It looked as if Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward had scored a big endorsement: On Oct. 28, she posted a link on her campaign website and blasted out a Facebook post, quoting extensively from a column in the Arizona Monitor.
Ticking off the names of Ward’s competitors in the Republican primary to replace Sen. Jeff Flake, the Monitor declared: “They all, despite how much some of them profess their love and devotion to President Trump, didn’t have the stones to run against Jeff Flake and will have made the ‘brave’ decision to run for Senate only after Flake decided he wasn’t going to run … Kelli Ward is your woman.”
There was just one problem: Despite its reputable sounding name, the Arizona Monitor is not a real news site. It is an anonymous, pro-Ward blog that has referred to her primary opponent Martha McSally as “Shifty McSally,” frequently blasted and, at the top of its home page, proclaims its mission as “Striking Fear into the Heart of the Establishment.” The site launched just a few weeks before publishing the endorsement, and its domain registration is hidden, masking the identity of its owner. On its Facebook page, it is classified as a news site, but scant other information is offered.
The Arizona Monitor seems to be part of a growing trend of conservative political-messaging sites with names that mimic those of mainstream news organizations and whose favored candidates then tout their stories and endorsements as if they were from independent journalists. It’s a phenomenon that spans the country from northern New England, where the anonymous Maine Examiner wreaked havoc on a recent mayoral election, all the way out to California, where Rep. Devin Nunes launched — as reported by — his own so-called news outlet, the California Republican.
Nunes disclosed his connection, albeit in small letters at the bottom of the site. But the most dangerous of these sites operate anonymously, with no bylines or masthead, experts say.
A particular problem, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is the way sites like the Monitor use traditional local newspaper names to add an air of legitimacy. Several of the “fake news” URLs that popped up during the 2016 presidential election adopted a similar strategy.
“This basically is an appropriation of credibility,” Jamieson said. “As the credibility of reputable news outlets is appropriated for partisan purposes, we are going to undermine the capacity of legitimate outlets to signal their trustworthiness.”
Zachery Henry, a spokesman for Kelli Ward’s campaign, denied any connection to the Monitor and said he does not know who is behind it.
Seemingly nobody in Arizona politics knows who runs the Monitor. Political strategists in the state — including those from Flake, McSally and John McCain’s camps — told POLITICO that they could only scratch their heads. Other local bloggers were equally befuddled.
“We’re all trying to figure out who that is,” said Ally Miller, an elected official in Pima County.
Ward herself has claimed to have no knowledge of the Monitor. Over the weekend, after POLITICO began asking questions about the site, she posted in a Facebook thread discussing the site, saying, “FYI – I have no idea who runs it and have no connection to it. I actually don’t know if I’ve ever read a story from there.”
But to anyone scrolling through Ward’s Facebook page, a link from the Arizona Monitor looks little different from one from the Arizona Republic, the state’s paper of record.
Posting links from dubious, unknown sources is unethical, according to Charles Glasser, the former global media counsel for Bloomberg News and currently adjunct professor of media law and ethics at New York University. By steering readers to the Monitor, Ward conferred legitimacy on the site, he said.
Jamieson agreed, saying that whoever started the Monitor has some sort of agenda, and right now observers simply do not now know what that is.
“How do you know it was not the Russians? How do you know that’s not organized crime? How do you know that it isn’t a group of pedophiles?” Jamieson said. “She is making a conscious choice in public to embrace that site and its pseudo-anonymity.”
Henry, the Ward campaign spokesman, defended the decision, drawing a distinction between posting anonymous opinion pieces and posting anonymous news reports.
“When sites present themselves as credible, I think you have to do your due diligence and look into them,” he said. “When it’s opinion, you have a little more leeway.”
Henry also rejected the idea that the Ward campaign had acted unethically.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I don’t think sharing an article that’s favorable to you, especially when there are no inaccuracies or factual issues in it, associates us with the writer or the paper. Because we share stuff all the time, from the Arizona Republic all the way down the list.”
Eric Beach, Ward’s chief campaign strategist, said that “reposting an article without understanding it is something that happens” across social media, in politics or any other field. “Social media is a strange animal,” he said, “Candidates of all kinds repost links very quickly.”
Henry said that in late October he received an email from someone named Rob Murdock, asking him to share the Monitor story he’d published about Ward. He complied, thinking that Murdock was behind the site.
