Elizabeth Warren's Facebook ads turn news coverage into political messages
Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign has run Facebook ads that promote news stories about the candidate written by The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Des Moines Register and other top publishers, a tactic that could make the news organizations look like political boosters on the social network and misrepresent their campaign coverage.
Warren recently ran multiple ad campaigns that promote news coverage of her candidacy on Facebook. One ad splashes The New York Times logo and links to an article on the publisher’s site with the headline: “Elizabeth Warren stands out at New Hampshire Democratic Party convention.” Another ad links to a New York Times Magazine feature about her candidacy with the headline: “Elizabeth Warren is completely serious.” Similar Facebook ads point people to coverage in BuzzFeed: “Warren talks about redlining and home ownership for black families.”
Warren's ad altered the headline of the BuzzFeed article, however, by omitting the words that the news site used. BuzzFeed's original headline, seen in the link, says "In South Carolina, Elizabeth Warren says she's spent her life figuring out why things are harder for black Americans." Warren's Facebook ad only mentioned BuzzFeed's secondary headline regarding redlining and black homeownership.
The appearance of news stories in campaign ads on Facebook could put news publishers in an uncomfortable position, says Steven Passwaiter, VP and general manager of Kantar/CMAG, a media data firm that analyzes campaign spending. The question is: “Is she leading somebody to think this is some quasi-endorsement when it isn’t,” Passwaiter says in a phone interview.
BuzzFeed did not return a request for comment, and The New York Times declined to comment for this story.
Politicians and advocacy organizations post news articles to social media all the time. President Donald Trump frequently tweets news. Also, candidates’ TV commercials often include clips of newspaper headlines and quotes.
“We have far more options today than just tearing the headline from a print story and using it in a TV ad,” says Lauren Amaio, director of digital communications at Global Strategy Group, a political consulting firm. “There is so much news that lives online, so it lends itself nicely to content for ad campaigns. I don’t think we will see that changing anytime soon.”
Since at least the start of September, the Warren camp has deployed this marketing strategy on Facebook, which appears to be unique among the Democratic candidates for president. A Facebook search of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg did not turn up sponsored news stories over the same time period.
Warren’s campaign has spent up to thousands of dollars promoting news stories to reach up to 225,000 people, mostly targeted to the early primary states of Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, according to data pulled from Facebook’s political ads library. The ad archive is searchable by candidate and shows the ads, a range of how much was spent, a range of how many people saw the ad and the general target audience.
Publishers have been leery of Facebook’s political ads database ever since it opened last year. The library presented political and issues-based ads for the first time so the public could see how campaigns and groups message users on the platform. But some publishers protested their inclusion in the archive because they were worried their reporting would be misconstrued as political. One publishing executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AdAge at the time: "I vehemently disagree that our journalism should be equated to political advertising or advertising that seeks to influence anyone with any political persuasion.”
In Iowa, Warren’s team promoted a Des Moines Register story that reads: “Farmers should be part of the solution to climate change, Elizabeth Warren says in Iowa.”
“News stories give campaigns another voice or perspective to further a point,” Amaio says. “And if the person seeing the ad trusts the news source, they are likely to trust what it says about that candidate or campaign.”
The Des Moines Register is owned by Gannett Co., which declined to comment for this story.
Bloomberg was also featured in Warren ads on Facebook. Some of the ads displayed Bloomberg’s logo, but they linked to articles on other publications. For instance, one of the Bloomberg ads sent readers to Salon.com. Bloomberg declined a request to comment about the possibly misleading Facebook ads.
Warren’s campaign did not return a request for comment before the posting of this story.
Warren is one of the biggest Democratic spenders on Facebook ads in the past 90 days, according data from Kantar. She has spent $1.5 million on 8,600 ads in that time, according to Kantar. Bernie Sanders’ campaign tops her at $2 million spent on 15,900 ads. Facebook’s ad library is not easy to navigate and people have to scroll through the thousands of ads from the candidates to get a full picture of their strategy. Many of the ads are different permutations of similar messages just to different targeted audiences.
Most of Warren’s Facebook ads are similar to those of the other candidates, with personal appeals to people to donate or lend their support in other ways. They often link to fundraising pages and campaign websites. “Facebook at this stage in the campaign turns out being an acquisition platform,” Passwaiter says, adding that Warren’s ads based on news stories could be innocuous. “If it’s just sort of a news update, like here’s what the news had to say, then maybe the line is clear enough,” he says.