Yesterday we reported BuzzFeed’s decision to delete a staff-written post that criticized a viral advertisement for Dove beauty products. In response, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith released a rather incredible internal memo that instructed the site’s writers not to “advance [their] personal opinion” and claimed that “we’ve never had to pull a post before”—which is true for BuzzFeed Life, perhaps, but not for BuzzFeed as a whole.
Even still, Smith presented the memo as an act of transparency. But as a recent BuzzFeed post about the board game Monopoly demonstrates, the site is deliberately deceptive about its editorial practices, especially when it comes to suspiciously disappeared content.
On February 13, BuzzFeed and the toy manufacturer Hasbro announced a joint marketing campaign to celebrate Monopoly’s 80th anniversary. A few weeks later, as Gawker commenter dreamingofpastry noted, BuzzFeed UK editor Tom Chivers published a 1200-word post titled “Why Monopoly Is The Worst Game In The World, And What You Should Play Instead.” You can find an oddly formatted version of the piece, dated March 12, on the website Archive.Today. Here are the opening lines:
Monopoly is shite.
That is my opinion, but it’s not only my opinion. It has been reviewed by more than 15,000 users of the website BoardGameGeek, and gets an average score of less than 4.5 out of 10. People who play board games think it sucks. So does James Bond. See above.
BoardGameGeek lists Monopoly’s playing time as 180 minutes. Wikipedia puts it at one to four hours. Even this post, which says that when people play Monopoly “correctly” it’s faster, says that a game “often lasts about two hours.”
That’s still quite a long time, especially since once somebody starts winning, they can just grind out the victory.
And then, much like the Dove post, BuzzFeed deleted the post within a day. Its URL now redirects to a bare-bones page, dated March 13, indicating that “this post was removed at the request of the author.” BuzzFeed also took the extraordinary step of adding the post’s URL to its robots.txt directory, a text file website administrators use to instruct web crawlers, such as Google and the Internet Archive, what not to index (e.g., any password-protected pages).
This means, as the website Techno Guido explains, that Google was likely prevented from generating a cached copy of the original Monopoly post. More importantly, it means that the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine does not possess, and is prevented from storing, a copy of the post, since its crawler retroactively deletes all copies of any URL included in a site’s robots.txt file. The Monopoly post was effectively invisible to any program that keeps track of content hosted by third-party sites.
This is more than just a weird technical issue. The Internet Archive, a non-profit organization that serves as the web’s unofficial library, was the only way we were able to determine last year that BuzzFeed had deleted more than 4,000 posts without telling anyone. It is the only site that managed to archive a copy of Sicardi’s anti-Dove post before BuzzFeed quietly erased it.
True, maybe BuzzFeed had an additional motive—maybe the site wanted it ensure Hasbro executives couldn’t use Google to find Chivers’ post. But on balance, it’s difficult to see how BuzzFeed’s noodling with its robots.txt file is not an attempt to shield itself from public scrutiny and slip the deletion of the post under the internet’s rug.
Indeed, the only other remaining copy of Chivers’ post (besides the one hosted by Archive.Today) is a temporary Google cache of a page hosted by the defunct website ilike-them.com. We came across Google’s copy thanks to the Guardian blogger John Self, who tweeted a link to it on the day the post disappeared.
There’s very little accountability when it comes to the life of content on the internet, which is why most news organizations have strict standards in place so their content can’t be deleted like one might trash an embarrassing LiveJournal post. BuzzFeed purportedly adopted such standards, but they seem to be applied inconsistently, or simply not at all.
Update 4/10/15, 4:00 p.m.
BuzzFeed has reinstated both the Monopoly and Dove posts:
Appreciate the criticism. We just reinstated two posts and I sent this note to staffers. pic.twitter.com/YodxHiQmt2
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) April 10, 2015