The Awesome Hypocrisy of the "Facebook Papers" Moral Panic

A "consortium" of Slack-chatting, would-be journalistic competitors feign outrage at a social media platform that does exactly what their companies do, only better

Come on down, Facebook, you’re the next contestant on America’s Latest Moral Panic!

“Havana Syndrome” and Netflix were also on the rack, but Facebook is society’s clear new bogeyman. In an age of manufactured manias, we’ve seldom seen as openly stage-managed a crisis as the “Facebook Papers.” What began as a series of 11 articles in the Wall Street Journal detailing revelations by a whistleblower named Frances Haugen has since given birth to what Ben Smith at the New York Times is calling “a new kind of journalistic network.”

Essentially, Haugen gave her best stuff to the Journal for a month-long news blitz, but is now stringing together sequel cycles of outrage by looping in more than 17 news outlets (new members are reportedly being added as I write) who are being given access to the scraps in her cache of documents. In return, participants agree to abide by the same embargo and other rules. The story of Haugen — guided by a communications firm of former Barack Obama aide Bill Burton and financed by my former boss, eBay billionaire and Intercept owner Pierre Omidyar — is being told in drip-drip fashion by this “consortium” of would-be media competitors, who are coordinating in Slack for maximum effect.

There’s no evidence of any requirement that this group, which according to Smith nicknamed its Slack chat “Apparently we’re a consortium now,” abide by any particular editorial approach. Still, the near-unanimity in tone — tsk-tsking, morally outraged, and couched as part of a sweeping collective call for punishment — has been more than unusually ridiculous. Not just one or two exemplars, but a whole army of commercial news outlets is complaining that Facebook is choosing, gasp, to make money off “divisive” and “sensationalist” content. This is like every fat-hawking burger chain from McDonald’s to In-N-Out teaming up to denounce the Big Gulp.

The most amazing example was one of the early Journal pieces, a September 15th article entitled, “Facebook Tried to Make Its Platform a Healthier Place. It Got Angrier Instead.” In it, the Journal cites an email from Jonah Peretti, chief executive at Buzzfeed, to a “top official” at Facebook, complaining that Facebook was making their own dumb clickbait too successful:

The most divisive content that publishers produced was going viral on the platform, he said, creating an incentive to produce more… He pointed to the success of a BuzzFeed post titled “21 Things That Almost All White People are Guilty of Saying,” which received 13,000 shares…

Other content the company produced, from news videos to articles on self-care and animals, had trouble breaking through… Mr. Peretti blamed a major overhaul Facebook had given to its News Feed algorithm earlier that year… according to internal Facebook documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that quote the email.

This is Buzzfeed — the company that rose to prominence ages ago atop content like “34 Reasons Why Parent Trap Dennis Quaid Is The Hottest Movie DILF Ever” and “109 Cats in Sweaters” — essentially complaining that “Facebook made me do it,” when it comes to lowbrow click-chasing. And the Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert “Boobs on Page 3” Murdoch’s News Corporation, co-signed the sentiment. You need a chainsaw to cut through that hypocrisy.

In its early years, the digital media game typically involved coming up with a pole-dancing site concept that would a) attract eyeballs by gaming Facebook and Google algorithms, and b) induce a deep-pocketed investor to throw piles of cash onstage, as NBC Universal did investing $400 million in Buzzfeed. Recouping the money through actual revenue generation consistently proved difficult-to-impossible, to the surprise of no one in the business, as it was tacitly understood the real “revenue model” of most digital media concepts was roping in that first VC whale. This is why the Internet is littered with the zombie remains of once-sexy pitches like Mashable and Upworthy, whose founders lived fat for a bit, then took huge losses and/or ended up selling cheap.

When Peretti bought HuffPost in 2020, he had two properties that each helped pioneer central tenets of clickhole culture: Buzzfeed with the listicle and HuffPo with mass-production of editorial red meat for one political demographic. Buzzfeed in particular represented the media equivalent of blowing strangers in Grand Central Station for crack money, mass-generating content like “We Need to Talk About Voldemort’s Dick” and “Sound the Fucking Alarms, Zac Efron Fell While Running on the Beach.”

In the Trump era Buzzfeed sank to new depths, among other things rushing to be the first outlet to publish in full one of the most virulent hoaxes in recent media history, the Steele Dossier. This move, which exploded traditional prohibitions against publishing material whose veracity is in doubt, was justified on the grounds that the age of media being “gatekeeper for information” was a “luxury” we could no longer afford. Yet the argument now is we need to return to the gatekeeper era, to head off “misinformation” (!) and harm done by — Facebook!

Commercial news outlets, not Facebook, have been the chief architects of the panic era. They’ve spent six years now coaching Trump-era audiences to act like roulette addicts endlessly trying to win back a loss, begging them to stay at the table and just move their chips from one “existential threat” or “apocalypse” to the next. From Russiagate to Treason in Helsinki to kids in cages to Bountygate to the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 to the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” and the “biggest threat against democracy since the Civil War,” audiences have fallen into a freakout and stayed there. They wake up knowing nothing, but by noon demand the biggest available policy weapon be fired in the shortest possible time frame, at problems they only just heard about, with the zero-to-defund trajectory of the George Floyd story typifying the pattern. Just as quickly, the same people forget and move on, trying on new terrors like shoes.

Facebook is the latest target loaded into this moral mania machine, and one of the first to be mass-recycled.

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