarketer said a few other U.S. tech firms could also see gains. While Snapchat’s short-video feature, Spotlight, hasn’t taken off, it’s a leading competitor for teens’ attention. And Amazon might “breathe a sigh of relief should TikTok Shop disappear,” she added, as the e-commerce giant has struggled to respond to the trend of “serendipitous, social shopping.”

There could also be implications for online search and the businesses that rely on it for advertising, noted Damian Rollison, director of market insights for the marketing platform SOCi. He said the company’s analysis finds that TikTok and Instagram have recently surpassed Google as the go-to sites for young people searching for businesses online.

After years of congressional grillings and grandstanding aimed at tech giants, it’s striking that the U.S. government’s first major legislative crackdown on social media is essentially a gift to domestic Big Tech.

Ironically, the move comes at the same time that the Biden administration is suing Meta, Google, Amazon and Apple for monopolization of their respective markets. Meta in particular has defended itself by pointing out the competition it faces from TikTok.

Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit Fight for the Future, argues that Congress’s efforts would have been better directed toward privacy and antitrust laws rather than a bill that targets a single company.

“Banning TikTok without passing real tech regulation will just further entrench monopolies like Meta and Google, without doing anything to protect Americans from data harvesting or government propaganda,” Greer said.

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