What’s news, what’s fake news, and do all voters know the difference?

Aug 26, 2014

A Republican group is attacking Democratic congressional candidates, using online sites that resemble news websites. One of those 20 websites is called the “South Michigan Update.”

This online site has the appearance of being a news website or a news blog, but the Republican group responsible for it says voters know the difference between fake news and a political attack piece.
This online site has the appearance of being a news website or a news blog, but the Republican group responsible for it says voters know the difference between fake news and a political attack piece.

To the casual observer, the website looks like a news blog. The one story on the “South Michigan Update” is titled Byrnes Struggles to Escape Her Record. Byrnes is Pamela Byrnes, the Democratic candidate in Michigan’s 7th Congressional District. She’s running against Republican incumbent Tim Walberg and  U.S. Taxpayers Party of Michigan candidate Rick Strawcutter.

At her campaign headquarters in downtown Dexter, Michigan, Byrnes said the site is deceptive.

"I think during a political campaign, there will be some attacks. But this is – this is misleading because it looks like a news website. It looks like this is journalism. This is not journalism. This is campaign politics,” Byrnes said.

A national news organization agrees. Mike Cavender is executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association. (Full disclosure: this reporter is a member of that organization.)

Cavender says this website crosses a line.

“Masquerading as news information is simply unethical,” he said in a telephone interview.

Cavender says the 20 websites look like news sites and adds political operatives should not be using the credibility of journalists to bolster their attacks on each other.

But, at the very bottom of the page is a box which reads “Paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee.” Cavender doesn’t think that’s enough.

“I would submit that many people who see these sites simply won’t notice it,” he said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee says people are not that naive.

“Anybody who would think otherwise is underestimating the intellect of voters. You know, the Internet has been around for 25 years, so it’s pretty clear to people what is a news website and what’s not,” said Daniel Scarpinato, national press secretary for the NRCC.

He says calling it a fake news site does not make it a fake news site.

“These aren’t news sites. They are – and they’re not fake; they’re real attack websites. They’re real political attack websites. They’re not meant to be news websites and they’re not news sites,” Scarpinato said.

Democrat Pam Byrnes.
Democrat Pam Byrnes.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The NRCC’s article – or attack piece – accuses Democrat Pamela Byrnes of being a tax-raising liberal and “just another politician.” Byrnes says this kind of tactic by the Republican group is why people are tired of politics.

“Because this is extremely misleading. And, so it just creates or adds to the argument that politicians are corrupt,” Byrnes charged.

The only other item on the website is a video ad for Congressman Tim Walberg. Byrnes is calling on the Congressman to get the NRCC to remove the website.

"I look to Congressman Walberg to step out and say this is wrong and this shouldn’t be done. And we haven’t heard anything," Byrnes said.

A campaign spokesman for Walberg says the Congressman has not seen the website, did not approve it, and it would not be his place to tell the National Republican Congressional Committee to remove it.

This story was updated, adding a link to the NRCC website.