Screenshot: Politico

The bombshell revelation that Cambridge Analytica apparently used illicitly obtained Facebook user data to hone the Trump campaign’s digital strategy has given way to more granular details of how the data company manipulated media and tech firms to give its client an edge. On Friday, The Guardian published portions of a 27-page post-election report which was presented to Cambridge employees in London, Washington, and New York weeks after Trump’s victory in 2016.

Britanny Kaiser, who until two weeks ago was Cambridge Analytica’s business development director, went on the record about the campaign’s digital blueprint. “There was a huge demand internally for people to see how we did it,” Kaiser told The Guardian. “Everyone wanted to know: past clients, future clients. The whole world wanted to see it.”

The internal document details how Cambridge Analytica micro-targeted pro-Trump and anti-Clinton ads toward users on Google, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook—using tactics that are perfectly legal. But they also went to other sources, as The Guardian’s Paul Lewis and Paul Hilder write (emphasis mine):

One of the most effective ads, according to Kaiser, was a piece of native advertising on the political news website Politico, which was also profiled in the presentation. The interactive graphic, which looked like a piece of journalism and purported to list “10 inconvenient truths about the Clinton Foundation,” appeared for several weeks to people from a list of key swing states when they visited the site. It was produced by the in-house Politico team that creates sponsored content.

The Cambridge Analytica presentation dedicates an entire slide to the ad, which is described as having achieved “an average engagement time of four minutes”. Kaiser described the ad as “the most successful thing we pushed out.”

Politico said editorial journalists were not involved in the campaign, and similar ads were purchased by the Bernie Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

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Sponsored or branded content is a relatively new form of digital advertising with unclear ethical boundaries. News organizations including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Splinter’s parent organization, Gizmodo Media Group, have built out large in-house teams to produce pieces that look and feel like journalism, typically for corporate clients or interest groups. The central question is whether this often slickly produced content, created outside the newsroom, contradicts or muddles newsrooms’ work.

Sponsored content for political campaigns is much less common. Andrew Harding, head of Studio@Gizmodo, told me GMG does not create such native advertising, but added there’s no internal policy explicitly prohibiting it. At The Atlantic, spokeswoman Anna C. Bross said, “We have not done native for partisan political campaigns and don’t plan to.” Washington Post spokeswoman Kristine Coratti added, “The Post’s in-house creative agency, WP BrandStudio, does not create ads for candidates or PACs.” Danielle Rhoades Ha of The New York Times similarly confirmed the paper’s stance against producing sponsored campaign ads: “T Brand Studio, The New York Times Company’s in-house marketing agency, does not create branded content on behalf of political candidates, political parties, political campaigns and/or related entities such as PACs.”

The Politico post sponsored by the Sanders campaign is a fairly straightforward case against private prisons—essentially a paid op-ed. The anti-Clinton ad, on the other hand, is much more intricate. Citing various news reports that the Clinton Foundation is corrupt, it allows users to scroll through several pages. An average of four minutes spent on the interactive would make for extremely high digital engagement.

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Screenshot: Politico

The Clinton post is in line with Politico’s internal rules around sponsored content, VP of Communications Brady Dayspring told me in an email exchange Friday (emphasis mine):

As it relates specifically to the category of political campaign advertising, POLITICO and its Focus Brand Studio have a strict policy of not authoring or creating any content for political campaigns. For these specific types of ads, we provide creative services by developing pages with the assets we are given by the client and optimizing audience targeting, as we would any ad. In all cases, native advertising run on POLITICO is clearly labeled as “Sponsored Content” with the advertiser clearly identified, as was the case in both the Trump and Sanders campaign pieces.

We feel this policy strikes the proper balance between being non-partisan, transparent about about who is behind these messages, and ensuring that we do not blur any lines or contribute to any campaign messaging, while still providing the advertising revenue that supports our world class journalism.

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When I asked what that policy means in practice, given that Politico helped produce the anti-Clinton piece, Dayspring explained that staffers for the branded content studio do not actually write or edit any ad copy.

“We provide creative options for how the page would/could be formatted,” Dayspring said. “We use the assets provided by the client, which in this case was some written copy supported by sourcing quotes from reputable news outlets (NYT, WaPo, POLITICO), along with pictures and logos, to create the page.”

As for the connection to a shady data firm that has drawn international scrutiny in recent days, Dayspring seemed unfazed: “We welcome the fact that clients recognize the effectiveness of their ad placements on Politico.com.”

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Update, 2:21 p.m.: This piece has been amended to include a comment from The New York Times’ spokeswoman.