Instagram and Facebook Are Using Fears of a U.S. TikTok Ban to Poach Influencers

Instagram and Facebook Are Using Fears of a U.S. TikTok Ban to Poach Influencers

Meta and other social media firms chasing TikTok’s short-form video success are fanning the flames of ban rhetoric while simultaneously vying to boost the attractiveness of their own TikTok clones with new monetisation features. The goal? Steal away as many fearful TikTokers as possible.

Brewing fears of an impending TikTok ban could send some creators packing their digital bags and heading back to Instagram and Facebook, whether they like it or not. Digital marketing experts and content creators speaking with Gizmodo said a scenario where TikTok is made inaccessible in the US would result in diminished competition in the social media landscape broadly and a far less favourable environment for creators. It could also be a godsend for Meta and other companies racing to keep pace with TikTok’s meteoric ascent. Whether or not a national ban ever actually materialises is almost irrelevant; the fear is enough for their recruitment drive.

Some TikTok creators are already preparing for the worst. Montana-based metal worker and military veteran Rick Baker told Gizmodo he’s already made a habit of posting his TikTok videos over on Instagram later. An exodus away from TikTok would be an unwelcome departure for creators.

The many TikTok clones available simply don’t compare. Other creators, like Montana-based herbalist and cookbook writer Spencre McGowan, said she had no plans on returning to Meta-owned products in the wake of the ban, even if doing so would net her some additional ad revenue. McGowan said part of TikTok’s appeal, in the first place, was that it offered a healthier environment more supportive of creators. Going back to Meta would be a step in the wrong direction, she said.

“It feels like getting crumbs from Meta, and a slap in the face after the work creators put into the content that keeps these platforms running,” McGowan told Gizmodo. “I don’t think that people will switch to Reels — I know I won’t be.”

Ubiquitous Influencer campaign strategist Zach Fitch told Gizmodo the looming threat of a TikTok ban could make smaller creators getting started potentially think twice about investing their time and energy into Bytedance’s app. In that scenario, Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts start looking like a safer bet.

“Why would you focus your time onto something that might get banned when nothing else is even in question get banned,” said Fitch, who himself has over 500,000 followers on TikTok. “There’s a total opportunity [for Meta] if there’s a TikTok ban. It has been worrying creators.”

While most creators with larger followings already regularly re-post content across multiple platforms, the biggest blows from a ban would likely impact smaller creators who only invest in a single app. Big players, Fitch said, could likely survive a ban but could still take a hit. Many creators believe it’s more difficult to grow followings on Reels than TikTok, he added.

“The loss of TikTok would create a sort of cooldown on the creator front,” Eric Dahan, CEO of creator commerce service Mighty Joy, told Gizmodo in an interview. Dahan said TikTok’s hypothetical demise would negatively affect content creators because the platform in particular caters to them in ways that Instagram, YouTube, and others don’t. Dahan told Gizmodo he sees many users “hedging” across platforms in ways they did not several years ago, as Baker does by reposting his TikTok videos to Instagram.

TikTok’s simple, discovery-focused experience leads many users to eventually stumble their way into becoming creators without ever intending to, growing the overall size of the creator market in the process. If TikTok vanishes from American app stores, any of these power users will likely move over to Reels, Instagram’s growing TikTok clone, or YouTube shorts, Dahan said, but some others may simply fall off the digital map, leading to a shrinking of the overall creator pool. That’s a net negative for the creator economy as a whole, which was reportedly worth over $US104 billion in 2021.

Even for larger creators, moving an audience over to a competing platform isn’t as easy as turning a switch. In some cases, Fitch said, transferring followers to another app can feel like starting from scratch.

“It’s almost like building an entirely new audience unless you have very creative ways to move people over,” he said.

