Bad news

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hey, it's Josh. Outside of the presidential candidates themselves, one of the biggest buyers of Facebook Inc. ads in the waning days of the 2020 campaign has been America First Action, a super PAC whose chairwoman is former Trump administration official Linda McMahon. The group has spent over $640,000 on Facebook ads in the last week, and has also poured substantial resources into buying ads from Alphabet Inc.'s Google, with much of the money on both platforms dedicated to promoting articles on a website called American Herald. 

The Herald's homepage is laid out like a typical news site, featuring dispatches from across the country, including "Trump Does Right by Floridian Families," "President Trump Is Fighting for North Carolina Families," and "President Trump is Fighting for Wisconsin Workers and Families." Unlike most journalism outlets, American Herald doesn't say who writes its articles; each one is either attributed to "American Herald Staff" or has no byline at all. A search on LinkedIn for Herald writers didn't turn up a single one. 

The Herald is in fact run by America First Action itself, something the PAC isn't hiding. At the bottom of the site is a disclosure that includes a non-clickable link to the PAC's main site. Kelly Sadler—the PAC's spokeswoman whose previous jobs include stints in the Trump administration and as a reporter at Bloomberg News—declined to answer specific questions about the Herald, but did say she would "love to tell you more about it after the Election as a post-mortem." 

Disclosures aside, the Herald allows its owners to promote pro-Trump messaging in a format that takes on the shape of actual journalism. While America First Action pays to spread the site's content, it is also designed to spread on its own as well.

Social media sites tend to display information from all websites in ways that make them seem equally credible, and both America First Action and rank-and-file users are sharing articles as though they are news reports. The disclosures at the bottom of the site don't show up on Twitter or Facebook when someone shares an article. It's not hard to tell the site is a sham, but it can be difficult to resist suspending disbelief when someone is telling you what you want to hear. 

While the Herald is styled to look like journalism, it's lacking in substance. Some articles prominently display out-of-context quotes that fact-checkers have described as misleading. Sadler acknowledged that Facebook has put disclaimers on some of America First Action's ads, based on what she describes as "bogus fact checks." The site's Twitter account has been suspended, though neither Sadler nor a Twitter Inc. spokesman would explain why. 

While this kind of pretend reporting is directly connected to November's election, it's also a result of how the tech industry has reshaped the way people get news. The economics of digital journalism have gutted traditional outlets, especially those that cover local issues. Partisan organizations are increasingly eager to step into their place. Left-leaning digital strategy organization Acronym has started a handful of news websites focused on local news, and a recent New York Times investigation detailed a network of well over 1,000 websites where conservative political groups and corporate public relations firms can pay to dictate coverage.  

Whether the Herald survives much past November, its model for repackaging political messaging seems here to stay. "There is a big void," said Penny Muse Abernathy, a professor of journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina. "And what the void does is is push you over to your social media." Joshua Brustein

If you read one thing

It was a busy day for tech earnings, which came in after markets rebounded from a recent rout. The lightning-round version is that Apple looked shaky because of China, Amazon is feeling optimistic about the holiday season, ad revenue was strong for Facebook and Google, and a million new users for Twitter didn't impress people. 

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

PlayStations are outselling Xboxes on the online black market

The anonymous Trump administration official who attacked him in an infamous op-ed is a Google employee who was controversial at the company even before this latest development. 

WeWork again wants to go public, but only after it starts turning a profit

 

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