On Wednesday, Teen Vogue found itself in the crosshairs of the internet when an article entitled “How Facebook is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election,” was published to its site without a staff byline or, initially, a clear indication that the content was sponsored. The piece documented how Facebook is working to “secure the integrity of the 2020 election,” and highlighted various women inside the organization. After it circulated on Twitter and was criticized for its lack of a byline and its #sponcon tone, it was removed, then reemerged with a note that the content was sponsored by Facebook. Eventually, it was taken down permanently.
The post, later revealed to have been paid for by Facebook, states: “Five women across Facebook and Instagram [...] 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.” (As Laura Wagner wrote at Vice, these Facebook employees include “one Republican operative, one who spent her career among Clinton Democrats, one who worked at McKinsey, a former special-education teacher, and a data scientist with a PhD in sociology.”)
Such articles are not necessarily uncommon at many publishers, but Condé Nast, as the primary conduit to consumers for much of the mainstream beauty and fashion industry, traffics in the “advertorial” business model frequently. Because of this, the initial lack of a clear demarcation that the post was paid for by Facebook ran counter to their established mode of operation. But what felt particularly insidious about the Facebook post—and what helped fuel the negative chatter on Twitter—was its publication coincided with a New York Times report on a leaked internal correspondence from Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth. In the memo, obtained by the Times, Bosworth admitted that Facebook is likely to blame for Donald Trump’s election. “As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome,” Bosworth wrote, “I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.”
Alongside the Bosworth memo, in which he insisted that Donald Trump ran “the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser,” the Teen Vogue post reads as propaganda at worst, and hypocritical at best. On Wednesday, after a Twitter user asked “What is this @TeenVogue,” the publication’s official account responded, “literally idk.” (That tweet has since been deleted.) A Condé Nast employee with explicit knowledge of the situation told Jezebel that Teen Vogue’s editorial team had no idea that either the sales team or Facebook would be publishing the post. (The Condé employee has requested anonymity out of concern for their job.)
Shortly after the initial post was published, Phillip Picardi, former digital editorial director and chief content officer for Teen Vogue, tweeted in support of the site, shifting the blame away from Teen Vogue staffers and onto the sales team: “I am so sorry to the @TeenVogue team for whatever irresponsible sales or marketing staff pushed this article into their feed, therefore discrediting all the GOOD work they’ve been doing to educate their audience about the REAL threats posed by @Facebook in our election.” Most importantly, Picardi highlighted how such a brazenly off-message the post was, especially for a site that routinely publishes left-leaning content through its politics vertical.
In a separate tweet, Picardi then condemned Facebook and its Newsroom platform for “using billions earned from deceitful politicians and and misinformation campaigns to attempt to buy their way into publications at @CondeNast. Their motives are so insidious, and they continue to be the downfall of democracy.”
Facebook eventually issued an official statement on the post and its handling of it, telling the New York Times: “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.” Reached for comment, Condé Nast sent Jezebel a boilerplate 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.” When asked who approved the post and whether it was written by an editorial employee, Condé Nast declined to comment, instead directing Jezebel to the Facebook spokesperson for further comment. (Facebook did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)
At the very least, the advertorial clashed with that same politics-forward platform Teen Vogue’s editorial staff has built over the last few years, particularly under the purview of editors like Elaine Welteroth, Picardi, current Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, and Mukhopadhyay. But more than a harrowing exercise in damaging a publication’s professional integrity or reader trust, the “disappearing Facebook post” is a dire warning sign of the state of digital media. This is not the first—or certainly the last—time management at a heralded publication has tampered with journalistic integrity for profit, or shown a clear misunderstanding of basic editorial principles. For instance, it is standard across journalism to clearly mark paid advertising, and never to publish dubious sponsored posts anonymously.