The News Podcast: Facebook Scandals And Flesh-Eating Bacteria

Facebook's recent scandals, the Vibrio bacteria in oysters, and Michael Cohen's secret Trump recordings.

In this week's episode:

Listen to this week’s episode:

Subscribe to The News on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or Spotify!

Check out BuzzFeed’s other podcasts here and you can find transcripts for other episodes here.

The Lede — 00:39

Julia Furlan: Facebook’s earnings call this week revealed a loss of more than $100 billion dollars. And a memo from Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos . Our reporter Ryan Mac has been on this story since the beginning. This is The Lede with Shani Hilton.

Shani Hilton: Hi, Ryan, how's it going?

Ryan Mac: I'm good. How are you?

SH: Yeah, good. You've had a busy couple of weeks here, uh with a couple of pretty big Facebook scoops from the head of security at Facebook who's outgoing.

RM: Yeah

SH: In a note that he wrote to employees that felt very like it was very high level as very principled and he felt like we have to you know, make better decisions about what voices we’re amplifying, that kind of thing. Like how did that come about?

RM: So the Alex Stamos memos interesting because it's dated from March, uh late March 2018, which is right after if you remember, uh, the Cambridge analytic stories broke in the New York Times And The Observer so to kind of rewind a little bit: Stamos was an executive at Facebook who reportedly had some disagreements over, uh, investigating Russia disinformation and Russian interference in the election that happened on Facebook and by March it was reported that he was going to leave the company by August of that year. And so the memo came out right after the Cambridge Analytica stories about a week after in the attempt to kind of explain why he was leaving the company and this is an internal memo hasn't been circulated outside of Facebook until we published it on Tuesday. And the the memo was interesting because kind of things you would you would hear from an executive. Things like we should listen to people if people are telling us that we're doing creepy things or we should be willing to take sides and instances of of a kind of moral discussions. And so this kind of bluntness isn't really seen externally from Facebook executives. And that's why I think those kind of eye-opening for us and the reason why we reported it.

SH: Right and then Charlie Warzel who was your co-author on this piece said on Twitter I think that it’s interesting that he's saying all this so bluntly as he's leaving, instead of staying in trying to help make things better.

RM: Yeah, and we talk to at least one kind of former senior executive at the company who said that. I mean Facebook's never been in a situation like this before it's kind of facing a crisis of confidence from the public and these are the kinds of people that you kind of want in your corner asking these difficult questions, challenging Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg on these issues... And yet he's leaving.

SH: And this wasn't even the only Facebook story that you had this week. So earlier this week you and Charlie again had a story about a previously unreported call that Zuckerberg made to the president post-election, which is not super unusual. New presidents get lots of phone calls from lots of important people, but it seemed like Zuckerberg was making this call after his advertising team had worked extremely closely with the Trump campaign over previous election period.

RM: So that was that was a really interesting story to report out. I mean the reason why Charlie and I started looking at that actually was because we had obtained these documents that showed Facebook marketing team actually kind of speaking glowingly about their work with the Trump campaign. And if you look at what's been said about their work with the Trump campaign in financial companion disclosures, Trump spent a lot of money, tens of millions of dollars on Facebook Advertising. And Facebook doesn't really want to talk about that. I mean you don't really hear Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg going out and kind of being their chest about how they made a ton of money off political ads largely because I mean there would be like an extreme public backlash given the kind of discussion around the election. And so these documents were kind of what set us looking at this trying to understand how Facebook viewed Trump internally. So I think a lot of people around the country I've seen these “fake news is not your friend” Facebook ads on bus stops and billboards.

SH: I saw it on the train it was on Amtrak and I saw it on like the Philadelphia stop.

RM: Those ads are also being run on the Facebook platform. So Facebook is advertising on Facebook to put it succinctly. And the way that they tested those ads for the Facebook platform was they took a method that was used in the Trump campaign called “Test, Learn, Adapt.” And what they did in that is they would test an ad, say they would run a red ad and a blue ad and they would test that against a small audience and if one had a better reaction, they would learn about that and then they would adapt the ad to then be broadcast across a larger audience on Facebook. And that's basically how Facebook tested its current ad campaign on its own platform. It's been around at Facebook for a while. A lot of people call it glorified A/B testing, but the Facebook platform allows you to do this rapidly like within seconds and at scale.

SH: We're at a point where people are really scrutinizing what's going on, especially considering, you know, Zuckerberg comments about Holocaust deniers from a couple of weeks ago. Um, it's been a rough couple of weeks for them.

