Teen Vogue deleted a glowing, 2,000-word-plus article touting Facebook’s efforts to fight online disinformation during the 2020 elections from its website on Wednesday after it became incredibly obvious that it was sponsored content, not a reported piece of journalism. In response, Teen Vogue and Facebook gave a bewildering series of excuses to reporters, even as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was busy praising the sponsored essay.
The article, titled “How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election” and composed primarily of uncritical softball interviews with five female Facebook executives, originally ran without a byline. It almost instantaneously drew suspicion from social media users and reporters that it was barely varnished sponsored content paid for by Facebook and passed off as journalism. (If you’re confused as to why this appeared on Teen Vogue at all, the magazine has published political coverage for years.)
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.
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) January 8, 2020
It has come to my attention that my Teen Vogue article on “Why Facebook Is A Shining Beacon of Hope For Democracy” did not disclose that Facebook funds my work. Apologies for this minor oversight.
— Prof. Jeff Jarviss (@ProfJeffJarviss) January 8, 2020
After the article was published, Teen Vogue briefly updated the article to read “Editor’s note: This is sponsored editorial content.” At some point, the article was also modified to include a byline crediting a Teen Vogue contributor; that writer told Mashable she wasn’t involved in the article’s production and was confused as to why her name appeared on it.
Facebook insisted to Business Insider that the article was “purely editorial,” not sponsored content, and that it had “pitched this to Teen Vogue and worked with their team on the piece over the past few months.” (BI noted that fielding pitches from companies on stories is not in and of itself a violation of journalistic ethics, but it can quickly become a form of ethically dubious access journalism.) Then the “editor’s note” disappeared, meaning it was back on the page without a sponsored content disclosure. At some point after that Teen Vogue deleted the article entirely, with the link leading readers to a page that said “Uh-Oh / Unfortunately this page does not exist.”
In a deleted tweet sent around 12:30 p.m., someone using the Teen Vogue account responded to a question about what the hell was happening with “literally idk”.
— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) January 8, 2020
Facebook then admitted to the Washington Post that it had a “paid partnership” with Teen Vogue publisher Condé Nast that “included sponsored content,” adding that “Our team understood this story was purely editorial, but there was a misunderstanding.” A spokesperson for Teen Vogue’s publisher, Condé Nast, told the Post that they had “made a series of errors labelling this piece [and] apologise for any confusion this may have caused.” That Condé Nast PR person added, “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.”
Meanwhile, a source at the publisher told the New York Times that the article had indeed been “commissioned as sponsored content, meaning it was an ad.”
Shortly before this all began to spiral out of control, Sandberg posted the article to her Facebook page accompanied by the caption “Great Teen Vogue piece about five incredible women protecting elections on Facebook.” She added the article showed how Facebook had committed to “stop the spread of misinformation” and “fight foreign interference and voter suppression.”
Sandberg did not mention that the piece was sponsored content paid for by her own company. She later quietly deleted the post.
Hmm. This sure is a lot of Facebook-generated disinformation surrounding an article in which Facebook assured us they are working very hard to deal with disinformation. We should totally give them the benefit of the doubt, right?
Run back Facebook did today.
They bought a story in a publication, pretended it wasn’t sponsored, their COO posted it, then when they got caught, they denied knowing anything about it.
And what was that ad/story about?
Their commitment to stopping disinformation.
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) January 9, 2020
Sheryl Sandberg shares an ad they paid for by painting it as a Teen Vogue article, and that Teen Vogue had to delete anyway because the whole thing was a mess https://t.co/zpU9uRX7Sx
— Gene Park (@GenePark) January 8, 2020
In the deleted Teen Vogue article, Facebook product misinformation division manager Antonia Woodford said one of the ways the company was combating misinformation was implementing “a policy for ads about social issues, elections and politics, which requires advertisers use their real identities and demonstrate residence in the U.S.”
“Before posting an ad that could influence public opinion around elections, advertisers submit an identity document to confirm that they are who they say they are,” Sara Schiff, a product manager in Facebook’s business integrity division, added. “There’s no place for anonymous political advertising on Facebook… We learned a lot from the 2016 election, so with political or election ads that could influence public opinion advertisers have to take additional steps now and be held more accountable.”
Scintillating stuff, really.