In the ensuing hours, a befuddling back-and-forth followed, featuring a mysterious retraction, an apology and a pair of statements parceled out by company spokespeople. None of it clarified the article’s origins, but it did begin a conversation about an online news environment where advertising and editorial content sometimes swirl together, and powerful corporations pay big to bolster their brands.
The feature came at an opportune time for Facebook, which had weathered a year of negative news, from withering congressional questioning over Russian interference in the 2016 election, to complaints that its platform was used to discriminate and undermine democracy. The Teen Vogue piece, however, applauded Facebook for being “at the forefront of encouraging civil discourse.”
But after initial questions about the glowing article — a Q&A with five of the company’s female managers, titled “How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election,” and boasting a “behind the scenes” look — Teen Vogue added an editor’s note beneath the headline that read, “This is sponsored editorial content.” Shortly after, that note disappeared. At one point, the post was apparently republished with the byline of an author who said she had nothing to do with it.
And then the story was gone altogether, replaced by an error page with an apropos message: “Uh-Oh. Unfortunately this page does not exist.”
Facebook initially denied it had paid for the post, calling it “purely editorial.” But in a statement to The Washington Post, the company elaborated, saying Facebook had “a paid partnership” with the magazine for its 2019 Teen Vogue Summit in Los Angeles and the arrangement included sponsored content.
“Our team understood this story was purely editorial, but there was a misunderstanding,” the Facebook statement said.
In a statement to The Post, Condé Nast, which owns Teen Vogue, apologized for the maelstrom but did not elaborate or answer specific questions about the article’s inception and whether it had been a latent advertisement.
“We made a series of errors labeling this piece, and we apologize for any confusion this may have caused,” the Condé Nast statement said. “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.”
Sponsored content, which often mimics the style and tone of news articles, has become increasingly common and profitable for U.S. outlets, occasionally raising thorny questions about transparency and the separation of a media organization’s business and editorial departments.
(All sponsored content that runs in The Post is labeled as an advertisement and includes the name of the advertiser. The Post’s newsroom is not involved in creating that content.)
It’s unclear whether Teen Vogue’s reporters and editors played a role in the Facebook article, but one of the magazine’s former top editors, Phillip Picardi, blamed “whatever irresponsible sales or marketing staff pushed this article into their feed.”
On Twitter, Picardi, who is partially credited for the magazine’s renewed focus on politics, wrote that the kerfuffle discredits “all the GOOD work they’ve been doing to educate their audience about the REAL threats posed by @Facebook in our election.”
The article was published the day after the New York Times revealed an internal memo from Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth, who wrote that the company’s advertising tools were crucial to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and may help him win in 2020. But, Bosworth added, the company should resist calls to change its rules on political speech, which allow politicians to lie in ads and to target small groups of voters.
It was the type of candid commentary not found in the Teen Vogue article, which quoted Katie Harbath, Facebook’s director of global elections, as saying, “We’re a different company than we were in 2016, including when it comes to elections.”
In her Facebook post celebrating the article, Sandberg wrote that the company has worked to “stop the spread of misinformation” and “improve transparency.”
“There’s more to do and I’m so grateful we have this team — and hundreds of people across the company — working every single day to do it,” she wrote.
But a few hours later, Sandberg’s post was deleted, too.