With former Vice President Joe Biden stumbling in the primaries and the polls and the rise of self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the media struggled to find a candidate to promote or criticize.
As for BuzzFeed News, it chose to blast billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Instagram influencer campaign after its non-news affiliate took advertising money from Bloomberg’s campaign.
BuzzFeed News headlined its criticism of Bloomberg’s online advertising as kowtowing to Bloomberg, “Huge Instagram Meme Accounts Are Shilling For Michael Bloomberg.” It failed to acknowledge in its headline that its non-news affiliate participated in Bloomberg’s online advertising campaign.
As background, Bloomberg’s campaign relies on online advertising as a part of its strategy and it paid several meme accounts on Instagram to advocate for Bloomberg. The accounts were in meme form, written in a fake messaging format between the account holders and Bloomberg and it could reach millions of followers on the social media platform.
BuzzFeed admitted that the Bloomberg campaign paid BuzzFeed’s Kale Salad (a social media account that is not a part of BuzzFeed News) to participate in the Instagram advertising campaign, which forced BuzzFeed to issue a statement on how its social media “Creators Program” does allow “some non-news employees to monetize their own social media channels.” BuzzFeed said, “This deal was done between the campaign and Kale Salad exclusively — which is allowed under the guidelines of our Creators Program.”
BuzzFeed News, after disclosing the conflict-of-interest, criticized Bloomberg’s record as mayor over his policing tactics. It blasted New York City Police Department (NYPD) for routine stops, questioning, and frisking men in minority communities and noted how “it was sharply criticized as racist.” The news arm also alleged that under Bloomberg’s leadership, the NYPD surveilled Muslims on a systematic basis.
Bloomberg spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told BuzzFeed News, “Mike Bloomberg 2020 has teamed up with social creators to collaborate with the campaign, including the meme world.” She added, “While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics, we’re betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.”
Though Buzzfeed and BuzzFeed News attempted to separate themselves from conflict-of-interest and Bloomberg’s online advertising campaign, it opens up BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News to other questions about neutrality and impartiality. BuzzFeed News criticized Bloomberg, which could demonstrate the independence of the news arm from BuzzFeed, but it placed BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News in a gray ethical area of whether BuzzFeed News’s journalists would feel pressure to favorably cover Bloomberg. In hindsight, it would have been better for BuzzFeed to decline Bloomberg’s campaign advertising money to separate itself from endorsing a candidate and placing its news arm in a precarious ethical situation.