Web Summit / Flickr SAM 7462...
Web Summit / Flickr

In an election post mortem, Cambridge Analytica’s business development director Brittany Kaiser focused on the ability of CA to determine how much impact each ad placement was having. How many times the ads were read. How often they were shared. How far they penetrated. And there was one ad in particular she was especially proud of.

One of the most effective ads, according to Kaiser, was a piece of native advertising on the political news website Politico, which was also profiled in the presentation. The interactive graphic, which looked like a piece of journalism and purported to list “10 inconvenient truths about the Clinton Foundation”, appeared for several weeks to people from a list of key swing states when they visited the site. It was produced by the in-house Politico team that creates sponsored content.

Politico writes about politics. Politico also sells ads. There’s nothing wrong with that—the second activity helps fund the first, just as it does on The Trump Impeachment and Daily Kos. They also have the occasional editorial or piece written by someone with a deeply-held political position, including both candidates and those involved in campaigns. Again, this is both a common occurrence and a widely accepted practice.

But Politco is also one of those outlets where the staff engages in writing ads, including lengthy pieces written and packaged to look like journalism. And that’s an issue. Because it makes a big overlap in the Venn diagram of information that was advertised on Politico, and information that was written by Politico. It makes it very difficult to object if this material is held up as something “Poltico says …”

In a Washington Post article, both Politico and the Post defend the ad, in part because the format of the ad block doesn’t look like the usual Poltico article.

To any experienced reader of Politico, that look raises eyebrows. First off, Politico stories commonly have newsy headlines and distinctive digital folderol …

But the problem isn’t with “experienced readers of Politico” familiar with the folderol.  It’s with tens of thousands—or even hundreds of thousands—of people who were presented a link or material from this ad, who are not regular readers of Politico.

For their part, Politico is happy that the effectiveness of their ad, which includes an interactive infographic, is being pointed out.

“POLITICO is proud of the award winning work our Focus team produces on behalf of our many clients across a wide spectrum of industries. We’re proud that clients recognize the effectiveness of their ad placements,” notes Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring in a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Cambridge Analytica was also thrilled at the result.

The Cambridge Analytica presentation dedicates an entire slide to the ad, which is described as having achieved “an average engagement time of four minutes”. Kaiser described the ad as “the most successful thing we pushed out”.

Politico defends the ad by pointing out that the Bernie Sanders campaign and Hillary Clinton campaign also bought ads on the site, though it’s not clear that these ads were created by Politico’s sponsored content team. But even if similar ads were employed by all three campaigns, that repetition doesn’t make these ads any less confusing to readers.

At least one member of the Clinton campaign staff doesn’t feel that Politico played the same role for all sides.

The Clinton campaign team actively worked to rebut ads that misrepresented facts about the work of the Clinton Foundation and attempts to conflate money donated to the charity with money going into Hillary’s pocket. But they didn’t have a chance to fight back against the Politico ad, because they didn’t know it existed. Targeted advertising limited the ad to appearing only to certain readers.

“We clearly weren’t the audience for it,” says Minassian, who adds: “Suffice it to say we were not aware of this ad at the time.” Careful placement and targeting, no doubt, explains the dynamic. As the Guardian reported, it “appeared for several weeks to people from a list of key swing states when they visited the site.” Chalk one up for the compartmentalization of the Internet.

That compartmentalization also means that many people who saw the ad were drawn to it by links on social media and conservative sites. They weren’t Politico readers who spotted the ad and thought they’d dive in for a browse. They were readers who came straight into the ad and its distorted information.

According to the Post article, even writers on Politico’s editorial staff were unaware that the lengthy mock-journalism piece existed.

And while Politico wants to put this off as just another ad, there’s a distinct difference between the policy that resulted in Cambridge Analytica’s favorite ad, and the policy of other news outlets.

The New York Times: “T Brand Studio, The New York Times Company’s in-house marketing agency, does not create branded content on behalf of political candidates, political parties, political campaigns and/or related entities such as PACs,” writes New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha. The Washington Post’s brand studio does not “create content for candidates or PACs,” says a spokeswoman. The Atlantic has “not done native for partisan political campaigns and don’t plan to,” says a spokeswoman for Atlantic Media.

Politico clearly feels differently. But at a time when pop-up media sites are creating completely false narratives and traditional media sources are under attack from Trump and others who simply don’t like what they have to say, it’s extremely dangerous for a respected site to be generating genuinely ‘fake news.’

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