Same ad, different name, over and over again. Cookie-cutter ads, generic political ads used to promote or criticize multiple campaigns and candidates, were widely deployed during the 2018 North Carolina midterm elections.
As student journalists working on the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, we spent months sifting through thousands of campaign ads looking for political claims to fact-check. It didn’t take long to notice that many were nearly identical.
The copy-cat ads we encountered typically targeted groups of candidates, such as state House candidates from one party, and added their names to the same attack ad. That allowed the opposing political party and their boosters to widely circulate messages about topics important to their base.
One reason for this is state political campaigns have become increasingly centralized in recent years, often run by political caucuses rather than individual candidates, said Gary Pearce, co-publisher of Talking About Politics, a blog about North Carolina and national politics.
Congressional campaign committees in Washington, D.C. as well as North Carolina legislative caucus committees conduct voter research and use the data to pinpoint issues that matter most to target voters during election season, he said.
“Consistency amplifies the message,” Pearce said. “It makes sense for the caucuses to take on a specific set of issues that are important in this election and will rile the voters up.”
The North Carolina Democratic Party employed this technique often this year, producing ads that claimed Republicans would eliminate insurance coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, ignore polluted drinking water, even tolerate corruption within the state Republican Party.
Political Action Committees, such as the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition, employed a different strategy, also based on focused messaging. They published a series of same-design ads endorsing 13 North Carolina House and Senate candidates. They cited the same reasoning every time: the candidates supported “pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-family public policy.”
“We aim to use a language that appeals to our coalition members, and creates brand familiarity,” said Jim Quick, the group’s media and communications director. “We want to show that we are laser focused on certain issues through repetition.”
Angie Holan, editor of the national fact-checking website PolitiFact, said such ads remain an inexpensive way to disseminate information. Despite this age of targeting marketing on the web and elsewhere, the persistence of this sort of marketing could be linked to U.S. voters’ increasing partisanship, she said.
“We’re not seeing a lot of crossover or, frankly, a lot of complexity or nuance in most of the public policy positions politicians are taking. So that makes it very easy to do cookie cutter ads,” Holan said.
For Democrats to win rural districts and Republicans to win urban districts, candidates need to switch their focus to local issues that people from all parties care about, Campbell argued. He pointed to State Rep. Ken Goodman, a Democrat who this fall won re-election in District 66, west of Fayetteville.
Goodman’s ads focused on increasing the amount of lottery money that goes towards public education, not an issue on the national or statewide Democratic agenda, Campbell noted. The moderate Democrat won re-election in a rural district, which required him to gain wide support.
Which way will political campaigns lean in the presidential election year 2020? Unknown. But student journalists in the Duke Reporters’ Lab will be watching.
Duke Reporters’ Lab students expanded vital political journalism during a historic midterm campaign season this fall with the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project.
Five student journalists reviewed thousands of statements that hundreds of North Carolina candidates vying for state and federal offices made online and during public appearances. They collected newsy and checkable claims from what amounted to a firehose of political claims presented as fact.
Duke computer science undergraduates with the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative applied custom-made bots and the ClaimBuster algorithm to scrape and sort checkable political claims from hundreds of political Twitter feeds.
Editors and reporters then selected claims the students had logged for most of the project’s 30 plus fact-checks and six summary articles that the News and Observer and PolitiFact North Carolina published between August and November.
Duke senior Bill McCarthy was part of the four-reporter team on the project, which the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund supported to expand local fact-checking during the 2018 midterms and beyond in a large, politically divided and politically active state.
“Publishing content in any which way is exciting when you know it has some value to voters, to democracy,” said McCarthy, who interned at PolitiFact in Washington, D.C. last summer. “It was especially exciting to get so many fact-checks published in so little time.”
“NC GOP falsely ties dozens of Democrats to single-payer health care plan,” read one project fact-check headline. “Democrat falsely links newly-appointed Republican to health care bill,” noted another. The fact-check “Ad misleads about NC governors opposing constitutional amendments” set the record straight about some Democratic-leaning claims about six proposed amendments to the state constitution.
Work in the lab was painstaking. Five sophomores filled weekday shifts to scour hundreds of campaign websites, social media feeds, Facebook and Google political ads, televised debates, campaign mailers and whatever else they could put their eyes on. Often they recorded one politician’s attacks on an opponent that might, or might not, be true.
Students scanned political chatter from all over the state, tracking competitive state and congressional races most closely. The resulting journalism was news that people could use as they were assessing candidates for the General Assembly and U.S. Congress as well as six proposed amendments to the state constitution.
The Reporters’ Lab launched a mini news service to share each fact-checking article with hundreds of newsrooms across the state for free.
The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy newspaper like the N&O, published several checks. So did smaller publications such as Asheville’s Citizen-Timesand theGreensboro News and Record. Newsweek cited a fact-check report by the N&O’s Rashaan Ayesh and Andy Specht about a fake photo of Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, shared by the chairman of the Cabarrus County GOP, which WRAL referenced in a roundup.
Project fact-checks influenced political discourse directly too. Candidates referred to project fact-checks in campaign messaging on social media and even in campaign ads. Democrat Dan McCready, who lost a close race against Republican Mark Marris in District 9, used project fact-checks in two campaignads promoted on Facebook and in multiple posts on his Facebook campaign page, for instance.
