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Buzzfeed Benny's downfall
July 27, 2014 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Weird Twitter users @BLIPPOBLAPPO and @CRUSHINGBORT posted a blog entry on July 24th titled "3 REASONS BENNY JOHNSON SHOULDN’T CALL OUT PLAGIARISM: HE’S A PLAGIARIST, HE’S A PLAGIARIST, AND HE’S A PLAGIARIST" Ben Smith, the editor in chief at Buzzfeed responded to these allegations in an email to a Gawker employee calling Buzzfeed Benny "one of the web’s deeply original writers". @Crushingbort and @Blippoblappo responded with a blog post the next day with even more instances of Buzzfeed Benny's plagiarism. Buzzfeed editors started looking at all of Benny's posts and after finding 41 instances of plaigarism decided to fire him.
posted by josher71 (64 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Copying facts from Wikipedia seems like an odd example of plagiarism - as someone in the comments said, you can only rewrite facts so much before you change the facts entirely.
posted by divabat at 9:02 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Then he should have attributed the language to Wikipedia.
posted by kagredon at 9:03 AM on July 27 [10 favorites]


Copying facts from Wikipedia seems like an odd example of plagiarism...

He didn't just copy facts - he repeatedly copy and pasted directly from Wikipedia into his article sans attribution. Whatever reasonable doubt he had for the times whe he just paraphrased vanishes in light of that.
posted by griphus at 9:11 AM on July 27 [2 favorites]


has anybody made up a buzzfeed style list of all of his instances of plagiarism with wacky gifs to explain them? it seems like such a gimmie but i haven't seen one yet.
posted by nadawi at 9:14 AM on July 27 [15 favorites]


divabat: "Copying facts from Wikipedia seems like an odd example of plagiarism ..."

Not if you're familiar with undergraduates, it's not.
posted by barnacles at 9:14 AM on July 27 [23 favorites]


My favorite tweet about the whole affair.
posted by griphus at 9:15 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Copying facts from Wikipedia seems like an odd example of plagiarism

It's by far the single least odd example of plagiarism you could choose — at least in my experience. Any plagiarist these days is very likely to be plagiarizing Wikipedia as at least one of his sources. And the specific examples here are pretty obvious and unambiguous as far as I can see; the idea that these specific "facts" were freely available but just happened to be presented with the very same interpretation, selection, arrangement, description, and order is just silly.
posted by RogerB at 9:15 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


you can only rewrite facts so much before you change the facts entirely.

There was episode of the Bob Newhart show where someone accused him of plagiarizing his home improvement books, and the plaintiff's lawyer tricks Newhart on the stand by having him read a sentence--"Remove those two screws"--and catching him being unable to identify which book it came from, his or the plaintiff's. Newhart makes the same indignant point by asking how many different ways can you write that sentence? "See those two screws there, take 'em out!"
posted by fatbird at 9:16 AM on July 27 [9 favorites]


benny johnson is also responsible for the worst thing on the internet
posted by p3on at 9:17 AM on July 27 [14 favorites]


I had come to expect more from Buzzfeed. No, wait—
posted by goatdog at 9:18 AM on July 27 [5 favorites]


Copying facts from Wikipedia seems like an odd example of plagiarism - as someone in the comments said, you can rewrite facts as much as you like and never change the facts entirely.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:18 AM on July 27 [10 favorites]


BuzzFeed Writer Resigns In Disgrace After Plagiarizing ‘10 Llamas Who Wish They Were Models’ - The Onion, May 29, 2013
posted by griphus at 9:20 AM on July 27 [34 favorites]


I had come to expect more from Buzzfeed. No, wait—

This sentiment is probably what helped assuage Johnson in the first place: 'Well, it's only fucking Buzzfeed, who's really going to care?'
posted by Flashman at 9:27 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Also, department of buried leads: Buzzfeed is supposedly worth a billion dollars now? That seems excessive by, at a conservative estimate, seven decimal places.
posted by RogerB at 9:27 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Any plagiarist these days is very likely to be plagiarizing Wikipedia as at least one of his sources

Surely if you're taking stuff from multiple sources, you're not plagiarizing? That's why God made your eyes...

