Nunes news: Propaganda, Facebook fail, or both?

Did the Devin Nunes campaign concoct an elaborate effort to pass off political propaganda as real news? Or did Facebook punk itself by taking an obviously partisan effort and classifying it as a valid news source? It’s a little of both, to be honest, although Politico seemed to lean hard toward the former in this report:

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a relentless critic of the media, has found a way around the often unflattering coverage of his role in the Trump-Russia investigation — by operating his own partisan news outlet.

Resembling a local, conservative news site, “The California Republican” is classified on Facebook as a “media/news company” and claims to deliver “the best of US, California, and Central Valley news, sports, and analysis.”

But the website is paid for by Nunes’ campaign committee, according to small print at the bottom of the site. Leading the home page this week: A photograph of Nunes over the headline: “Understanding the process behind #ReleaseTheMemo.”

The site operated under the domain name, although at the moment it redirects to a Facebook page. Its proprietors announced yesterday that their main website had crashed “due to heavy traffic and an attack on our servers” after the Politico piece went up. Nothing on the Facebook page alerts readers to a connection to the Nunes campaign, and it doesn’t note the Politico piece at all.

However, a search of the Wayback Machine internet archive gives us a look at the California Republican before it got outed. The page from February 2nd does indeed disclose the connection to the Nunes re-election campaign, but you’d have to strain your eyeballs to see it in the footer:

This almost looks like an eye test for contrast. The gray-on-black text reads “Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee · FEC ID #C00370056,” as required by FEC rules, so it does disclose its connections. The rest of the site above it does appear to follow similar patterns for local news outlets by using the card-layout style for its articles. Unlike other such efforts by campaign committees, it has a wide range of subjects and doesn’t mention Nunes in every headline. In fact, the 2/2/18 edition only has Nunes’ name in one position — in that footer — although its lead article had a picture of Nunes prominently displayed on the website.

It seems pretty clear that the site was designed to look like a “news outlet,” but that’s about it. That’s not to say it’s illegal; it has the citation at the bottom, which presumably is all that’s necessary for FEC compliance. It’s still pretty silly and strange, especially considering the implications for the credibility of the official it seeks to re-elect. What’s even sillier and stranger, though, is that anyone was fooled by a site with the domain name That, plus the headlines on the site, was a surefire giveaway of at least a partisan purpose for the site:

  • CNN busted for peddling fake news AGAIN!
  • Where exactly is ‘The Resistance’ heading?
  • The Russians are everywhere … and nowhere
  • Understanding the process behind #ReleaseTheMemo

How obvious was this? All of these are links to articles from other sites, not original content. It’s an aggregator site at best, a kind of ersatz Drudge Report with more graphics. The originators of the above articles were The Federalist and National Review, neither of which need help from Nunes’ campaign. Anyone who clicked through to any articles would have immediately grasped the purpose of the site. It’s not even a blog, let alone a news outlet. Given that its links were for the most part weeks or months old, it seems highly unlikely to have garnered much traffic at all, outside of Facebook’s links on the news wire. In fact, it’s such an amateurish operation that it’s impossible to take seriously as “news,” and very difficult to imagine anyone intended it as such, other than a low-level campaign staffer.

So how did Facebook come to classify it as a media outlet? That’s a really good question, especially as they continue to claim to work proactively against “fake news.” In fact, as of this writing, the Facebook page for The California Republican still lists it as a “Media/News Company.” (Our FB page lists us as a News & Media Website.) Did no one at Facebook ever check to see if the site produced its own content before adding it to its newsfeed and classifying it as a news outlet?

It seems very difficult to imagine Nunes involving himself in this website. It’s much more likely to be an effort by people on the campaign to aggregate friendly links. It’s not a wise strategy, especially in support of a candidate who complains about “fake news.” Nunes is still responsible for the activities of his campaign, so it’s not unfair to criticize him over it. But the real question here is how Facebook fell for it at all.