Teen Vogue Sponcon Fiasco Puts Spotlight on Facebook Stooges

There’s something to be gleaned from looking at who exactly Facebook trotted out to burnish its claims of newfound credibility.
January 9, 2020, 8:25pm
Sheryl Sandberg scowling
Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Maybe you caught wind of yesterday’s media clusterfuck: Teen Vogue published unbylined, uncritical PR drivel about Facebook’s commitment to protecting the integrity of the 2020 election, featuring five high-ranking women at the company. The article was titled “How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election” and consisted of responses to softball and/or leading questions like “How do you ensure that relationships with third party groups such as voter registration platforms are reaching the right people who could potentially learn from them the most on Facebook?” alongside glossy portraits of the women, individually and as a group. In a now-deleted post, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg shared the article on her page and wrote: “Great Teen Vogue piece about five incredible women protecting elections on Facebook.”

Not long after it was published, an editor’s note appeared on the story confirming the origins of the article with a potent, oxymoronic descriptor: “Sponsored editorial content.” Confusion ensued. Facebook said it wasn’t sponcon, before changing its stance later in the day to admit it was sponcon, arranged in coordination with Teen Vogue’s women’s summit last fall. At one point a Teen Vogue employee’s byline appeared on the piece (she insisted she had nothing to do with it); at another, the Teen Vogue Twitter account said “literally idk” in a now-deleted response to a question about the post; then, the article was deleted completely. For the full breakdown, check out any one of these comprehensive summaries of the mess. The takeaway is that corporate media is antithetical to independent reporting and that Facebook, as it was when it traded access to its “war rooms” for favorable coverage, is desperate to launder its well-earned reputation as a platform that supports the proliferation of fake news and political misinformation.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

There’s also something to be gleaned, though, from looking at who exactly Facebook trotted out to burnish its claims of newfound credibility. Facebook did not, for example, tout the contributions of Joel Kaplan, its vice-president for global public policy, or Kevin Martin, the company’s vice-president for U.S. public policy, both of whom work in Facebook’s D.C. office, both of whom spent chunks of their professional lives stewing in Republican politics, and both of whom worked for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney: Kaplan was Bush’s deputy chief of staff and Bush appointed Martin to the Federal Communications Commission in 2001. (Kaplan, a strong Brett Kavanaugh ally, has, according to the Wall Street Journal, been integral in making sure Facebook treats right-wing misinformation sites like the Daily Caller and Breitbart more or less the same as, say, the Washington Post.) Facebook also did not mention Guy Rosen, the company’s “VP of integrity,” who helped write Facebook’s press release about the company’s initiatives to protect the” 2020 election.

Know anything we should know? Contact the writer at laura.wagner@vice.com or laura.wags@protonmail.com.

The five people Facebook chose to highlight in the Teen Vogue ad are all women—one Republican operative, one who spent her career among Clinton Democrats, one who worked at McKinsey, a former special-education teacher, and a data scientist with a PhD in sociology. Here’s what we know about them.

Katie Harbath is Facebook’s director of global elections. Before that, according to her LinkedIn, she was chief digital strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee from August 2009 to March 2011, where she was “in charge of all the online operations at the NRSC for the 2010 cycle.” Before that, she was the digital director for Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign. Going all the way back to 2003, she was the “associate director for e-communications” for the Republican National Committee. As Popular Info reported in October, Harbath remained active in the Republican party after joining Facebook: “In 2014, she was an official delegate to the Virginia Republican Convention, where she supported the nomination of her former boss, Ed Gillespie, for Senate.”

Harbath has also been one of Facebook’s most enthusiastic drum-beaters for letting lying politicians lie. In October, Harbath defended Facebook’s decision to allow candidates to lie in Facebook ads, sending a letter to the Joe Biden campaign that shrugged off any responsibility Facebook would have for running false ads. (“In mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” she wrote.) The same month, Harbath and another Facebook exec wrote an op-ed for USA Today titled “We shouldn't become the gatekeeper of truth on candidate ads.”

She shared the Teen Vogue story on her Facebook page, writing, “I'm very honored to work alongside so many amazing women on protecting the integrity of elections. Also, who ever thought I'd be saying at 39 that I'm in Teen Vogue!”

Crystal Patterson is Facebook’s head of global civic partnerships. Before working at Facebook, according to her LinkedIn, she was a Democratic operative. She worked in “online communications” for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, as a field organizer for the Iowa Democratic Party, as communications director for Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, and as communications director for John Podesta’s think tank, the Center for American Progress. In a previous role at Facebook, she worked with Democrats directly. In a 2015 New York Times article, Patterson touted the ways politicians can use Facebook to reach voters (or donors):

“There’s a level of precision that doesn’t exist in any other medium,” said Crystal Patterson, a government and politics outreach manager at Facebook, who works with Democrats. “It’s getting the right message to the right people at the right time.”

Patterson also shared the Teen Vogue article on her Facebook page, writing: “On a serious note, I continue to to [sic] be impressed by and honored to collaborate with the incredible women I work with every day. On a less serious note, I am also thrilled I am still young and hip enough to make the cut for Teen Vogue.”

Antonia Woodford is Facebook’s product manager for misinformation. Before joining Facebook nearly four years ago, she worked at McKinsey for over two years. According to her LinkedIn, her responsibilities included “advising Fortune 500 companies on product and pricing strategy, operations, and corporate finance topics” and “conducting operational and market due diligence for private equity firms, directly impacting final acquisition prices.” According to her page, her “industry experience includes technology, transportation, payments, asset management, agriculture, and manufacturing. Additional experience in M&A strategy, restructuring, and IPO readiness.” Anyhow, this lady was seen in apparently unsponsored content at Cnet from 2018—”The cure for Facebook's fake news infection? It might be these women”—posing in a field of flowers with her fellow fierce lady bosses.

Sarah Schiff is Facebook’s product manager of business integrity. Her LinkedIn bio says “Experienced Product Manager in Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas. Former special education teacher in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Driven by a sense of purpose and making a difference. In constant pursuit of learning and hopeful travel.”

Monica Lee is a research scientist at Facebook. Before working there, she got her PhD in sociology from University of Chicago in 2014. Her studies investigated “how one’s cultural beliefs affect one’s social network and vice versa,” according to her website. The site also says she used to DJ German electronic music, which actually sounds cool. Maybe Teen Vogue can ask her about that next time—or about how Mark Zuckerberg's New Year's resolution to make laws irrelevant by developing such superior forms of governance as a Facebook-created board tasked with oversight of Facebook figures into her company's grand plans to protect democracy.

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