Teen Vogue Publishes, Unpublishes Mysterious Sponsored ‘Facebook Election Integrity’ Piece

Youth-oriented news and politics site Teen Vogue is frequently lauded for its post-2016 foray into political news, a nearly-unequivocal level of approval that suddenly faltered after sponsored Facebook public relations material was published and then quickly deleted by the site on January 8 2019:

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.

To frame this as a fun guide to election integrity is shameful.https://t.co/fimjbUVDqg pic.twitter.com/kK4HVQSERM

— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) January 8, 2020

The article disappeared shortly after it received rapid attention, with links suddenly turning up a 404/”page not found” message instead of the article in question. However, at least two internet archiving sites captured the post before it disappeared entirely.

Facebook’s leveraging of Teen Vogue was seen as particularly sinister due to the magazine’s reputation of muckracking and criticizing powerful institutions and a uniquely credible platform trusted for its honesty among younger readers in particular.

Originally, the piece was published to the URL https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-facebook-is-helping-ensure-the-integrity-of-the-2020-election, and it was dated January 8 2019. We found intact copies via Archive.is as well as the Wayback Machine.

Given that Archive.is operates via user initiation versus crawling sites, someone opted to save the page in the event it was later deleted or changed. On both sites’ archives, the piece featured no byline, meaning no one took credit for writing it.

Another notable aspect of both archived versions of the article — headlined “How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election” — was its complete lack of any indication that the article was sponsored content (or “sponcon.”) Nor was it labeled anywhere as an “advertorial,” or advertising content styled to look like an editorial.

Before delving into a five-way interview on Facebook and “election integrity,” it began:

As the 2020 campaign gains speed, Facebook is taking measures to protect against foreign interference and stop the spread of misinformation. Social media is a fertile space for civic participation, and Facebook is at the forefront of encouraging civil discourse. But with the company’s huge platform comes huge responsibility.

Five women across Facebook and Instagram — Katie Harbath, Sarah Schiff, Monica Lee, Antonia Woodford, and Crystal Patterson — 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. With just under a year until the election, Teen Vogue spoke with Facebook to learn more about what they’ve been up to.

Since the article disappeared without explanation as quickly as it mysteriously emerged, readers were forced to rely on quickly-grabbed screencaptures of the article’s iterations before it vanished without explanation or an editor’s note in its place. One person managed to screenshot a briefly visible “sponsored content” notice added to the article after its publication — again, without any comment from an editor or other editorial staff:

The article was picked up and aggregated by media partners without any indication that its content was sponsored, giving a real-time look into how quickly and thoroughly disinformation can spread:

That Teen Vogue sponsored content article that wasn’t labeled sponcon in the first place is still live on Yahoo Lifestyle. There’s no note or indication that it isn’t part of the magazine’s editorial content. https://t.co/CrSjhe4s6c

— Tiffany Moustakas (@tiffmoustakas) January 8, 2020

That article was also later removed.

Business Insider reporter Rob Price provided a quick rundown of his interaction with Teen Vogue and Facebook during the article’s brief appearance, different iterations, and removal:

According to Price, the order of events was as follows:

  • Teen Vogue published the article, which lacked both indication it was sponsored content and a byline for an identifiable staffer or contributor at the outlet;
  • Teen Vogue added a note admitting the content was sponsored by Facebook;
  • Teen Vogue removed the note admitting the content was sponsored by Facebook;
  • Facebook subsequently denied the content was sponsored in a conversation with Price;
  • When asked about the sponsored content, a Teen Vogue employee with access to the site’s verified account responded “literally IDK [I don’t know]”;
  • Without an editor’s note or explanation from Teen Vogue or Facebook, the article is deleted from the site entirely.

Price continued updating as tips rolled in, noting that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg had “leaned in” to promote the since-deleted advertorial:

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also shared the (now-deleted) Teen Vogue story: https://t.co/a99Kj5O5XV pic.twitter.com/oblTHeUPrh

— Rob Price (@robaeprice) January 8, 2020

Sandberg wrote:

Great Teen Vogue piece about five incredible women protecting elections on Facebook. Since 2016, we’ve worked to stop the spread of misinformation, fight foreign interference and voter suppression, improve transparency, and encourage people to vote. 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.

We contacted Facebook for information on Teen Vogue‘s since-deleted publication of its sponsored content regarding election security, but have not yet heard back. We will update this page if we receive additional information.