GOP makes no apologies for ads disguised as news sites

House Republicans aren’t backing down from criticism that they’re disguising their political ads as fake news sites.

The National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) independent expenditure arm has launched microsites designed to look like local news pages that dole out favorable information about GOP candidates and damaging information about Democrats.

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They say the tactic, which is being used in about two dozen House districts, is a strong way to target voters ahead of the elections.

Instead of voters receiving direct mail that may be headed straight for the trash, they are searching the Internet for information on candidates, and Republicans want the NRCC’s viewpoint to be the one they see first.

And in an era in which news sites frequently cater to the right or the left, political operatives say they’re providing information in the same way as a campaign blog. 

And traditional news sites themselves have come under scrutiny from media critics for sponsor-generated content, essentially paid advertising that looks like a news story. The Federal Trade Commission announced last fall that it would begin examining the practice. 

“Campaigning in the 21st century means reaching voters online. This innovative digital effort is focused on getting the truth out about Democrat candidates, so it’s perfectly understandable why Democrats would be both scared of it and jealous they didn’t think of it first,” NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said.

Democrats say the NRCC’s tactic, first reported by National Journal, is dishonest and misleading. 

“If anyone was wondering why voters don’t trust Congress, look no further than the NRCC’s brand new voter outreach strategy – fake news sites,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Josh Schwerin said.

The NRCC was criticized for a similar tactic earlier this year for making mock Democratic sites asking for donations. After a complaint from a watchdog group, they tweaked the design to clarify that money was going to House Republicans and not the targeted candidates.

The committee chairman's own hometown newspaper brought up that controversy. The headline from the Portland Oregonian: “GOP campaign committee headed by Rep. Greg Walden once more pushes boundaries on websites.”

The new ads, with labels such as “Tucson Update” or “Des Moines Update,” all have similar layouts.

The “Update” branded title looks like a news banner, with content that looks like news articles below it. The sites include a “most popular” box for other stories and also a “most viewed” video widget.

Unlike the earlier donation sites, these new NRCC pages don’t appear to be breaking any campaign finance laws or regulations even if they may be ethically dubious, according to Democrats. At the bottom is the standard disclaimer that the site is authorized and paid for by the NRCC. Initially some sites did leave off a required mailing address or Web address, but that’s now been added.

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