Dem Super PACs’ New Digital Strategy: Good Old-Fashioned Clickbait
Among the Facebook groups is one touting a video of adorable dogs with the caption: ‘This will cheer you up if you think the country’s a mess right now.’
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A pair of leading Democratic super PACs are turning to viral clickbait on social media in an effort to build lists of supporters they can pepper with explicit political advertising. It’s a novel strategy in political messaging, and one that doesn’t appear to have been mirrored by the groups’ Republican counterparts.
At least five Facebook pages that are part of the apparent clickbait push don’t appear, on their face, to be outwardly political. Instead, their public-facing posts are the sorts of viral stories common on social-media-centric news sites. But while that’s all that appears on each page’s public Facebook feed, they’re also buying up huge numbers of Facebook ads designed to sway key midterm Senate contests.
It’s an unconventional effort at digital political persuasion, and one that we’re likely to see more often. And while all the Facebook groups appear to have complied with legal and Facebook-specific requirements for political-ad disclosure, some provide scant information on who is behind them, likely leaving many Facebook users with the impression that they’re just a few more of the viral clickbait pages common on the platform.
Fewer than a thousand people “like” the page Here For This, but the group, created in July, has dramatically expanded its Facebook reach with the purchase of hundreds of ads on the platform. The ads promote posts that range from mildly political—“Tell us in the comments how you’re fighting to protect Roe v. Wade from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh,” reads the caption of a photo of actress Alyssa Milano dressed as a character from The Handmaid’s Tale—to the sorts of feel-good viral content that pervades Facebook. A video of adorable dogs is captioned, “This will cheer you up if you think the country’s a mess right now.” A recently posted video of an ailing child says, “6 year old Kamiyah has has an incredibly rare disorder. Can you help her mom find out more information about it?”
Here For This is not explicitly political—nearly none of its promoted posts invoke a specific candidate for office—making it a notable election-year project for a group dedicated to electing Democrats.
The page’s description describes Here For This thusly: “Things are bad, we get it. We’re here for all the folks mixing it up a bit in the world.” Below that description are a series of line breaks, forcing visitors to click a “see more” link to find the disclaimer: “Paid for by Priorities USA Action. www.priorities.org. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”
Here For This is not Priorities’ only clickbait-style site, and others are even less forthcoming about who is behind the group. Florida Knows Best and Hoosier Country are state-specific projects of Priorities and Senate Majority PAC, another leading Democratic super PAC. But that affiliation isn’t disclosed in the pages’ public Facebook descriptions.
Instead, the pages’ financial backers appear only in “paid for by” disclaimers attached to the specific ads it runs. Those ads are the sort that you’d expect to see from high-dollar political organizations—the two groups are going hard after GOP Senate candidates Rick Scott and Mike Braun—but casual visitors to the Florida Knows Best and Hoosier Country pages would have little idea that they’re explicitly political projects of high-dollar D.C. organizations. Their public-facing Facebook posts are purely of the clickbait variety, leaving the paid politicking to ads that show up in users’ timelines but not on the pages’ feeds themselves.
Visitors to Florida Knows Best, for instance, will find heartwarming stories with headlines such as “A homeless man needed a little help to land a job. So this officer gave him a shave” and “Groundbreaking gene therapy helps Florida boy see.” Those visitors won’t know that a pair of super PACs are behind it until they’re peppered with ads such as “Rick Scott’s company scammed Medicare. So it’s no surprise he threw health care coverage for millions of Floridians under the bus.”
Missouri’s Voice, a similar clickbait page advertising heavily in that state’s Senate race, is more forthcoming about its affiliation, disclosing its SMP and Priorities involvement in its “about” section. So too is Maine Matters, another Priorities viral content site advertising in that state’s Senate race. But both also rely heavily on viral content on the pages themselves, leaving the overtly political content to its targeted ads.
Digital political advertising remains the Wild West in terms of disclosure, and until recently, Facebook users likely would have even less information than they do currently about who is behind these groups’ organic and promoted posts. The information that has been made public about their financial backing is a product of the increased pressure on Facebook to provide such information, and the company’s new self-imposed disclosure requirements.
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