DETROIT, MI—Deceptive political ads are one thing. But how about deceptive ads that trade on the credibility of journalism?
That’s what a Republican political group is trying out. This month, the National Republican Congressional Committee debuted at least 20 websites in key congressional districts—from Central Valley, California, to Augusta, Georgia—that are designed, albeit amateurishly, to look like news sites. One of them, “South Michigan Update,” sports the headline “Byrnes Struggles to Escape Her Record,” referring to Democrat Pamela Byrnes in Michigan’s 7th District. Like the other NRCC sites, the featured post attacks the Democratic candidate in the race. The piece has a byline credit to “Geoff,” though, as The Washington Post pointed out, most of “Geoff’s” posts are rewrites of content from the NRCC site. The spare South Michigan site has one other item: a video ad for the 7th District’s Republican incumbent, Tim Walberg, that is featured under the header, “Most Viewed.”
As Lester Graham, an investigative reporter with Michigan Radio, described it in a story that drew attention to South Michigan Update, the casual observer might easily mistake the fake news site for a real one. Because the NRCC is promoting the sites through localized Google search ads, according to the National Journal, readers may well stumble on them unwittingly: It’s the first item that comes up when you search for the Democratic candidates’ name. The NRCC did put a box at the very bottom of the sites indicating that they are paid political ads. But the sites seem designed for social sharing and email-forwarding—exactly the kind of delivery where readers are likely to read only the headline or first few paragraphs of the story. They wouldn’t even see the bottom of the page.
“This ‘South Michigan Update’ may look phony and insubstantial to more sophisticated Web surfers, but a lot of online traffic doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about such things,” said Fred Brown, vice chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.
When asked by Michigan Radio about the fake news sites, Daniel Scarpinato, the NRCC’s press secretary, said they aren’t meant to be mistaken for real news. “Anybody who would think otherwise is underestimating the intellect of voters. You know, the internet has been around for 25 years, so it’s pretty clear to people what is a news website and what’s not,” Scarpinato told Graham.
Graham called this “an interesting spin.”
“When you’re saying it’s obvious nobody is naïve enough to fall for that, it seems to me that you want them to fall for that,” Graham said.
In the National Journal piece, Andrea Bozek, the NRCC’s communications director, argues that, “This is a new and effective way to disseminate information to voters who are interested in learning the truth about these Democratic candidates.” While costuming the attack sites as news sources is novel, the NRCC drew fire earlier this year for creating a series of fake Democratic campaign sites, which included donation portals that directed to Republican candidates.
Fake news has become, of course, something of an online genre—so much so that Facebook is testing a satire label on posts from sources like The Onion. The New Republic has described how plenty of other fake news sites make it their business to fool readers with plausible-sounding headlines in order to generate massive clicks—and the ad dollars that come with them. And as Ben Adler has written for CJR, the way people increasingly consume information on the internet—by reading headlines and sharing stories before clicking through to the article—makes it easier than ever for people to fall for online hoaxes. The average click-through rate on Twitter posts is a disturbingly tiny 1.64 percent, according to MediaBistro.
But, as Graham pointed out, there is a crucial difference between the NRCC’s sites and the satire sites, whether they are skillful ones like The Onion or fly-by-night click-generators: “They’re not trying to direct public policy for the nation. The goals and motivations are completely different. One is trying to fool you with a joke; the other is trying to fool you with your vote.”
That means that the stakes are too high.
“No political party should be pretending to be a news site of any kind,” said Graham. “It’s just deceptive. Journalists have to have their credibility, and when stuff like this starts popping it up, it messes up the credibility of journalism for the rest of us.”
Brown said that it’s not just the ethical guidelines of journalism that are violated here. The Public Relations Society of America, in its own code of ethics, warns professionals from using front groups and anonymous internet postings. It stresses to its members that “open communication is essential for informed decision-making in a democratic society.” In its advisory on video news releases—press material packaged as broadcast journalism—it urges public relations professionals “to make full disclosure of sources in all VNRs and accompanying material, and to include contact information.”
But for all that line-crossing, Brown said that there really is no journalistic or political sanction for this sort of thing, and “there probably shouldn’t be, with the First Amendment.” Whether it’s journalists defending their credibility or the citizens defending themselves from deception, Brown said the best way to challenge fake news is “by calling attention to its true nature.” Stories about the site in Michigan Radio and elsewhere, then, serve as an exercise in news literacy for the public.
After news broke about the fake sites, the content appeared to change somewhat on South Michigan Update, although it’s not clear why. When Graham looked again at the site on August 28, he noted that the featured story is “quite a bit shorter.” The person behind Michigan Radio’s Facebook account noted on August 26 that, “Personal attacks, while mild, have been removed” from the original post on Byrnes.
Whether this was a reaction to criticism of the sites, or simply an effort to freshen up the content, is not clear. Either way, the very existence of sites like this is “not a trend that’s healthy for journalism,” Graham said.
“You can say a lot about deceptive political ads, but it’s crossing the line for an ad to pretend to be journalism, whether it’s a broadcast ad, online ad, or paper ad,” Graham added. “Journalists have to defend our credibility and integrity from this invasion.”