Buzzfeed, a favorite site of Millennials and liberals, found itself at the center of the buzz for all the wrong reasons this past weekend. Personhood USA, a conservative anti-abortion propaganda group,published for free a listicle bashing Planned Parenthood under Buzzfeed's relatively new "Community" section. Rather than issue an apology, Buzzfeed insists their new Community section is an open platform where anything goes, even posts that alienate their biggest supporters or violate guidelines. Big mistake.
Readers could not stop hate-sharing the post on Twitter (with some going as far as asking for its removal or saying they'll boycott the site), while others were aghast at what they interpreted to be an ad that went against everything they thought BuzzFeed stood for. Ardent Catholics and Republicans, meanwhile, eyed BuzzFeed with sudden interest.
The listicle (titled "8 Outrageous Things Planned Parenthood Was Caught Doing") is still up and looks like any other post on BuzzFeed, the only distinguishing feature being the word Community on top. The offensive post comprises short paragraphs and eight slickly edited videos, like "Planned Parenthood Manager offers to Help Sex Ring, Gets Fired" about a sex trafficking ring Planned Parenthood actually alerted the FBI about. Only at the very bottom of the post is the disclaimer: "This post was written by a member of the BuzzFeed Community, where anyone can post awesome lists and creations, and share them."
Journalists and marketing-types that didn't read or understand the disclaimer took to calling the post "native advertising gone wrong," while others described the post as "crap," "garbage" and "propaganda".
BuzzFeed defended the post by reminding everyone "pretty much anyone can post pretty much anything" on the BuzzFeed Community platform, even political groups and corporations. It's an unvetted, apparently unrestricted "open platform kind of like Twitter" wrote BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, on Twitter. In fact, posters don't even appear to need to adhere to user guidelines which specifically state all content be "accurate".
What's particularly frustrating is that BuzzFeed won't even admit any wrongdoing or even acknowledging that their editorial integrity was compromised. When the Atlantic was criticised for its Scientology promo ad that looked a lot like an article, the publication took it down and apologised to outraged readers for both confusing them and for allowing the ad "to compromise the Atlantic's editorial integrity".
New York Observer's Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke wonders why anyone would ever pay for branded content again on BuzzFeed when they can just run it for free under the Community section. "[From a business perspective, [it] seems to be a major flaw in the whole system" concludes Bloomgarden-Smoke.
This isn't the first time a conservative group has used the BuzzFeed platform for political purposes (or even Personhood USA's first post on Buzzfeed). In July, the conservative think tank known as the Heritage Foundation published a GIF-laden anti-Obamacare post under BuzzFeed's Community section, which drew the ire of readers at the time too.
BuzzFeed can't have it both ways: they can't appeal to a liberal base with edited pieces on immigration, LGBT rights and marijuana written by respected journalists while also running unvetted inaccurate content written for free by Republican groups who refer to Obama as "the Angel of Death". Most readers understand BuzzFeed as a liberal and tech-savvy closed platform with paid contributors, not an open platform where certain posters don't adhere to guidelines.
If Personhood USA tried publishing this post on Reddit, which is actually understood to be an open platform where anyone can submit anything, the pro-choice community on the site would bury the post in keeping with the community's set of beliefs. This can't be done on BuzzFeed. When Reddit users violate guidelines, like organize a witch-hunt for the Boston Marathon bomber, Reddit's GM takes the time to issue a very unnecessary public apology.
The only action Buzzfeed has taken, besides tweet things like "we will keep tweaking the labeling" and defend the openness of its platform in emails to journalists is to add a second disclaimer to the top of the post that reads:
Community posts are made by members of the community, and are not vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed.
No apology for offending and confusing its current readership with unclear labels, no mention of why this post is still up despite violating user guidelines. The silence – and downright lack of responsibility – is hypocritical when one recalls Buzzfeed deleted two Community posts this July for violating user guidelines. Or do rightwing groups not need to adhere to these rules now that the far-right billionaire Koch brothers are sponsoring Buzzfeed sections and events?