I write lots of stuff about things where Wikipedia is a very good first call. I try wherever possible to find confirmation of Wikipedia's claims, especially where numbers are concerned. But sometimes, where (for example) I've forgotten some aspect of semiconductor physics and use Wikipedia to remind myself, then there'll be sentences, even paras, which are absolutely a basic rewrite of the Wiki entry.

It's all very well to press the PLAGIARIZED! buzzer when you find someone repeating something without giving explicit credit/source info, and sometimes by Jeeves that's exactly what's going on. Cut and paste byline robbery is a hanging offence. But it's nowhere near as cut and dried as it was in the pre-Internet days - or, rather, the grey areas are a lot more prominent - and I don't consider the ethical landscape to be the same in 2014 as it was in 1964.

A decent discussion, shorn of excitable hooting, on what the crime is, who it hurts and what innocence looks like, would be most welcome.
posted by Devonian at 9:29 AM on July 27 [8 favorites]


A decent discussion, shorn of excitable hooting, on what the crime is, who it hurts and what innocence looks like, would be most welcome.

if only someone had found some links where you could read about it
posted by kagredon at 9:30 AM on July 27 [13 favorites]


if only someone had found some links where you could read about it

and then lightly rearranged them via cut-and-paste and claimed credit for them
posted by RogerB at 9:31 AM on July 27 [8 favorites]


At my previous job, I was reviewing the website of a small technology start-up that we were contemplating working with. In the "About our technology" section I found that they had incorporated the Wikipedia entry on cold-spray verbatim, with text at the bottom that said "From Wikipedia...change all instances of cold spray to $TECH" which I thought was hilarious. We didn't end up working with them.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:32 AM on July 27 [5 favorites]


Alex Pareene's Epic Takedown of Benny Johnson personally and Buzzfeed's house "style" more generally from last year's Salon.com Hack List was rather prescient:
Some of them just copy and paste content from elsewhere, like a message board called Reddit, or IMDB. This used to be called plagiarism!

Is it still plagiarism when no one at either end of the act is using their grown-up words anymore?

I don’t know! YOLO!!
posted by tonycpsu at 9:37 AM on July 27 [25 favorites]


To be fair, he sometimes changes the tenses on verbs.

And then misses half of the other ones in the sentence making the whole thing a steaming pile of poor grammar.

Yay writing!
posted by Conspire at 9:41 AM on July 27


It's not just Benny Johnson, this is the internet now, these are the standards of quality and originality we've lazily accepted by endorsing this crap with our clicks over and over. This is the end result of attribution being optional within reblog and clickbait culture. This is what happens when everyone realizes that original thought and writing take time and resources, and we need a firehose of content now, every day, for eternity, and it's easy to loosely aggregate a bunch of content from elsewhere. Benny just took it one step further by not even bothering to change phrasing, but this is definitely just "the way it is now".
posted by naju at 9:51 AM on July 27 [27 favorites]


The best part of this is reading the whiny little fascists on Twitter calling it a "witch hunt" and bitching about the mean things people are saying about Benny Johnson! Oh, boo hoo, you fucking babies who think you're above the rules everyone else has to follow.

example thread: https://twitter.com/cjciaramella/status/493067450003767297
posted by nath at 9:56 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Oops, maybe some HTML would help.
posted by nath at 10:04 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


The Onion article's repeated references to slideshows is great trolling.
posted by Xalf at 10:04 AM on July 27


Not to defend Johnson but I'm not exactly sympathetic with the editors of Buzzfeed who created impossible expectations for writers and then are shocked when they have to cut corners to keep up.
posted by octothorpe at 10:08 AM on July 27 [11 favorites]


Plagiarism has two sides to its coin. It's the taking of work that belongs to someone else (taking intellectual property = bad), but it's also the saying that it's your own idea. There's a "stealing" component to it, but there's also the deception when the expectation is that you clearly establish which part of your discussion you are interacting with that is already in the public discussion, and also what part you are adding that is your own unique contribution.

When I grade students, I find it odd that they don't provide attribution more often. It's an easy form of plagiarism to avoid, really, as we are simply asking students to tell us where they got things. We generally don't grade as much on whether they are adding anything new to a body of research. There's an analysis that generally comes after a survey of material, but it is not so much a creation of much that is unique.

In this case, though, it's easier to see why people do it. At higher stages of the game, and especially if you want to be noticed on the internet, your reputation with the public depends on an ability to be seen as "deeply original." It's hard to keep doing that over time. You start citing where you get your witty analysis from, and it waters down what you seem to be capable of. Not to mention the output expectations...