TikTok creators are worried about a ban

A full-on TikTok ban may have seemed out of the question only a few months ago (even though it seemed like Trump would for sure ban TikTok in 2020), but there are signs creators on the platform are taking the threat more seriously now. This week, sources speaking with The Wall Street Journal said TikTok decided to delay an expansion of its TikTok Shop live-streaming e-commerce tool partly because merchants and other creators are worried threats of a national ban could turn the platform into an inaccessible digital wasteland. TikTok told the Journal it disagreed with the assertion its TikTok Shop expansion was “delayed.” The company said it plans to expand its testing of the service as interest grows. The company did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

Despite its massive popularity among creators in the US, TikTok followers alone don’t translate into income the same way audiences on other social media platforms like Instagram do. 72% of creators surveyed in a recent report by market research firm NeoReach, for example, said Instagram was their primary platform for monetisation compared to 13% who cited TikTok as their number one platform. The real money for many high-profile TikTok creators, at least for now, comes via sponsorship deals or new traffic toward their real-world businesses. TikTok Shop would alter that dynamic by offering creators a space to sell and market content directly through their feeds. A national ban, however, could leave shoppers uneasy about buying goods or spending money on the app.

“Midtier creators are nervous because they just haven’t dealt with anything like this before,” Fitch said, referring to the threat of a ban.

Vivian Tu, a creator who quit her job on Wall Street to pursue financial TikTok content full-time, recently told CNBC she expects a “massive exodus” of creators flocking to Instagram and other apps if TikTok is banned. Others, like stuffed animal designer Emily Foster, say they are diversifying their content across other platforms. No app, Tu said, is currently capable of generating the same reach as TikTok. “That really doesn’t happen anywhere else,” she said.

Digital marketing experts are convinced Meta will win big from a ban. Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham, told CNBC. Meta and Snap specifically could be “huge beneficiaries” of a prohibition on TikTok. Even in a situation where the company’s US business is spun off and sold to an American company (which the Biden administration prefers), TikTok could become a weakened competitor.

More robust monetisation tools for short-form videos announced by Meta just this week could make an unenthusiastic switch to Reels easier to swallow.

Meta tries to reel in anxious TikTokers with an enticing new ad-sharing model

This week, Meta stepped on the gas in its effort to siphon off TikTok creators by announcing it’s expanding its “Ads on Reels” payout model, which rewards Facebook and Instagram creators based on the performance of their Reels. Meta says these payouts will be determined by the number of plays a Reel gets, though the company noted it may look at other factors moving forward. This simplified ad-sharing model, in theory, should encourage users to create reels that generate lots of views. Short-form videos, in other words, that look more like TikToks. Meta did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

“We’re learning through our tests that payouts tied to performance are better at balancing the needs of everyone,” Meta said in a blog post. Both Snapchat and YouTube are pursuing similar ad-sharing models for short-form video creators.

“They [Meta] are trying to tip the sales to incentivise people to spend more time creating good Reels,” Dahan said.

That tipping of the scales comes at a crucial moment for Meta. The company, once the undisputed juggernaut of social media, has struggled in recent years from self-inflicted wounds and a multifaceted attack on its business. A brief but expensive pivot to Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse cost the company more than $US10 ($14) billion in a single year. Apple’s App Tracking Transparency Privacy feature, which asks users whether or not they want to be tracked by apps like Facebook, cost the company another $US10 ($14) billion in annual lost revenues.

Amid all that turmoil, Reels stands out as a potential saving grace. The TikTok clone is already driving eyeballs back to Instagram and Facebook. Just last month, Zuckerberg said Reels was largely responsible for a massive 24% uptick in average time spent on Instagram. Dangling more money in front of creators as an incentive to switch could accelerate that growth even further.

Baker, the Montana-based TikToker, told Gizmodo he would consider making more videos on Instagram reels if the monetary incentives were good enough.

