Virginia Political Candidate Rewrites Newspaper Headlines for His Political Ads

From a Washington Post story by Karina Elwood headlined “McAuliffe’s Google ads rewrite headlines”:

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, but the McAuliffe campaign opted for a different title in its paid advertising link to the same article: “Glenn Youngkin – Betrayed Taylor Swift.”…

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.”…

“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.”…

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

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….

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.

Karina Elwood is an intern covering local politics and government on the Washington Post Metro desk.

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