Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, logged onto Twitter Wednesday afternoon to do what people on Twitter do: Share whatever random thought they have with the world. On Wednesday, that thought was journalism is bad.
Mosseri was responding to CNN reporter Rachel Metz, who was asking for Google employees to contact her with their thoughts about Google’s firing of Timnit Gebru, a Black AI ethics expert who raised internal concerns about the company censoring her research paper. He first confusingly tweeted that these Google employees would be better off talking to their bosses about their grievances rather than a reporter—a bizarre and possibly dangerous suggestion to make to anyone upset about their bosses firing someone for raising internal concerns.
In another tweet he expanded on the point: "I just find the practice of reporters fishing for employees to share thoughts on internal communications with companies questionable.”
For Silicon Valley execs who generally have attempted to paint journalists as the enemies of brave innovators and as craven clickbait monsters, this is relatively tame. But it also represents a fundamental and brazen—if performative—misunderstanding of what reporters do, why they might possibly want to talk to the people who work at tech companies, and why those people might want to talk to them.
Silicon Valley giants, and tech companies more generally, have learned that one of the best ways to control information is to use many of journalism’s unwritten rules to never say anything of consequence. Companies rarely make anyone who is not a highly-trained executive available for on-the-record interviews. When these executives are made available to the press they are often in controlled situations, meaning interviews are given to journalists who are friendly to big tech or in a large group setting, such as a press conference. Notable interviews Adam Mosseri has given include one with hard-hitting former TechCrunch journalist Josh Constine, who is now a literal Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and one at the WIRED 25 summit, where he took promo photos with various WIRED employees.
The people who work in tech company public relations departments will often only speak to reporters “off the record,” meaning that journalists cannot quote or use the information they are told in a story. When you see quotes from a “Facebook spokesperson” or a “Google spokesperson” in articles, those quotes are almost always highly edited and are shared over email, where there it is difficult to push for more. On-the-record, emailed quotes are almost always shared as “background” information that cannot be quoted.
What this means in practice is that most any journalist who is good at their job must find people who have information and are willing to share it, ideally in an unfiltered and non-robotic way. This means talking to people who have not been given permission from their companies to talk to the press, which means talking to people who are putting their jobs and livelihoods at risk by speaking to you. There are many ways to protect the identities of these people, the most important of which is to communicate with them on channels that are not surveilled by the company. Many journalists have existing sources at tech companies, but it is always good to have more. This is why Motherboard and many other websites make it very easy for tech employees to contact them (this is what Metz was trying to do with their tweet), which is what Mosseri found so distasteful.
“Of course I’m biased, I said we all operate within our own incentives. But let’s not pretend all leaks are newsworthy and for the greater good, some are, but some are sensationalism,” Mosseri tweeted. “And leaks have costs. Sometimes those costs are worth it, sometimes they’re not.”
It does not matter what Adam Mosseri thinks is news and what he thinks is sensationalism. What matters is that he is one of the most powerful people at one of the most powerful companies on the planet, and that his performance here sends a message that anyone at his company who might want to talk to reporters about labor exploitation, internal hypocrisy, union busting campaigns, discrimination, or disconcerting surveillance should not do so.
When executives and PR departments are able to control the information that is shared about their companies, that is public relations and labor management, not engagement with journalism. Mosseri and his fellow multimillionaires and billionaires are free to think whatever they want about the press, and they can (and WILL!) tweet whatever they want about it. But as they do so, it should be acknowledged that they are not simply forwarding inane theories of ethics: They are also sowing general distrust of the media and, more importantly, are attempting to keep the people who work for them from talking, and so prevent the public from knowing about exactly what it is they do when they think no one is watching.