RM: I think it's been a rough couple of months. If not rough year. Every week seems to be like a new scandal for them. You mentioned the Holocaust comments that Zuckerberg made with regards to allowing Holocaust deniers to post their opinions on the platform. I mean that comes in direct conflict with what we're seeing in the Stamos memo that was sent out to employees in March this idea of like taking sides. And so you you get these kind of internal contradictions. And I'm not even clear that that Facebook employees are kind of understand what's going on here. I mean you have these executives that are saying a lot of different things and they just seem kind of confusing and conflicting.

SH: So Facebook is its own country and it's not surprising that there are a lot of different opinions within it about how—

RM: Zuckerberg would dispute that. I mean, yes, they have like two billion users, but he says first and foremost that they're a company and he's tried to make that point very clear.

SH: Oh, I’m sorry. My apologies to Mr. Zuckerberg.

RM: It’s not a “nation-state.”

SH: Um, so but we're only a few months away from the midterms. Do you get the sense that Facebook is ready for another election?

SH: They say they are and then they had this call on Tuesday with reporters. So Facebook's been trying to do a lot of these conference calls, a lot of these face-to-face meetings with reporters to show that they're being transparent and a lot of reporters: myself, the New York Times, the Post, everyone was on this call yesterday and someone asked the street pretty straightforward question: Have you seen interference in the run-up to the 2018 midterms and they kind of dodged the question. And then another reporter came in and asked can you respond yes or no? Have you seen interference? And you kind of got the same dodging again. And so it just seems so weird to me that they wanted to host these conference calls, but they're unable to answer basic questions about what they're doing to prepare and what they're seeing heading into the 2018 election. So I want to say that they're thinking about it, but I don't know if they're being quite truthful or quite open about it. It's pretty bizarre to me.

SH: I think the lack of crisp answers is not helping them right now.

RM: It's bizarre because I mean they wanted they want to be transparent but they can't be so like why are you even hold these calls in the first place if they're not going to answer questions?

SH: If we're looking at this from the perspective of the average Facebook user, who's getting targeted with all kinds of ads, political, apolitical, retail, whatever, what is this relationship that Facebook has with its advertisers and that Facebook has with speech, mean for the average Facebook user?

RM: I think I mean how many people have a Facebook profile now more than two billion around the world? Bigger than any country, I guess this point. I mean the average users can be paying attention to what Facebook is allowing on its platform because it really matters what they see. I mean, this is a company that will control how information is disseminated into your newsfeed into your Instagram feed, into basically the main types of media that people are using these days. So these kind of decisions matter for pretty much everyone. I mean doesn't have a Facebook.

SH: I don't have a Facebook.

RM: Oh, really?

SH: Yeah, I deleted mine almost a year ago around some concerns about advertising following me around the internet.

RM: Um, and how do you feel about it?

SH: Honestly, I've been thinking about rejoining. It's not a very principled stance frankly. I just sort of did it on a whim because I'd had an account for a very long time and wanted to see what would happen. I mean, I'll say like I just transferred a lot of my attention to Instagram which is essentially the same thing.

RM: Yeah, you can't escape.

SH: We're all trapped.

RM: It's fine or in the we're in the sunken place.

Wait But WHY — 10:32

JF: Ok friends! Now it’s time for Wait But Why??? Where Science Editor Ginny Hughes sits down with Theresa Tamkins to tell us why oysters are a no-go this summer.

Ginny Hughes: Hi Teresa, how are you?

Teresa Tampkins: I'm great. Glad to be here.

GH: You know every morning at our editorial meetings, you are known on staff for your house of horrors. There’s always something that’s just a huge bummer.

TT: Well, I like to think of it as providing information that you can make changes to keep yourself. Well as opposed to necessarily being super negative.

GH: Yeah yeah yeah, that too that too. Uh, so I wanted to chat with you about this super scary bug. It sounds like the germ of the summer maybe, maybe that's going a little too far. But can you tell me about Vibrio? What is this?

TT: Sure! I think um, you're referring to there been a lot of headlines lately about what some people call a flesh-eating bacteria, so Vibrio, and there's 12 different kinds of Vibrio. But there's one in particular that's very dangerous. It's called Vibrio vulnificus and you can get it from eating raw seafood, or you can also get it from swimming in the ocean if you have an open cut so it's very unusual to get this infection. But when you do it can be very very serious and there have been a number of high-profile deaths—one in Texas and other one in Florida and another one in Virginia—related to infections with Vibrio.

GH: You wrote about one case last week one sort of high-profile death. What happened there?

TT: In that case. It was a 71 year old man in Sarasota Florida, I believe and he got it from eating raw seafood and he got sick very quickly. He had underlying health conditions. And this is a common thing that you see with Vibrio is that he had um, you know type 2 diabetes, he was on dialysis for kidney disease. So certain people are a much higher risk for these very serious infections.

GH: Can you treat this with antibiotics?

