House Republicans unveil a new 2014 strategy: Repurposing press releases on a fake news site

The following are not news outlets.

  • Tucson Update (Ariz.)
  • Sacramento Update (Calif.)
  • Central Valley Update (Calif.)
  • Aurora Update (Colo.)
  • Tallahassee Update (Fla.)
  • Augusta Update (Ga.)
  • Northbrook Update (Ill.)
  • South Michigan Update (Mich.)
  • Des Moines Update (Iowa)
  • Middleton Update (Mass.)
  • Moorhead Update (Minn.)
  • Duluth Update (Minn.)
  • Manchester Update (N. H.)
  • South Jersey Update (N. J.)
  • Buffalo Update (N. Y.)
  • Hudson Valley Update (N. Y.)
  • Southeast Pennsylvania Update (Pa.)
  • San Antonio Update (Texas)
  • Loudon Update (Va.)
  • Charleston Update (W. Va.)

Why bother noting things that don't exist? Because each of those "Update" Web sites was created by the National Republican Campaign Committee. They are meant to look like a real news site but really are intended to attack a Democrat who is running for Congress.

Before you wonder how we can say with such certainty that the sites are intended to mislead, we offer our evidence. Picking Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) as our example, here's the "Long Island Update" article on the congressman.

fake-site

It has that header at the top of the page, implying it's a news site. It has a headline and photo. It has a timestamp. It has an author — always "Geoff." It has a list of the "Most Popular" links, and, sometimes, the "Most Viewed," which is usually an ad promoting the candidate's opponent. It is "Filed under" the name of the race involved, and the URL for each ends with "update70," "update71" or "update72," implying that there are more stories on the site than there are. At the bottom of the page, that same header again, and then a bunch of white space, and then, finally, an acknowledgement that the site is paid for by the NRCC.

The National Journal reported on the sites Tuesday, pointing out that the NRCC is buying ads on Google for people searching for Democratic candidates to redirect them to these fake news sites. Nor did the NRCC seem to be terribly concerned about the implications of misleading visitors.

"We believe this is the most effective way to present information to leave a lasting impact on voters," NRCC communications director Andrea Bozek told the magazine's Shane Goldmacher. That defense is understandable: Giving people the impression that negative information about a candidate is coming from a news site vs. a political organization would almost certainly be more effective. But is it ethical?

Political campaigns (and advertisers and a lot of other folks) spend their time smudging the line between informing and persuading. Voters need information about candidates for office and yet are often uninterested in receiving it and even less interested in searching it out themselves. Campaigns therefore often rely on eye-catching ads that often present information in a negative or positive extreme, relying on the powers of persuasion far more than an appeal to rational decision-making. That strategy, the National Journal suggests, may be losing potency.

So we get this. "ObamaCare To Raise Premiums In Colorado," an article posted by "Geoff" at the "Aurora Update" attacking Democrat Andrew Romanoff that is actually a slight rewrite of an article with the same title written by Matt Gorman at the NRCC Web site. Or "Geoff"'s update on the "Duluth Update," crowing that a candidate will "Host Fundraiser With Convicted Child Molester." The criminal being mentioned: Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. The article itself was originally this one by the NRCC's Tyler Houlton. On a Web site with a bright red banner reading "NRCC" and adjacent to an enticement to buy retro Reagan-Bush gear, the article reads one way. When presented as "news" at a "news site," readers are given a very different impression.

The 33-plus articles we found on the NRCC's electionupdate2014.com are just the same old politics hoping to wring a bit of believability out of the news media's already-diminished credibility. And if you actually clicked the link in the preceding sentence, you'll notice it took you to the site's error page. Scroll down. There's the NRCC's ownership disclaimer, tucked just out of sight.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.

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Philip Bump · August 13, 2014