But Miller, a Pima County supervisor, said she believes that Murdock’s name is just a pseudonym — a Facebook account set up to share Monitor links (which it has, prolifically).
Miller has received positive coverage from the site — Pima County is in southern Arizona, and seems to be the Monitor’s focus — and commented on its links on Facebook. She was among the first to follow the site on Twitter, but she said she is not behind it and does not know who is. Miller was friends with a “Rob Murdock” account on Facebook until she recently “unfriended” him.
Karen Schutte, who in the past has been paid by the Ward campaign and now runs a separate Facebook page promoting Ward’s candidacy, is also a Facebook friend with Murdock. Schutte has actively promoted content from the Arizona Monitor, but also denied knowing who runs the site.
Nobody replied to emails POLITICO sent to the account Murdock used to contact the Ward campaign, or to the email address on file with the site’s domain registrar.
The Monitor is far from the only example of an anonymous site gaining traction by presenting itself as a legitimate news source.
In September, The Associated Press called out the Republican Governors Association for operating what appeared to be a news site, called The Free Telegraph, without disclosing its involvement.
After the AP report, the RGA added in small text at the bottom of its home page, “Paid for by Republican Governors Association.” That disclosure, though, has since been removed.
RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said the acknowledgement had simply been moved from The Free Telegraph’s home page to individual story pages, where at the bottom of posts, it reads, “Sponsored by the Republican Governors Association.”
The change was made, Thompson wrote in an email, “so when folks click on direct articles, which is what the large majority of people visiting the site are doing, they see it on each individual post.”
Asked why the disclosure could not exist in both places, he replied, “Makes it the most clear to have it on each individual article. The large majority of clicks on the Free Telegraph website are on direct articles, not the main page.”
On social media, The Free Telegraph’s Facebook page acknowledges its connection to the RGA, though its Twitter page does not.
“There is less space on Twitter than Facebook. Anyone who clicks on any Free Telegraph tweet with a link is taken to a post that has the disclosure,” Thompson said.
Unless readers reach the bottom of a story, though, they will not be aware that the article they’re reading is not traditional “news,” but political propaganda furnished by the Republican Governors Association.
That type of disclosure is not good enough, according to Jamieson. “It should be on the masthead,” she said. She compared it to the requirement, during political ads on TV, that candidates and political groups prominently announce who paid for the ad.
The RGA also had ties to The Republican Standard, a similar site that the AP reported was run by Virginia Republican operatives to promote Ed Gillespie’s failed gubernatorial bid.
Meanwhile, in Maine, a full drama has played out around the so-called Maine Examiner. Shortly before the December mayoral election in Lewiston, the state’s second largest city, the anonymous site started attacking Democratic candidate Ben Chin as an out-of-touch elitist.
On Dec. 3, the conservative site posted, “Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters ‘Bunch of Racists.’”
Chin had said no such thing — the Examiner report took him wildly out of context — but the story still spread around town.
Nine days later, Chin ended up losing the election by just 145 votes.
In January, Lewiston’s Sun Journal newspaper reported on links between the Maine Republican Party and the Examiner. The metadata to a number of photos on the site listed the state GOP’s executive director, Jason Savage, as their “author,” meaning the photos had likely passed through his computer.
Savage and the Maine Republican Party have not commented on the matter — and did not return calls from POLITICO — but steamed local Democratic officials claim that an organized Republican fake news attack cost Chin the election.
Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democrats, said his party has filed a complaint with the state ethics commission.
“I think it’s very intentional: it’s designed to mislead voters, clear and simple. If the Republican Party thought that the information was newsworthy, they would put it out through the usual channels. Instead they’re hiding behind this anonymous site,” Bartlett said.
These type of “news sites” allow political groups to anonymously throw out misinformation, Bartlett said, and then essentially launder them through party or candidate social media accounts to lend the reports credibility.
“This kind of activity really plays into the hands of what the Russians and other bad actors are trying to do, and makes it easier,” he added.
Glasser, the NYU professor, said he expects the number of these types of sites to grow, particularly ones focused on local politics.
“The entry cost of creating a fake news page is insignificant, so you don’t have to be the Kremlin,” he said. “It’s really, I think, the next step; it’s a very obvious and logical evolution in the history of electronic disinformation.”
Bartlett agreed, saying that his party is making plans to quickly counter future misinformation.
“Our assumption is that this was the beginning of a bigger project,” he said. “We expect that if the Examiner stays up and running, it will be used to influence the 2018 election.”