TT: They they certainly can. The thing with this condition it gets very um severe very very quickly. I think he was he got sick in a number of hours, within two days he was in the hospital... They call it flesh-eating for a reason because can really infect her tissues and move very very rapidly and some people do unfortunately lose limbs. They can have limb amputations from the infected part of the body that can save people's lives.

GH: Yeah, you mentioned the limb amputations. There's yet another case study coming out this week.

TT: Yes. Um, it's in the New England Journal of Medicine. It's a case report coming out of South Korea of another person also in a man who was in his 70s who ate raw seafood. He also had underlying health conditions, you know, he ingested the bacteria and it manifested as these just terrible skin ulcers. They treated him as rapidly as they could. He had IV antibiotics. Unfortunately, the ulcers worsened. They ended up having to do a forearm amputation. He did survive. However, and um, I think it's just a cautionary tale that just important to be aware of it, but not too scared of it's still extreme. I want to emphasize that it's still extremely rare to have these very serious flesh-eating infections.

GH: Right. So this is. No sweat off my back because I hate oysters and I would never eat one. But for people who do like to eat them. Is there anything that normal people should should do or two people stop eating oysters?

TT: I asked the CDC expert if um say getting uh oysters harvested from cold water was safer because many people postulate like hey, as long as you don't get them from the Gulf in summer, you should be fine because that's warmer water and it's more likely to grow Vibrio. She said, The bacteria are present at all times in all waters at sometimes in oysters grown or harvested in places like Alaska or northern Europe where you wouldn't expect them to be but if you really are a fan of raw oysters, I think you should just keep in mind you know what the risk factors are. If you have an underlying health condition if you have an immune system weakness, if you've got liver or kidney disease or if you have type 2 diabetes, I I would say you should probably not eat any kind of raw seafood. It's just a bad idea for people who are healthy. If you do get sick they did say seek help sooner rather than later. So if you do get diarrhea and vomiting you might have a type of Vibrio. That's not that dangerous that would most of the time it resolves on its own just like any kind of food poisoning you'll be fine, but it's not a bad idea to call your doctor right away and say hey I've eaten oysters. This is a is this a real problem.

GH: And maybe if there's something you want to actually be worried about this summer? Sunscreen?

TT: Yeah, like I think in terms of the risk, things like flesh eating bacteria get a lot of headlines; they’re really grabby and very scary. But for the most part there are a lot of things that can happen to you during the summer that are much more likely than Vibrio. So, you know, you just want to keep in mind that there's other more important things like eating undercooked hamburgers or undercooked food, getting a severe sunburn and also being aware of water safety. So Vibrio is pretty rare. There's other summer hazards that you might want to keep in mind that are more important.

GH: I'll be staying in the dark all summer. I'm not really a beach fan anyway.

JF: That was Science editor Ginny Hughes talking to health editor Teresa Tamkins.

Subject Line — 16:02

JF: And now it's time for subjects line with special guest breaking news editor David Mack, resident Australian. How you doing David?

David Mack: I'm very well I'm so excited to be here.

JF: I am excited that you are here. So here's how it works: I'm gonna give you a news story from this week and you are going to come up with a snappy little subject line for it and tell us why we should give a shit about it. Are you ready?

DM: That sounds fun let's do it.

JF: Okay Pentagon emails.

DM: Okay. Uh, I have to preface this by saying I decided to come up with a theme for my answers. As you said I'm Australian. I'm a gay man. So I have to choose Kylie Minogue songs that I'm going to do here.

JF: Oh, that's great Lalala.

DM: Here we go: Pentagon Emails On A Fight Like This.

TAPE: Kylie Minogue's On A Night Like This

DM: On a fight like this. That's all you're getting.

JF: Okay, great. Why did you choose that lovely little subject behind David?

DM: Well, this is a crazy story from our Pentagon correspondent Vera who has looked at, uh some emails that she got through FOIA and looking at how uh, the White House basically has been keeping the Pentagon out of the loop on the statements that they released to the press and basically looking behind the scenes when uh, the White House says something to reporters and the Pentagon officials are kind of like what the fuck was that? Did anyone know this was coming?

JF: Yeah. It's really shocking right the basically the correspondence is sort of like, when somebody on the group text doesn't understand what the joke is or is like somehow like left off the chain and they're like, "I'm sorry, what was that thing you said?" It's really it is like that! It is chaotic.

DM: It is chaotic. That's why and we also see the White House trying to tell everyone later that "no no, there's no chaos here, everything is great." Which is why my alternate Kylie Minogue title was Spinning Abound.

JF: oh wow.

TAPE: Kylie Minogue's Spinning Around

DM: Classic. Golden short shorts, come on.

JF: She's really... I don't know nearly enough about Kylie Minogue, but I feel like this is the proper way for me to learn, you know.

DM: Well, we'll dance later.

