The Republican Governors Association tried to run a shady, undisclosed phony “news” website
Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
FreeTelegraph.com resembles any of a host of hyperpartisan conservative websites that purport to share news. The website’s home page and articles emphasize social media sharing buttons and large photos; the pieces are brief and feature block quotes from other sources instead of original reporting or commentary. But while most right-wing hyperpartisan sites feature pieces supporting President Donald Trump and savaging his foes, FreeTelegraph.com employs a single-minded focus, with every article aiming to praise a Republican governor or gubernatorial candidate or criticize a Democratic one, with a particular focus on GOP targets in Virginia (24 articles), Connecticut (13), and Rhode Island (11).
There’s a reason for that: FreeTelegraph.com is actually a project of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), the GOP organization that exists to elect and support Republican governors. And until The Associated Press started asking questions about the site, it operated without disclosing that fact to the public. The effort represents a new frontier in political entities taking advantage of the existing social media infrastructure to push their messages.
An RGA spokesperson told the AP that the site is “just another outlet to share those positive results” from Republican governors. But the site’s critics have noted that the RGA’s initial effort to hide its involvement “appropriat[ed] the integrity of news,” in the words of political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
Here’s the bottom of the website today:
And before the reporter reached out to the RGA:
FreeTelegraph.com, which has published more than 100 articles since its launch in July and promises “political news” from “beyond the Beltway,” appears to have been designed to take advantage of the same social media ecosystem that led to the rise of fake news.
Typically, hyperpartisan websites produce packaged “news” articles, often based on social media or web forum posts, then promote the stories on their affiliated Facebook page. If the stories are sufficiently interesting, they generate significant user engagement; the story spreads, the original website makes money from the ensuing traffic based on advertisements on the page, and other hyperpartisan websites pick up the story and put their own spin on it in an effort to cash in as well. When several different websites are all pushing the same story it gives the account the veneer of credibility, both with individual social media users and through social media platform algorithms like Facebook’s trending topics.
The RGA’s “news” website adopts a similar practice, but its goal is political impact, not money -- there are no advertisements at FreeTelegraph.com. The articles are based on Republican talking points, not social media posts, with dozens of them either linking to or citing RGA press releases. The articles are then promoted by affiliated Facebook and Twitter accounts, in an effort to share the stories widely with the hope that other news sites will pick them up.
FreeTelegraph.com’s effort to conceal its link to the RGA is notable. Articles do not include bylines, and there is no masthead listing who writes for the site. The website has no “About Us” disclosing the site’s purpose or leadership, and there’s no copyright information. It is registered to “Domains by Proxy LLC,” a service that allows purchasers to hide their identification from the public. Until the website added a disclosure after being contacted by a curious reporter, people who saw one of the website’s posts while scrolling through their Facebook feeds and clicked on it would have no reason to think they were viewing content paid for by a Republican Party organization.
So far, FreeTelegraph.com has had little success. Its Twitter and Facebook feeds have attracted a few hundred followers apiece, with most posts receiving virtually no engagement; the only verified person to tweet links from the site on Twitter is an RGA digital staffer. There’s a good reason for that failure: The site’s content is boring, a melange of rewarmed press releases and stodgy talking points.
But the website demonstrates proof of concept for a shady new political development: digital-first “news” sites backed by powerful Republican Party organizations that utilize the existing news ecosystem to promote their agenda, all without a hint of disclosure. FreeTelegraph.com may be the first of these, and it has the warts to match. It won’t be the last.