That being said, copying from Wikipedia is very odd, because 1) it's so easy to track down, and 2) Wikipedia expects sources to be cited, and you can simply go and see where that information was taken, and draw on it as well. There is a deep laziness that ends up becoming part of the process at some point, with a hubris that makes people think they are too big to get caught, or simply have a right to someone else's work to sell as their own without doing due diligence.

More often these days, I lose respect for people who publicly plagiarize not simply because of the stealing and lying, but because it's so insane to think you can get away with it over the long haul and be a public figure. (Not to mention, then, the follow-up discussion that usually discloses that they might not really even know what plagiarism is.) I lose respect for such a serious lack of wisdom and common sense that it undercuts anything they were trying to be taken seriously about.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:20 AM on July 27 [5 favorites]


A decent discussion, shorn of excitable hooting, on what the crime is, who it hurts and what innocence looks like, would be most welcome.

I roll my eyes at Internet hooting as much as the next grown adult, but this is sort of a silly flag to raise. It's not like what you're describing is untrodden ground. These are points that, if anything, have been decent-discussed to death. The irony is that they're probably only interesting at this point to outgoing sophomores who are just discovering the concept of non-hooting discussion.

Anyway, I can't get too het up about hooting in this instance. It's Buzzfeed. That's their special sauce.
posted by cribcage at 10:21 AM on July 27


"Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism."
So what? Plagiarism means you're presenting another's work as your own. Buzzfeed is trash, and they know it and they don't care.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:24 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


guess Benny's not going to get the next click-through achievement badge after all...
posted by ennui.bz at 10:36 AM on July 27



You guys are awfully strict. A lot of this strikes me as "remove the two screws" level of copying.
posted by tyllwin at 10:41 AM on July 27 [2 favorites]


"Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism."

So what? Plagiarism means you're presenting another's work as your own.


Yeah, this part of the statement doesn't have anything to do with anything, really. The types of moral issues that come up in the act of plagiarism are not simply about journalism. I would expect that writers don't do things like libel, either, even without a journalism background.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:42 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


It makes me wonder if spiders only compare to the more recent wiki edits. Can savvy cheaters and plagiarists just sift through old edits?
posted by One Hand Slowclapping at 10:48 AM on July 27


You guys are awfully strict. A lot of this strikes me as "remove the two screws" level of copying.

But there were also cut-and-paste examples; those are the ones he was fired for:

After carefully reviewing more than 500 of Benny’s posts, we have found 41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites. Benny is a friend, colleague, and, at his best, a creative force, but we had no choice other than letting him go.
posted by Huck500 at 10:49 AM on July 27


Yeah, the "remove the two screws" thing is what I meant by my comment of "odd": not that it doesn't happen (I once went to a college where people were copying entire pages wholesale) but it seems like a weaker example compared to the others.
posted by divabat at 10:56 AM on July 27


The most embarassing part of the Slavoj Zizek plagiarism scandal isn’t that Zizek committed plagiarism. It isn’t even that he plagiarized a white supremacist website. It’s the way the plagiarism was discovered. Steve Sailer was reading a Zizek book and noticed that part of it actually made sense.
posted by bukvich at 11:02 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Media clowns gonna media circus.
posted by Pudhoho at 11:33 AM on July 27 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the the whole idea of authorship is lacking. It seems to be important to consider authorship for forensic purposes - that is, who should get credit/paid? But in terms of communicating important information, it matters a lot less. If the point is, for example, to give technical details (remove two screws) than I'd think the whole call of plagiarism is so pedantic it completely misses the point. I mean does Buzzfeed need to use the phrase "according to wikipedia" in every article? Or can we just assume they used the internet to find facts?

While it's important not to steal, and to credit those who have done the work you're building on, this particular affair feels like a game of Internet Gotcha.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:48 AM on July 27 [2 favorites]


While it's important not to steal, and to credit those who have done the work you're building on, this particular affair feels like a game of Internet Gotcha.

in this particular case it was in response to johnson calling someone else out on plagiarizing him
posted by p3on at 12:15 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


I mean does Buzzfeed need to use the phrase "according to wikipedia" in every article? Or can we just assume they used the internet to find facts?

