The End of the Facebook Papers Consortium
The group of news outlets sharing access to a whistleblower’s trove of documents shut down their Slack a day after their stories published, while publications outside the U.S. are still locked out and trying to get access
When Frances Haugen decided to leak tens of thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to a consortium of journalists, she might not have given much thought to the social bonds the consortium’s Slack would reinforce. “It did have a bit of a family reunion feel to it,” said Casey Newton, who writes the newsletter Platformer and for The Verge. “It was cool being in a Slack room with Ellen Cushing at The Atlantic, who’s amazing, or Kristen Go from USA Today, who was my boss in Arizona in 2004.”
After the consortium’s agreed upon publication embargo lifted last Monday, following the confusion and recrimination that erupted the previous Friday when The New York Times and NBC News began posting three days early, the increasingly dysfunctional family began to expand. “In the days leading up to Monday, we were starting to get some requests, and for primarily logistical reasons, we said, ‘Well, why don’t we just hit our embargo, and then add whoever wants to join?’” Newton said. “When it comes to adding new people to the consortium, everybody has been very supportive. There has not been any move to restrict it.” New publications began to be added to the consortium’s Slack after the embargo officially lifted last Monday. “People would come into the room and be like, ‘Hey everybody, so glad to be here, excited to get started,’” said Newton. “I was just like, ‘we’re not actually working together here, we’re coordinating document releases.’ It was adorable.”
But, then, almost as soon as the new publications had joined, on Tuesday, October 26, the Slack was gone. “Like 20 minutes later,” Newton said, “they just deleted the damn thing.” There wasn’t much of an uproar from the membership. “Everyone was fine with it,” said Alex Heath, a senior reporter at The Verge. “We all pretend that we’re — I mean, a lot of us are friends, but I think in this circumstance, it was just kind of untenable, thinking everyone would collaborate.” Like some of the journalists in the consortium, Heath has doubts that the consortium itself was the ideal delivery method for the documents. “I would have been in favor of just posting everything in a properly redacted way for anyone to see. I think it would have achieved the same thing but in a more equitable way. So I’m all for the thing being dissolved,” said Heath, “and, I mean, it is dissolved.”
Apart from attempts to organize drinks for members of the consortium, there has been little direct communication between the outlets since the Slack shut down. Outlets have been receiving individual emails and have access to the shared Google Drive folder, but there is no longer a forum for coordination. The only email sent to all members of the consortium since last Tuesday, as far as Newton is aware, came on Thursday night from Bryson Gillette, the PR firm which has coordinated the release of the documents with Haugen. It told the consortium journalists that because of a redaction issue involving the names of lower-level employees at Facebook, they would be pausing the drops to do another pass on the redactions. They have not restarted releasing documents since. Though the consortium members haven’t been given any indication when new documents might start coming again, they’re not expecting a super long wait. “My sense,” said Newton, “was not that it was going to be like weeks.”
And yet, many publications, including those in parts of the world most affected by the actions of Facebook laid out in the documents, have continued to be shut out of what is now a relatively exclusive distribution list. “There were no Indian ones, and then there were no South American ones or Middle Eastern ones,” said Heath. “One of Frances’s main critiques in public is that Facebook doesn’t devote enough attention and resources to developing markets, and then the irony of that is that she chose outlets that are not in any of those countries as well.” However, he adds that he’s unsure whether Haugen personally chose the outlets which received the documents as part of the consortium.
On Wednesday’s episode of Alex Kantrowitz’s Big Technology Podcast, Haugen’s lawyer Lawrence Lessig indicated that she still plans to release documents to non-Western journalists. “I don’t think there’s any disagreement that it needs to be made available in consortia around the world,” Lessig said. “The plan is to get these documents in every place around the world where Facebook is affecting them.” Kantrowitz, who is a member of the consortium, feels that journalists in places like India and the Middle East have not been treated with enough of a sense of priority. “The people who Facebook’s liabilities harm most should be first in line to dig into the documents,” he told The Fine Print.
This exclusion hasn’t been for lack of reaching out from publications in those countries. Nikita Saxena, a staff writer at The Caravan, which describes itself as “India’s first long-form narrative journalism magazine,” emailed Haugen first on October 8. (Disclosure: This reporter interned at The Caravan in 2016.) “She asked for an interview in the email, I think, just to get her to open up or to talk to her, as opposed to just asking directly for [the documents],” said the magazine’s executive editor Vinod Jose, “but the intention was certainly to get to the story.” Saxena sent a Twitter DM on October 11, followed up over email again on October 20, sent a Facebook message, and tweeted at Haugen on October 26, the day after the embargo was lifted. “Facebook considers countries like India as a laboratory to sharpen their business models and to see whether they’re getting away with it,” said Jose. “The behavior of some of these tech companies cannot just be scrutinized within the national boundaries. It has to be scrutinized at a global level.”
Reporters at Gizmodo took the problem of the consortium’s Western-centrism into their own hands. “We decided unilaterally to share access to materials with a few legitimate news agencies in India, South America, and the Middle East and North Africa because the amount of material relevant to the harm Facebook has caused to the people there is substantial,” senior reporter Dell Cameron told The Fine Print. “Gizmodo is in the process of vetting a half dozen requests from outlets and independent journalists overseas. There are security concerns with this material. We don’t want to arm bad actors or the world’s intelligence agencies with the means to subvert what controls Facebook does have in place to prevent disinformation from spreading. So we have to make sure the people we’re sharing with are legitimate and serious and will have those considerations in mind.”
Bootlegging the sharing of documents is a struggle, and Gizmodo’s staff is having a hard time keeping up with the outreach from international journalists while also writing up the leaks for their readers. “We don’t have a staff working on this, just the writers and editors involved in reporting on the leak,” Cameron said, “so we’re basically trying to do two things at once, and the process is slow because of that.”
Their travails are in the process of being alleviated, according to Haugen’s PR firm. “There is an international consortium underway that includes journalists and publications from India and other deeply impacted countries,” wrote Bryson Gillette’s Kevin Liao in a statement. “It remains Frances’ intention for the most people possible, especially those most affected by Facebook’s irresponsible underinvestment in safety, to understand the documents.”
Other reporters have found themselves overwhelmed by the continuing onslaught of Facebook news. When Mark Zuckerberg announced last Thursday that they were changing their corporate name to Meta and focusing on a still largely theoretical metaverse, tech reporters were pulled off the document story. Some haven’t even had time to dig into the latest set of releases. “I’ve been so busy with the rebrand story that I haven’t checked on the last few days of dumps,” said Heath, who got one of the four interviews Zuckerberg gave about the shift. He said the rebrand has absolutely been an effective distraction from the documents. “They didn’t plan it that way,” he said, citing the seven-month lead time necessary to rebrand a company as large as Meta, “but it’s definitely a nice side effect.”
Newton, who spoke with Zuckerberg about the metaverse for a July podcast, said he’s still excited about forthcoming document releases and doesn’t think the news value is dropping. “The documents are being delivered not according to any theme or like chronological order or anything, so it is just kind of random,” he said. “On the whole, I think The Journal got the best cuts at all of these things, but I’m somebody who’s obsessed with Facebook, so there’s still plenty for me to learn.”