Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Teen Vogue Publishes, Then Pulls, an Uncritical Interview With Facebook’s Election Security Team

Teen Vogue today ran an un-bylined article about Facebook’s election security efforts. Here’s the lede:

As the 2020 campaign gains speed, Facebook is taking measures to protect against foreign interference and stop the spread of misinformation. Social media is a fertile space for civic participation, and Facebook is at the forefront of encouraging civil discourse. But with the company’s huge platform comes huge responsibility.

Five women across Facebook and Instagram — Katie Harbath, Sarah Schiff, Monica Lee, Antonia Woodford, and Crystal Patterson — are key to ensuring the integrity of the 2020 election on Facebook. Behind the scenes, these women have helped overhaul the company’s approach to protecting elections, creating a new ad library to ensure transparency and partnering with over 55 third party fact-checking organizations. With just under a year until the election, Teen Vogue spoke with Facebook to learn more about what they’ve been up to.

This looks like a regular Teen Vogue article. On the homepage, it’s indistinguishable from older and newer pieces, aside from its lack of byline. For all intents and purposes, it is a Teen Vogue article — until you read it.

Ryan Broderick:

Publishing this sort of uncritical corporate propaganda is especially noxious on a website like Teen Vogue.

The website’s demographic doesn’t remember in a world without Facebook.

To frame this as a fun guide to election integrity is shameful.

Sophie Kleeman:

It is egregiously bad to omit a byline on pretty much any story, let alone a puff piece like this! What is happening!

No credit on these very PR-friendly photos, either. Curious!

It’s stranger than that: all of the photos in the article are screenshots, carrying file names like Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 3.21.21 PM.png. Setting aside how unwise it is to present photographs as PNG files — they’re all well over 2 MB — the only time I’ve seen this technique used is to mask the source of the photograph, so no Exif data is retained from the camera or photographer. I’m not claiming that’s the reason Teen Vogue decided to screenshot these pictures instead of uploading the originals, but why wouldn’t they publish photographs as photographs?

Max Tani, about an hour after the article’s publication:

This piece was just updated with an editor’s note saying it’s “sponsored editorial content.”

Cecilia Kang, half an hour later:

Wait wait wait. The sponsored label is gone and I”m hearing from FB is it not sponsored content. WTF is happening?

About half an hour after that, the article or advertisement was pulled. If you’re curious, I’ve uploaded a copy to Dropbox.

If this was an example of native advertising, why wasn’t it initially and clearly identified as such? Why was it so easy to confuse it with an article? If it was just a regular article, why wasn’t it bylined? Why was it so easy too confused with an ad?

Update: Before it was deleted, Sheryl Sandberg shared this ad that’s definitely not an ad.

Update: Peter Kafka:

Newest in teenvoguegate: Facebook sponcon *was* supposed to be sponcon: “We had a paid partnership with Teen Vogue related to their women’s summit, which included sponsored content. Our team understood this story was purely editorial, but there was a misunderstanding.” – FB spox

How to parse that, per source: FB piece was supposed to be sponcon, tied to Facebook sponsorship of a Teen Vogue event last fall. Then, supposedly, FB decides they don’t want/need the sponcon after all.

But! Sponcon was created anyway, and was floating around the Teen Vogue CMS, and then…

And then it was published, tweeted about by Facebook, shared by Sandberg on Facebook, and was somehow labelled with a contributor’s name who has since stressed that she did not write the piece.

Condé Nast, which publishes Teen Vogue, began using their editorial staff to write stuff like this about five years ago, rather than leaving it up to their ad teams. This seems like a predictable consequence.