A possible solution to this is to separate citations into two groups - the bare technical details, and standard citations. The first group would only have to be cited with a list at the bottom of the article, such as "citations: wikipedia.com, janes.com, etc" that would cover only the raw numerical data contained in the article - anything more than that would move to the second group. The second group would cover everything else, and follow the existing standards that have been set up for proper citations. For example, if I were writing something regarding military aircraft, if I were only referencing the technical specifications like weight, armaments, and such, I would use the first group. If I used something in that source regarding anything else, like historical background, comparisons to other countries aircraft, or anything above that 'remove two screws' level of thought, I'd have to mention the citation within the article.

This isuue is a tricky one - being able to follow the trail of information back to its source is absolutely vital to ensuring that not only is the information presented correct and the original creator given credit, but to ensure that the information is not being misrepresented, intentionally or not, by the article's author and I am wary of any action that would weaken such a fundamental element to the integrity of the entire system.

It's better that we hold even idle entertainment sites like buzzfeed to at least the basic level of reasonable standards that apply to the more serious media creators. They don't have to be as strict as science of medical journals, but they need to at least be accountable on some level.
posted by chambers at 12:20 PM on July 27 [5 favorites]


Finally, someone's doing something to bring INTEGRITY back into listicles!
posted by mudpuppie at 12:25 PM on July 27 [7 favorites]


Steve Sailer was reading a Zizek book and noticed that part of it actually made sense.

Not to defend the plagiarism itself, but this is a creepy, tendentious summary; we should be more than a bit dubious of the accuracy of fucking white supremacist bloggers' assessment of Žižek's coherence. A fairer summary would be: Steve Sailer was reading a Žižek book and noticed that part of it seemed unexpectedly "lucid" and "clear" to him — because unlike most of Žižek's readership, he was a regular and sympathetic reader of white-supremacist literature.
posted by RogerB at 12:46 PM on July 27 [8 favorites]


The Sailer/Zizek thing is for real and not a parody?!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:12 PM on July 27


The Sailer/Zizek thing is for real and not a parody?!

more reasonable summary here, with Žižek's response; statement from Critical Inquiry; not-bad essay in Inside Higher Ed on the subject
posted by RogerB at 1:17 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Regarding the "known facts" claim, I noticed that things that were being stated as if they were known facts shared between between writers of common interest when in fact there was no effort at all to establish that those facts were accurate, and then even the wording of those facts was borrowed wholesale. There is a difference between "accepted fact in the discipline" versus lazy assumption or unsubstantiated statistic that starts to get passed around. This, to me, is a bit more damning because it borrows under the guise of known facts but in reality is just really lazy-ass all around.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:38 PM on July 27


"Accusing someone working at Buzzfeed of plagiarism is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500" -- Andrew Famiglietti
posted by KatlaDragon at 1:51 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


"Accusing someone working at Buzzfeed of plagiarism is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500" -- Andrew Famiglietti

See, that isn't even close to being a correct analogy. People who work at Buzzfeed shouldn't be plagiarizing. Nobody should, actually. It's okay for people to speed at the Indy 500.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:56 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Wow, that apology letter... thing:
1. It smacks of, "Aw man, we don't wanna have to fire Benny! We love Benny! Wah! But we got busted!"
2. "We have also included links to each at the bottom of this note." Yes, but you'll have to copy and paste them yourself, HMMMMM.
3. "BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago." It did?
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:58 PM on July 27


The point is that's like this entire model for churning out content. He's not some aberration, it's built into the very system. Take this Huffington Post article as a more or less random example: all the comments point out that they took it wholesale from Cracked and added some animated GIFs (edit: the GIFs aren't theirs either. None of the content is theirs.) 16k facebook likes.
posted by naju at 2:02 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


a creepy, tendentious summary

I'm sure Zizek's not worried; he'll probably repeat the same joke himself.
posted by Segundus at 2:29 PM on July 27


Accusing someone working at Buzzfeed of plagiarism is like stealing a line from Apocalypse Now.
posted by Pudhoho at 2:31 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


It doesn't really matter that this is "just" Buzzfeed and that it's not serious journalism. It's still someone else's work that is being coopted for profit, without attribution.

And that actually matters for a lot of different reasons.

