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New political ad strategy in Virginia: Promoting news articles in Google search results

Screenshot shows an advertisement on Google purchased by Terry McAuliffe's campaign promoting an Axios article, with a headline and description written by the campaign. The original headline written by Axios is “Glenn Youngkin's play: Forever- and Never-Trumpers.” (Karina Elwood/The Washington Post)

Democratic Virginia governor candidate Terry McAuliffe’s campaign is using Google ads to promote articles from news organizations, but swapping the original headlines on the search results page with ones written by the campaign itself — a novel political advertising method.

The Google ads purchased by McAuliffe’s campaign feature links to news and opinion articles about his Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin from Axios and The Washington Post. The ads show up at the top of search results for keywords such as “Glenn Youngkin,” and include a disclosure that they are advertisements, as well as an additional tag required for political advertisements that indicate they’re paid for by the McAuliffe campaign.

But the ad includes titles written by the campaign, which are subtly different from the original search engine headlines written by the publications, and appear in the same format as a headline would appear in a search result.

An Axios article with the title “Virginia Governor’s race features Taylor Swift,” appears in Google search results, for instance, but the McAuliffe campaign opted for a different title in its paid advertising link to the same article: “Glenn Youngkin - Betrayed Taylor Swift.”

The Youngkin campaign has not purchased any ads that link directly to independent news outlets, according to Google’s Political Advertising Transparency Report.

The changes and formatting of these new ads — almost identical to how a news article would appear in search engine results — was enough to raise concern for some political and media experts, who said the ads could make it appear as though the news organizations were writing the altered headlines or the candidate was paying for the coverage.

Ericka Menchen-Trevino, American University assistant professor in the School of Communication, said McAuliffe’s ads appear as if the campaign is writing its own headlines and attributing it to the news organizations.

“It could reasonably be interpreted as Axios did a story paid for by the candidate,” said Al Tompkins, senior faculty with the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization in St. Petersburg, Fla. “And that’s not okay.”

An Axios spokesperson declined to comment on the ads.

Others said the campaign was just using digital tools to lead viewers to independent news articles that it believes back up its positions.

“Independent media have a certain level of credibility that goes above and beyond paid media,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “It’s a very clever way to link advertising and traditional media in a way that enables the candidate to communicate his message.”

McAuliffe’s campaign did not directly respond to questions about its method of political advertising. “Glenn Youngkin is running on prioritizing Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories instead of Virginians, and our campaign is making sure we reach voters where they are at,” McAuliffe spokesperson Renzo Olivari said in a written statement.

Using snippets of news coverage and circulating articles considered favorable for themselves — or unfavorable for their opponent — is common practice for campaigns. But it’s traditionally been used in social media posts, email blasts and news releases, while Google search ads were used to promote campaign websites, donation pages or third-party sites built by the campaigns.

Google’s Political Advertising Transparency Report, which allows people to view who purchased an ad, how much they spent, how many impressions the ad received and where it was targeted to reach, shows that since Sept. 16, McAuliffe purchased 12 ads to promote articles from Axios and The Post.

A few of the ads promote Axios coverage of McAuliffe’s advertising campaign tying Youngkin, former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, to the sale of Taylor Swift’s masters in 2019, a business deal that was financially backed by the investment firm.

The Google ads also feature links to Post opinion pieces. One features the title “Another Glenn Youngkin failure - He’s all Double Talk” — a title that was written by the campaign. The headline written by The Post reads: “Opinion: McAuliffe shows leadership when it comes to vaccines. Youngkin is all double-talk.”

“We wish candidates would not use ad formats that invariably confuse readers,” Post spokeswoman Kristine Coratti Kelly said in an email.

While Youngkin has not purchased ads linking directly to independent news outlets, his campaign has purchased Google ads, including a Google search ad linking to, a third-party website paid for by the campaign. The site displays a collection of attack ads and coverage from independent news sources with the original headlines intact.

Experts all agree the technique is something they haven’t seen before in political advertising. And it’s part of a larger ongoing conversation about how misinformation spreads online, especially during elections, and to what extent Big Tech companies are required to regulate the content advertised on their platforms.

In 2017, Facebook changed a similar feature on its platform to prevent advertisers from being able to modify news headlines. Now, news publishers have the ability to prevent advertisers from linking to stories without the publisher’s permission. Publishers can also prevent headlines from being altered to misrepresent the contents.

On Google, state and federal campaigns that wish to advertise on the search engine (and on YouTube, which is owned by Google), have to go through a verification process and include an additional disclosure that shows who paid for the advertisement. According to Google, the ads purchased by the McAuliffe campaign passed the verification process and contain the required political disclosures, which clearly identify that the ads are paid for by the campaign.

“Advertisers who wish to run election ads on our platform are required to go through a verification process and provide in-ad disclosures that clearly display who paid for the ad. These ads also appear in our transparency report, which is available to the public,” a Google spokesperson said in a written statement.

Tompkins at Poynter said the disclosure included might not be enough in situations where the advertiser is not the owner or creator of the link being advertised.

According to Google, hate speech, extremist content and false claims that could undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process are prohibited in advertisements. But, promoting a news story using political speech, which commonly uses hyperbole, is not prohibited.

“We recognize that robust political dialogue is an important part of democracy, and no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation,” Google wrote in a 2019 blog post. “So we expect that the number of political ads on which we take action will be very limited — but we will continue to do so for clear violations.”

Some experts said that while political campaigns have the right to use independent news in their advertisements — as is commonly done in emails, TV spots and news releases — having the power to change the display headline that publishers write could prove to be a problem for media literacy.

Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor in the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications, said that the ability to write titles in ads that appear to be headlines could be misleading to viewers because it could reframe the news.

Ultimately, Grygiel said, political ads should not alter the headlines on news stories.