The Guardian catches Storyful tracking what videos journalists are watching

Storyful has been running an internal feed of all the videos clients using its Chrome extension watch. Is this malice or incompetence?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

The Guardian's Paul Lewis and Jim Waterson have got an interesting story about that darling of social media verification, Storyful. The agency - now owned by News Corp - makes a Chrome plugin available to clients which indicates the verification status of videos the user is viewing.

The problem is that the plugin is "calling home" with information about every video the user watches. That feed of information is being surfaced in a Slack channel viewable by Storyful staff.

As Waterson & Lewis report:

The Guardian has obtained a recording of the feed, which is a purpose-built channel in Slack, a commonly used office software. The channel, called #verify-notifications, displays a constantly updated list of videos and pictures being viewed on social media. Over a four-hour period, more than 200 videos and photos are shown, beside the notification: “New item viewed by client.”

Three immediate thoughts spring to mind:

  • They see to have, at least, tried to do the right thing, by not making the identity of the person watching the content available in the feed.
  • It actually makes sense as a tool for the business: if you see people are looking at a particular video, that flags it up for your crack verification team to do to work. And yes, then potentially sell it to the people who were looking at it in the first place. But then, if you're a Storyful client, you're already essentially outsourcing verification to them.
  • I bet it didn't get used much. The signal/noise ratio of people watching friends' videos, clip montages, trailers and so on versus actually viral news stuff would be pretty darn terrible, unless their clients were waaaay more disciplined than any I've worked with…

Honestly, if Storyful was still an independent company, I might have brushed this off as The Guardian over-selling the story. The music on the explainer video is almost comically sinister:

But Storyful isn't an independent agency. It's part of News Corp - and a heavily loss-making one, at that. The effective impact of this was to give that company's titles an insight into what their direct competitors were working on. Now, maybe they had the controls in place to manage that — but there's no immediate indication of that.

Also, this does rather raise some questions about the due diligence of Storyful's non-News Corp clients. Their use of the plugin has been sharing potentially useful competitive intelligence with a subsidiary of a direct competitor. That's the sort of annoying checking that your purchasing team should be doing.

Still, I'd still put this down to a dumb move on Storyful's part, rather than a malign one. I've sat in enough awful corporate meetings where an idea is proposed that benefits the company, without people really thinking through the consequences of what they're doing. They've done the bare minimum to make it feel acceptable, by not making the actual users identifiable. But even a cursory look at Twitter this evening gives a sense of how this looks:

If they have any sense, they'll be turning it off. They might as well, as I suspect journalists will be uninstalling the plugin en masse because, honestly, do you want anyone watching your browsing?

Thought not.

storyfulsocial media verificationnews corpmonitoring

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.