Today Facebook appeared at a Congressional hearing
about synthetic and manipulated media, and so it was only fitting that the day was consumed by confusion over whether the company had placed a flattering article in Teen Vogue
to manipulate the media.
“How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election,” a 2,000-word question-and-answer session with five women working at Facebook to protect it from election interference, appeared this morning on the website of Condé Nast’s popular portal for young people. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called it a “great piece
Unusually for an American publication, the article appeared without a byline. More unusually, after the article appeared and raised questions among some reporters, it was slapped with a “sponsored content” label. Then Teen Vogue removed the sponsored content label, and then Teen Vogue pulled the article from its website altogether.
Facebook initially insisted that the article had been an act of journalism
rather than sponsored content, and that the sponcon label had been applied by an overzealous copyeditor. Teen Vogue
’s only comment on the subject was a reply to a reader who, on Twitter, had asked “What is this?”, to which someone with the magazine’s Twitter credentials responded “literally idk.”
Then that tweet got deleted.
Hours later, The Daily Beast’s Max Tani got a statement from the magazine:
Teen Vogue statement: “We made a series of errors labeling this piece, and we apologize for any confusion this may have caused. We don’t take our audience’s trust for granted, and ultimately decided that the piece should be taken down entirely to avoid further confusion.”
Regrettably, the statement caused further confusion. (Condé Nast didn’t respond to my request for comment.)
On one hand, of course, all of this is very silly. Sponsored or not, the Teen Vogue piece didn’t break a lot of new ground on the old platforms-and-democracy beat. The world will survive this exchange having been scrubbed from the web:
Q: Why did encouraging voting become common practice of for-profit media platforms, particularly Facebook?
Facebook is about shared experiences, and the chance to use your voice. So is voting.
On the other, there are a few lessons to be drawn here.
One, Teen Vogue clearly did not hold up whatever its end of the bargain with Facebook had been. People would have rolled their eyes at a properly disclosed paid advertorial, but publications have survived worse.
Two, Facebook probably erred by commissioning sponsored content about platform integrity. The thing about your integrity efforts is that you want to promote them with, you know, integrity. Slipping them into online magazines as articles with a small-font disclosure that the thing was bought and paid for undermines the very credibility you were hoping to bolster. Especially if the magazine screws up and forgets to disclose!
The whole reason you run sponsored content is control: you script the questions and edit the answers to your liking. But sometimes what looks like control is only an illusion. Today Facebook learned that the hard way.