Recently we reported how Cambridge Analytica had distributed their 27-page blueprint for using data to increase the effectiveness of political ads, such as the ones they claim helped Donald Trump get elected president. Cambridge Analytica’s business development director Brittany Kaiser explained how the blueprint was created and also how it was used.
According to Kaiser, one of their best ads, that got the most results, was a piece of unusual advertising on the website Politico.
The ad was called an “interactive graphic,” and it appeared to be a piece of Politco journalism like the articles that appear on their website. The title of the ad, shown on the graphic, was: “10 inconvenient truths about the Clinton Foundation.”
The very powerful advertisement ran for many weeks and it was shown only to targeted people who visited Politico from a list of key swing states.
What was not made clear to the viewers is that the piece was not a valid piece of journalism but was a pro-Trump ad produced by the in-house Politico team that creates sponsored content.
The Cambridge Analytica “blueprint” discusses this Politico ad in great detail. They said it was remarkable in that it had “an average engagement time of four minutes.” According to business development director Kaiser the Politico ad was “the most successful thing we pushed out.”
Politico is a website that focuses on political news, and of course it sells ads like most other websites. That is accepted by everyone.
But what may cross an ethical line is for news websites to create ads that look like journalism. This is new territory. We just found out that Politico is a news website whose staff also writes ads that are long and are designed specifically to look like a piece of independent journalism. Many people have an issue with this, especially when the ads may promote untruths, half-truths, or outright propaganda.
News organizations and outlets have tried to be very careful to distinguish between factual news stories and opinion pieces. The reader has a right to know if it is based on fact, based on opinion, or based on nothing but the desire to harm a political opponent.
In a Washington Post article that first broke this story, Politico defended the advertisement because the format and appearance of the graphic don’t look like typical Politico articles.
This may be OK for regular readers of Politico, but what about the hundreds of thousands of people who saw this ad (or material from the ad) who were NOT regular readers? They probably didn’t know it was an advertisement.
Politico is unapologetic. In fact they appear to be very happy that the effectiveness of their ad is being pointed out by others, like the Cambridge Analytica team did in their “blueprint.”
“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,” said Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring in a statement to the Washington Post.
It appears that so long as someone makes money by working with companies like Cambridge Analytica then ethics don’t matter. It’s not clear that Politico did anything wrong but it certainly does raise some important ethical questions which need to be answered. We are living in the era of “fake news” and so news organizations have an especially important role to play to help their readers to distinguish between fact and fiction.