Still, for some, money is only part of the equation. Many of these creators don’t necessarily rake in large profits but instead, find comfort and security in a space of like-minded internet users. Baker, for example, previously told Gizmodo he and other veterans use the platform as a recovery space. Baker’s friends will call to check up on him if he hasn’t posted in a couple days. There’s no guarantee that the same community would withstand an exodus of creators over to another platform. Creators would have to try and formulaically regrow that tailored audience from scratch on a new platform using a different algorithm.

“I get the help I’m looking for by helping others,” Baker told Gizmodo. “The connection is inseparable.”

Some segments of Instagram users aren’t thrilled at the idea of their space morphing more and more into a TikTok clone either. Last year, a meme with the phrase, “Make Instagram Instagram Again,” went viral thanks in part to support from Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian who themselves slammed the photo-sharing app for “trying to be TikTok.”

If you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em

Dahan told Gizmodo’s that Meta’s news strategy of sharing ad revenues for reels looks an awful lot like Meta’s previous decision to copy and paste Snapchat’s Stories feature into Instagram. Facebook faced an existential threat from Snapchat at the time. In 2023, the existential threat is TikTok.

Even if the strategies are notably similar, Dahan said it isn’t clear whether Meta would see the same degree of long-term success with Reels as it has with Stories, which have eclipsed Snapchat entirely. Snapchat, at the time, suffered from a lack of user discovery on its platform, which made the Instagram clone an all-around better, easier option for many users. TikTok, by contrast, is renowned for its discovery and has internet virality baked into the product.

“Instagram and YouTube Really have to grapple with the fact that you have this really strong organically grown community in TikTok,” Dahan said. “So it’s not going to be as easy as just replicating it.”

The much simpler solution, for Meta as well as for other social networks, is if TikTok simply disappears. The app is already banned from federal employee devices and the devices of employees in around half of all states. Around half a dozen other bills seek to take that a step further and ban the app nationally on private devices. Last month, Montana’s legislature made history by passing a first-of-its-kind law banning the app in the state. It’s not just wacko lawmakers calling for bans either. Recent polling shows the general public increasingly appears split on TikTok’s fate.

The increasing possibility of a resurgent Instagram rising from the ashes of a banned TikTok has led some TikTok users to adopt an unfounded, but understandable theory: what if Meta was behind the ban all along?

Multiple TikTok creators have released videos in recent months attempting to tie Meta to the recent spurt of bills targeting TikTok. Many of those videos reference a March 2022 investigation from The Washington Post which revealed Meta paid a Republican consulting firm called Targeted Victory to place op-eds and letters in regional newspapers across the country with the goal of souring public opinion against TikTok. In some cases, these stories blamed the app for dangerous “trends” that actually originated on Facebook.

Publicly, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken a cautious approach when discussing TikTok. In a 2020 meeting with employees, he said government national security concerns surrounding the app were valid but said a wholesale ban would set a “really bad long-term precedent.” At the same tie, Zuckerberg has criticised TikTok for “censoring” protests. Meta punching bag and occasional attack dog Nick Clegg, by contrast, has spoken more bluntly. During a recent interview with Bloomberg, Clegg said Chinese-owned tech companies have “pretty profound differences in values,” compared to US competitors. It’s unfair, he complained, that TikTok gets to operate in the US while Facebook is banned in China.

“In the end, there’s always an underlying issue of values: What values are the underpinning of new technologies?” Clegg asked.

Dahan told Gizmodo he wouldn’t be surprised if Meta was engaged in some form of lobbying behind the scenes to support TikTok bans.

“They [competing social media platforms] all want that,” he said. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel admitted as much himself when asked about the possibility of a TikTok ban last month. “We’d love that,” he said.

It’s impossible to say how effective these efforts were but one thing is clear. The appetite for a TikTok ban in 2023 is much more prevalent than just one the year prior.

“I don’t think people realise nobody wants to run back to Meta,” Imani Barbarin, one of the TikTok creators attempting to link Meta to TikTok ban said, “Like people are not clamoring for Reels.”

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