For one, if you get plagiarized by a higher profile party, there is a very good chance that you'll be the one accused of stealing their work. Sure, this was stuff people had written for Wikipedia in this case, but what if it'd been some small publication or even some kid's term paper or blog post or something? They might be able to prove innocence if they have date stamped copies, but sometimes, if you're just some chump, people don't even accuse you to your face. They just assume you're the plagiarist and toss your resume.

But mostly because it's systemic. It's not just that guy. A lot of content mill type organizations are just outsourcing the plagiarism by paying such low rates that their writers don't have a choice. I used to do a lot of writing for hire on a freelance basis, just writing basic copy for a variety of clients in different industries. I can write pretty quickly, and I was already pretty familiar with my main content areas, so I could generally churn stuff out at a better pace than most, but one client in particular started getting really demanding, wanting me to give them more and more, and I was confused until an editor there said something weird based on the casual assumption that I was plagiarizing. I raised a huge stink with the company and stopped working for them, but then, I went and looked at some of the content other freelancers had done, and it was almost all just straight cut and pasted, mostly from articles on one very visible site. Apparently, all the other freelancers were plagiarizing, and the company knew it and even counted on it. They were just hiring freelancers to cushion them from responsibility when someone inevitably noticed.

So what was Buzzfeed paying him? Was it enough that he could have reasonably done it without plagiarizing? Or do they, like so many other content providers, implicitly require plagiarism and just throw the people who get caught under the bus?
posted by ernielundquist at 2:32 PM on July 27 [10 favorites]


Waitwaitwaitwait.... are you suggesting that the Intetnet isn't public domain because, mind BLOWN.
posted by 4ster at 4:15 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


I'm glad Benny Johnson got fired, even if he isn't exceptional. He was annoying and his actual reporting was awful.

That said, I wonder how people could go about attacking the real problem - link aggregators driving their workers to the point where they have to plagiarize their content.

Anyway, I've followed @blippoblappo for a while. He's almost broken the 2,000-follower mark now, but before this story broke, he only had about 500, if I remember right. Seeing him blow up has been extremely cool. He definitely deserves the kudos.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:12 PM on July 27


Anyway, my favorite tweet about this was this one of Stefan's (@boring_as_heck).
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:15 PM on July 27 [5 favorites]


The only question yet is who will hire Benny first with a "defending real journalism from the Left Wing Media" PR campaign: The Blaze? Brietbart? Bloomberg?
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:01 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Of course, Buzzfeed will just bury a statement off of its "About Us" page to the effect that Buzzfeed articles draw well-known facts from a variety of popular sources including Wikipedia, the NYT, etc, researched to bring you their unique combinations! Then they'll hire Benny's replacement and back to business.
posted by tyllwin at 9:13 PM on July 27


It smacks of, "Aw man, we don't wanna have to fire Benny! We love Benny! Wah! But we got busted!"

I'm not sure what's wrong with the sentiment of not wanting to fire someone but having to due to their misconduct.
posted by josher71 at 6:13 AM on July 28


I'm glad Benny Johnson got fired, even if he isn't exceptional. He was annoying and his actual reporting was awful.

He was also the person who uncritically quoted anonymous US intelligence sources saying that they'd like to have Ed Snowden assassinated.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 12:09 PM on July 30


He was also the person who uncritically quoted anonymous US intelligence sources saying that they'd like to have Ed Snowden assassinated.

Yeah. His actual reporting was awful. It's too bad it's the penny-ante reporter getting fired and not the bloodthirsty intel hacks - not that I'd be sad to see them all get a pink slip.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:50 PM on July 30


New post: DID CNN, THE WASHINGTON POST, AND TIME ACTUALLY CHECK FAREED ZAKARIA’S WORK FOR PLAGIARISM?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:27 PM on August 19


The critique continues.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:57 PM on August 20


The Paste-American World: How Fareed Zakaria Plagiarized In His International Bestseller (And The Magazines He Used To Run)

posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:08 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


The Zakaria thing deserves its own post! The hilarious bullshit denials that he is spewing (and more surprisingly, many of his past and present editors are echoing) ought to be enjoyed by a broad audience.
posted by RogerB at 3:07 PM on August 22


I agree! I would have posted it myself, but I'm friendly enough with @blippoblappo that doing so would feel a bit ethically off.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:56 PM on August 22


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