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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Native Political Advertising

Native Advertising

Native Advertising

Who’s Fooling Whom?

Hana Callaghan

Hana Callaghan directs the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.  The opinions expressed are her own. For more information on how to judge the trustworthiness of the news, please visit the Trust which is hosted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and led by the Center’s Journalism Ethics Director, Sally Lehrman.

When it comes to online political advertising, it’s not just the Russians who are trying to confuse us. U.S. politicians, trying to attract our attention within the cacophony of digital content that we are exposed to, are turning to tactics that make political messages appear like genuine news stories.  This is called “native advertising” defined by the Native Advertising Institute as, “paid advertising where the ad matches the form, feel and function of the content of the media on which it appears.”

For example, Congressman Devin Nunes’ reelection campaign recently created an online news site called The California Republican.  The site’s Facebook page self-describes the outlet as a “Media/News Company.” In the “about” section the outlet’s Facebook page says that The California Republican is, “delivering the best of US, California, and Central Valley news, sports, and analysis.”  At the very bottom of The California Republican site, in tiny white letters you will find the disclaimer “Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee.”

President Trump has a series of videos on his campaign Facebook Page called, The Real News. Each segment is structured to look exactly like a television news segment.  There is an anchor, as well as a traditional news room backdrop and use of splits screens, suspiciously similar to CNN’s format. In fact the “anchor” is sometimes played by a former CNN commentator, Kayleigh McEnany.

The Republicans are not alone in trying to pass off political advertising as legitimate news.  In 2012, Barack Obama’s presidential re-election campaign sponsored a video on Buzz Feed which looked like a real news story reporting on Mitt Romney’s comment about “binders of women.”

The problem with these news-like articles and videos is that, unlike legitimate news stories, there is no independent investigation, no vetting of sources, no editors, and no unbiased reporting.  Yet, by trying to pass these stories off as authentic news, rather than political advertising, the campaigns are attempting to manufacture credibility. In other words, the pure intent of what is known as native political advertising, is to deceive the voters about the origin of the piece.

This type of advertising is not illegal, so long as the videos or articles are marked as paid for by the specific political committee. But, as illustrated in the Nunes “news” site, sometimes the disclaimer is difficult to find. It is also a problem when the content, once read, gets shared over and over on social media as legitimate news. Just because something is legal, does not necessarily make it ethical.  Attempting to deceive voters is always unethical regardless of the legality.

Calling for a ban on this practice might prove problematic given the strong First Amendment protections afforded political speech. Accordingly, it is up to us as voters and as consumers of news to beware of what we are being served.  Always be on the lookout for captions such as “sponsored content” or for the disclaimer “paid for by” noted in the fine print. Healthy skepticism when it comes to political advertising is always a good thing, but never more so than when those ads are disguised as reliable news stories. If candidates cannot be trusted to be truthful when they run for office, why should we trust them to govern in good faith once they are elected?

Mar 21, 2018

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