The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The massive Facebook leak shows how investigative journalism is changing

Former-Facebook-employee-turned-leaker Frances Haugen. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

It was an unusual Zoom call, with an unusual array of participants.

On one side was a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower named Frances Haugen and her legal representatives. On the other were journalists from a dozen or so news organizations — normally professional rivals but in this case joined by a common interest.

The purpose of the virtual meetup on Oct. 9 was to discuss the terms under which Haugen would leak company records showing how Facebook ignored or barely addressed harmful practices documented by its employees.

The journalists were part of an exclusive club, handpicked by Haugen and her team as the would-be recipients of the damning data in her possession.

On Monday, the fruits of their cooperation started to emerge. News outlets (the number involved eventually grew to 18) began publishing stories about Facebook’s internal machinations based on Haugen’s leaks, all of it orchestrated by a public relations firm led by Bill Burton, a former political operative for President Barack Obama.

Per their agreement with Haugen, reporters from such outlets such as The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and the Associated Press were free to report on anything contained in the documents. One stipulation was that they couldn’t publish their stories until Monday — an “embargo” designed to give every outlet an equal shot at the news, and one designed to amplify the news itself by breaking it simultaneously.

The journalists also had to agree to one other condition: They couldn’t talk about the details of their communications and negotiations with Haugen, Burton and their associates with anyone outside their own news organizations.

The Facebook Papers show what its employees knew about how the website fostered polarization and how it contrasted with CEO Mark Zuckerberg's public comments. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Centrally directed leaks to multiple news organizations are rare, though there have been a few notable instances in the past year or so. Revelatory journalism is typically still conducted by a single news organization, and often by a lone reporter.

For many months, that was true of Haugen’s Facebook files, too. Haugen initially contacted one reporter, Jeff Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal, and leaked the entire cache of unredacted material she had taken from Facebook’s archives to him late last year.

This resulted in a series of stories that the Journal started publishing last month, revealing, among other things, how Facebook became a platform for vaccine disinformation, human trafficking and Donald Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

In each case, the documents showed that the company was aware of the problem but did little to address it, often because it was more profitable to maintain the status quo.

The Journal series built up to Haugen’s appearance on “60 Minutes” on Oct. 3 and her testimony before a Senate subcommittee two days later.

Then Haugen, advised by Burton and his PR firm, went wider.

Her representatives contacted reporters and editors via email inviting them to participate on the Oct. 9 Zoom call. At Haugen’s team’s urging, the journalists agreed among themselves to set an embargo for about two weeks hence — that is, nobody would publish an article before Monday, Oct. 25. The interval would give reporters time to vet the documents and prepare their stories.

The documents, numbering hundreds of thousands of pages, were then were uploaded into a file accessible to each participating news organization (Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Monday called the media orchestration “a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company”).

Journalists have used a similar cooperative model on several blockbuster series. Last month, the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists organized some 600 journalists in 117 countries, including The Post, to peruse millions of leaked documents detailing a secretive financial system used by powerful and wealthy people around the world.

The cooperative reporting of the Pandora Papers, the largest project of its kind, followed other collaborative efforts led by the same group that exposed offshore tax havens, business practices of the global tobacco industry, and China’s mass surveillance and imprisonment of Muslim Uyghurs.

But unlike with most ICIJ-led projects, the news organizations in the Facebook consortium didn’t share their reporting or questions about it with each other as it was in progress. “It doesn’t seem to me that [the Facebook group] was a collaboration in any meaningful way,” said Fergus Shiel, the ICIJ’s managing editor.

Nevertheless, Washington Post senior managing editor Cameron Barr called such reporting consortia “exciting,” because they give news organizations access to enormous troves of material they wouldn’t have on their own.

The trade-off, he said, is that such cooperation runs counter to the journalistic instinct to “be first and alone” on a story. “If you can give up some of the ego,” he said, “you can gain a lot of impact.”

The potential downside, Barr said, is that “you link arms with partners” who may not have the same reporting standards when it comes to authenticating information or in seeking out opposing viewpoints. “You can’t choose your partners,” he said.

At least on a small scale, journalism collaborations go back decades, such as an investigation into the death of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles in 1977. But technology — particularly the ability to share millions of documents online — has made large, worldwide collaborations easier, said Marina Walker Guevara, executive editor at the Pulitzer Center who previously managed some of the ICIJ’s projects.

“Investigative journalists are not wired naturally to collaborate,” she said. “We are taught to scoop or hold information. The traditional image of the investigative reporter is a lone wolf in the corner of the office having secret conversations with sources and editors.”

That had to change because stories became “so complex and so multilayered and global” that it’d be impossible to report them out fully without a worldwide network of journalists, she said.

“We learned along the way how to perfect the methodology, and at the same time, we worked on the trust,” she said. “It’s the essential component of all these collaborations.”

Still, given competitive rivalries, there are no guarantees that one outlet won’t seek to gain advantage by jumping the gun on an embargo.

The New York Times has been twice accused of doing so, most recently on Friday night when it published what appeared to be the first of the Facebook stories almost 72 hours before the embargo expired (a trickle of other stories followed immediately as a result). A similar complaint arose last year when the newspaper published a story in advance of the group about China’s abuse of its Uyghur population.

A Times spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said in both cases, Times reporters obtained information apart from the official leak and thus weren’t bound by the embargo.

“According to the consortium’s ground rules, documents obtained by outlets prior to the consortium’s creation are not subject to the embargo time.” she said in a statement. “We obtained the documents on which Friday’s story was based before the group was created. In advance of publication, we let the consortium know which documents we would report on.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Marina Walker Guevara’s first name.

Staff writer Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.