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.)
In the grand conclusion to the day’s events, Facebook itself reversed course and revealed that … the sponcon was sponcon after all! “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.”
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.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending down: Researchers discovered serious security vulnerabilities in TikTok that would have allowed hackers to manipulate user data and reveal personal information. The company fixed the flaws less than a month after they were discovered.
⭐ Just three days after Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, the president’s reelection campaign began running hundreds of Facebook ads praising him for ordering the killing. As of Tuesday, Facebook had taken down a few dozen of the ads, some of which appeared to violate the site’s policy against using fake buttons in ads. Alex Kantrowitz at BuzzFeed has the story:
“Thanks to the swift actions of our Commander-in-Chief, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is no longer a threat to the United States, or to the world,’’ read one ad. “Take the Official Trump Military Survey TODAY to let me know what you think of my leadership as Commander-in-Chief.”
The survey, meant to collect contact information for future outreach, contained questions like “Do you stand by President Trump in his decision to take out the very dangerous Iranian terrorist leader, Qassem Soleimani?” At the end, it asks respondents for their name, zip code, email, and phone number. Those who provided their phone number, according to a footnote, consented to receive texts, automated calls, and phone calls from the president’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Trump’s threats against Iran on Twitter are the latest example of the president seemingly promoting violence, in violation of Twitter’s rules. The rules, notably, don’t apply to politicians unless they threaten individuals or incite hatred against particular nationalities, which is why Trump’s remarks have gone unpunished. (Emily Birnbaum / The Hill)
Twitter suspended an account impersonating a New York Post reporter after it sent out a series of fake stories promoting pro-Iranian regime propaganda and attacking adversaries of the Islamic Republic. (Adam Rawnsley / The Daily Beast)
Kuwait’s state news agency said its Twitter account was hacked and used to spread false information about US troops withdrawing from the country. It’s unclear who may be responsible for a hack. (Colin Lecher / The Verge)
How a misleading video of former vice president Joe Biden spread around the internet, from verified accounts on Twitter, to 4chan, Facebook and Reddit. (Nick Corasaniti / The New York Times)
One of the people who helped draft the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) wrote an op-ed about why the law might not be as effective as people think. Without proper enforcement, she says, the regulation is “largely toothless.” (Mary Stone Ross / Fast Company)
TikTok updated its content guidelines to spell out categories of videos that aren’t allowed on its platform. The new categories include videos that glorify terrorism, show illegal drug use, feature violent, graphic or dangerous content or seek to peddle misinformation that’s designed to deceive the public in an election. (Tony Romm and Drew Harwell / The Washington Post)
Amazon-owned home security camera company Ring fired employees for watching customer videos, according to a letter the company wrote to Senators. The news highlights a risk across many different tech companies: employees may abuse access granted as part of their jobs to look at customer data or information. (Joseph Cox / Vice)
⭐ Misinformation surrounding the new Star Wars movie shows how much power online communities now have to control the cultural conversation. Ryan Broderick at BuzzFeed explains:
The misinformation and anger inside the Star Wars fandom is what happens after decades of corporatization and anonymous decentralized networking. It is a glimpse of a future in which anxieties over the motives of the megacorporations that drive our culture — down to our very mythologies — set off conflicts between warring information tribes who inhabit their own artificial narratives. What began with small but vocal insurgent online communities like 4chan or the alt-right has now come for the mainstream.
Except there is no “mainstream” culture — just as there is no central Star Wars fandom anymore. Today, popular culture is just Gamergates of varying size.
Twitter announced that it’s going to allow users to limit replies directly from the compose screen. It’s part of a new setting called “conversation participants” that the company announced at CES. (Dieter Bohn / The Verge)
Paul Zimmer, a disgraced TikTok star who left social media nearly two years ago, is trying to reinvent himself online with an entirely new identity. Zimmer went dark in 2017 after fans accused him of soliciting gifts in exchange for shout outs that never actually materialized. (Sarah Manavis / The New Statesman)
Twitch hasn’t become the advertising powerhouse that Amazon hoped it would be. The steaming company brought in about $230 million in ad revenue in 2018, and was on track to bring in about $300 million last year, which was far short of an internal goal of between $500 million and $600 million that year. (Priya Anand / The Information)
On TikTok, LGBTQ youth role play as future President Pence’s conversion therapy campers. This Joseph Longo piece is honestly more nihilistic than funny, but if you like your comedy pitch-dark you might enjoy these incredibly charming queer youth.
These days, the coolest place to be on TikTok is a conversion-therapy camp run by Vice President Mike Pence. At Camp Pence, everything is free — from the electric full-body “massage chairs” to the signature bleach drinks. But most importantly, it’s invite-only. Because to get into Camp Pence, you have to identify as a queer youth facing discrimination for your identity. (Per Snopes, Pence infamously supported using federal funds to treat people “seeking to change their sexual behavior” during his 2000 congressional run, which many have interpreted as support for conversion therapy.)
I need a drink.