JF: All right. Um, so the second subject line that I've got for you: simple simple guy, a guy we all know and enjoy. Michael Cohen.

DM: I feel like he's really taking over the news cycle. So that's why I came up with Cohen To My World.

JF: Oh!

TAPE: Kylie Minogue's Come Into My World

DM: He's everywhere. Right? He's just the president's old, uh private attorney and now it emerged he's been secretly taping him over the years and of course, uh prosecutors have their hands on some of these tapes. And not just prosecutors, now CNN does! Because they played it on air the other night.

JF: I know it's really juicy and as an audio producer, I'm like thrilled.

DM: Oh good because we're gonna hear some.

JF: Yeah, let's just listen to a you know, a choice sampling of things that Michael Cohen recorded:


DM: But there's obviously... Was this story about uh, whether or not Trump, uh knew about this payment. It's an important story knew about this payment to this, uh, Playboy Playmate who says she had an affair with him. This came just uh a few weeks before the election I think. And the president has previously said not only did he not have an affair with this woman, but he never knew of any uh payout to her and of course now, there's some sort of taped evidence indicating that, well on the latter at least, he was lying.

JF: He definitely knew about everything as it was going down?

DM: Yes, and he's a fan of Coca-Cola.

TAPE: Trump: Get me a coke please!

JF: Okay in our last one that we have this week is Amazon facial Rekognition.

DM: This is the one I'm most happy with. I just can't get it right with your head!

JF: Wow. That is you know, it's a stretch but I'm gonna take it!

DM: Okay I added a beat or two in there but I promise you that's gonna be in your head all day.

TAPE: Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out Of My Head

DM: This is this great story from our tech reporter Daniela who has a piece on how Amazon's facial recognition, which is like we're living in the future now, right? The computers are being used to identify facial characteristics. There are law enforcement agencies around the country starting to use this but the ACLU has a few quibbles with this, uh, they say it screws up a lot, especially on minorities, especially on women, and to prove this to try to convince Congress that this wasn't perfect, they did something quite smart I think.

JF: Amazon did or the ACLU did?

DM: ACLU did! They basically ran through all the photos of people in Congress and showed that 29 members of Congress were wrongly matched up with fugitives and wanted suspects of crimes and to show how much this is not reliable. And I think this what a genius uh Congressional move because now there are two congresspeople who have already written a letter saying we want some answers from this.

JF: It's really smart. And I think that in terms like I think that in 2018, if you're not thinking of a sort of stunty strategy to try and make your point against a very bizarre and wildly chaotic news cycle, you're not thinking hard enough. Like I think you have to think in terms in these terms if you want to make a point.

DM: You gotta break through and sometimes Kylie Minogue puns just won't do.

JF: You know, we do it for Kylie. Every week, every day, I wake up in the morning and I think what how can I make Kylie Minogue more a part of this news cycle?

DM: She's grateful. She's grateful. Thanks.

JF: David thank you so much for this.

DM: My pleasure.

Highly Recommended — 22:11

Dara Levy: I would recommend this great show I've been watching on freeform called Disney's Fairytale Weddings. It's people planning their weddings at Disney and Disney, of course also owns Freeform. So it's straight spon-con, and there's absolutely no conflict whatsoever. It's really great for when you just need something ridiculous and simple to watch.

Roxanne Emadi: The Book of Ye podcast that's all about Kanye West. And one of the hosts Rob Hayes is like the last remaining Kanye stan and just seeing the hoops that he jumps through to make Kanye West life, public life makes sense is truly amazing.

Kate Zasada: Elizabeth Holmes does these Instagram stories just doing breakdowns of Mehgan Markle's fashion. She calls it “So Many Thoughts” and it's incredible and I feel like I'm learning so much about fashion because I'll be like, oh she looks so cute and Royal and she'll be like, this is a bad look. Or she is dressing for the fashion roundup slide shows right now, and it is fascinating and I love it. She's @eholmes on Instagram.

Brianne O'Brien: So I highly recommend Samin Nosrat's “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” It's changed the way I use salt.

Agerenesh Ashagre: I highly recommend The Bold Type season two—well season one also, but if you stopped watching for whatever reason you should definitely tune into season 2, which is currently on Freeform and available on Hulu. It is hands-down the most realistic portrayal of what it's like to be a young media professional in New York City. It's almost like disgustingly real and I hate that I relate to it so much but the characters are great, the writing is amazing and funny, and it's incredibly diverse so you should check it out.


This episode was produced by the PodSquad! That's Megan Detrie, Alex Laughlin, Camila Salazar, and Julia Furlan. Our boss is Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale, and our music is by Chad Crouch. And special thank you to JoJo, who, fun fact: got super rich off of bitcoin and now eats 20 oysters a day.

Topics in this article

Skip to footer