Facebook Says Extremely Common Thing It Does Is Bad When Reporters Do It

The company decried the use of embargoes to coordinate a coming series of reporting on thousands of pages of leaks, despite regularly using embargoes itself.
October 18, 2021, 7:35pm
Facebook Says Extremely Common Thing It Does Is Bad When Reporters Do It
Stephen Lam / Stringer

In an attempt to get ahead of reporting that will seemingly make Facebook—already reeling from weeks of revelations from a whistleblower—somehow look even worse, the company has adopted an increasingly popular strategy among some corporations: posting through it.

On Monday, John Pinette—Facebook's Vice President of Global Communications—tweeted a short thread from the company’s official Twitter account casting aspersions on dozens of journalists getting ready to report a series of articles based on “thousands of pages” of documents from the company.

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“We expect the press to hold us accountable, given our scale and role in the world. But when reporting misrepresents our actions and motivations, we believe we should correct the record,” Facebook said. “Over the last 6 weeks, including over the weekend, we’ve seen how documents can be mischaracterized. Obviously, not every employee at Facebook is an executive; not every opinion is the company’s position.”

For weeks, the company has been experimenting with how to undermine the impact of the internal documents secured by whistleblower Frances Haugen before she quit and blew the whistle publicly, testifying in front of a Senate subcommittee (it is unclear whether these documents come from Haugen). The company has tried characterizing the documents as "stolen,” and toyed with emphasizing that Haugen did not work on this or that specific team and thus did not have an expert opinion on the documents she leaked. 

Those lines have mostly fallen flat, and so Facebook’s new strategy is to suggest a malicious conspiracy among journalists out to get the company. 

“Right now 30+ journalists are finishing up a coordinated series of articles based on thousands of pages of leaked documents,” Facebook tweeted. “We hear that to get the docs, outlets had to agree to the conditions and a schedule laid down by the PR team that worked on earlier leaked docs.”

The thing is, Facebook is decrying a practice that Facebook itself (and pretty much any other company, scientific journal, publisher… the list goes on) regularly engages in with journalists in order to control information releases: the embargo. 

It is common for various entities to distribute information to journalists on the condition that they don’t publish before a certain time. This doesn’t mean that the information is somehow suspect by default, or that it will be reported on in an uncritical manner. Facebook surely knows what an embargo is, because it regularly issues them, expects reporters or outlets to adhere to them, and will quickly ignore reporters who break them. If you see a lot of news outlets publish detailed articles about a specific thing at a specific time, is it likely they were subject to an embargo. This practice is controversial but extremely common. On one hand, it’s a way for companies to control the spread of information and to gatekeep who has access to it. On the other, embargoes allow journalists time to report out a story before it “breaks,” often resulting in more detailed and thorough articles.

“A curated selection out of millions of documents at Facebook can in no way be used to draw fair conclusions about us,” the company adds. “Internally, we share work in progress and debate options. Not every suggestion stands up to the scrutiny we must apply to decisions affecting so many people.”

One solution to this problem would be for Facebook to be fully transparent and hand over  those documents. Instead, Pinette suggests another solution: “To those news organizations who would like to move beyond an orchestrated ‘gotcha’ campaign, we are ready to engage on the substance.” 

In other words, Facebook would be happy to work with you… provided, of course, you agree to conditions and a schedule laid down by its PR team.