While N&O reporter Andy Specht was reporting a deceptive ad from the Stop Deceptive Amendments political committee, the group announced plans to change it.
The fact-checking project will restart in January, when North Carolina’s reconfigured General Assembly opens its first 2019 session.
Boykin said he decided to run in Greensboro because the area “felt like home” and that he “owed it to the community” to “represent every single person” in Guilford County’s District 58. But he has not campaigned with the intensity of many other Republican candidates.
He also said he hopes that his candidacy will help him gain even broader recognition that could help him run for national office one day.
“I wanted to have some kind of legitimacy in what I was doing,” Boykin said. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to get famous,’ or ‘Oh, you’re just trying to make money.’ ”
Who is Peter Boykin?
Boykin regularly flips on a video camera to record himself for segments he posts across his Facebook accounts, often while donning a modified red MAGA cap, a plaid shirt in need of an iron, and a headset reminiscent of that worn by a NASA flight controller.
But instead of “Make America Great Again,” Boykin’s Trump-red cap reads “MAGA for Everyone” and “Boykin for House.”
In 2016, Boykin founded Gays for Trump. The group gained national attention as it solicited support from gay Americans for then-dark horse candidate Trump through widespread social media messaging and outreach.
Gays for Trump has also organized events, like the “WAKE UP!” party at the 2016 Republican National Convention to celebrate President Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate. In attendance were prominent far-right figures, such as white supremacist Richard Spencer and former Breitbart News editor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
In the early days of the Trump administration, Boykin began hosting the MAGAFirst Radio Show on the partisan news and commentary website, MAGA One Radio. The Pro-Trump radio network self-describes as the “new home for InfoWars,” referring to the far-right media platform known for pushing contentious conspiracy theories. In September, Twitter permanently suspended InfoWars and its founder Alex Jones for violating policies forbidding abuse.
After having amassed his tens of thousands of online followers with his distinctive online personality, Boykin filed as a Republican to run to represent his home District 58 in Guilford County in February 2018.
Even after Facebook disabled his primary personal account days before the Nov. 6 election, Boykin managed multiple Facebook accounts and pages promoting his points of view. That included at least four public pages for himself, a “Gays for Trump” page and group, one campaign page and three pages related to his online radio show.
Across accounts, he shares everything from karaoke covers of himself singing top hits like Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” to self-recorded videos expounding on hot-button political issues of the day filmed while driving and wearing his red cap.
In an August Facebook video that tallied nearly a thousand views, Boykin voiced support for InfoWars and Jones, who Sandy Hook Elementary School parents are suing after he pushed spurious claims that a 2012 mass shooting at the school was staged by the U.S. government, as the New York Times reported. Jones has insisted it was part of a plan to repossess Americans’ guns.
In that same Facebook video, Boykin asserted that commentators like himself and Jones must stand unified against “the Left, those large corporations [that] are attacking us” by “trying to take our first amendment away.”
He then went on to embrace a conspiracy theory regarding the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting promoted by far-right internet personality, Laura Loomer, and endorsed by InfoWars.
During a recent interview, Boykin noted that he finds it unreasonable and impossible that the Las Vegas shooter, an “old man,” as he calls him, was “able to basically just wipe out all these people with this gun” without help.
Instead, Boykin said he suspects the shooter was a “runner of weapons…probably left over from the Obama days,” who was once recruited to run guns to Mexico during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Days before the Nov. 6 election, Facebook disabled Boykin’s primary personal account. But for most of his campaign, he managed multiple Facebook accounts and pages promoting his points of view, including at least four public pages for himself, a “Gays for Trump” page and group, one campaign page and three pages related to his online radio show.
After contending that “the left” is “systematically shutting down ANY social media means for people who lean right to communicate” to sway voters before election day, Boykin speculated that Facebook may have disabled his account because of previous contact with the far-right, men-only organization, Proud Boys, whose accounts were also disabled by Facebook and Instagram on October 31, according to the Associated Press.
The Southern Poverty Law Center defines Proud Boys as a general hate group that promotes white nationalist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic rhetoric and whose members regularly appear at extremist gatherings like the violent 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in three deaths.
Boykin said he is not affiliated with Proud Boys but has described the group as “the only organization that protects people who peacefully protest” and that “the left [has] turn[ed] into the enemy.”
A Nontraditional Candidate Boykin said he is not concerned that some of his far-out comments would affect his General Assembly candidacy. Instead, he expressed frustration over what he called “fake news” propagated on “liberal websites…that made it seem like I hate transsexual people and how I can’t stand them.”
The North Carolina House candidate was referring to a March 2018 Daily Beast article where he was quoted as saying transgender individuals are “mentally challenged” and should thus be disqualified from serving in the military.
“I have a lot of right-leaning transsexual friends who admit it is a mental issue,” Boykin said in an October phone interview. “Although transsexual rights are valid, they are different from gay rights, and we can’t let the transsexual rights drag down our gay rights.”
In March 2018, the Richmond, Virginia LGBT online news source, GayRVA, labeled Boykin a “drop the T” advocate who founded the sketchiest right-wing organization ever to come out of the gay community,” adding that his election to the NCGA would “be an extraordinarily bad thing” for the LGBT community.
His unusual past and brazen online presence stand out in an era in which many politicians carefully craft every word out of fear what they say will spread out of context or with unintended connotations.
Boykin said he considers his work in online pornography years ago is “irrelevant” to his campaign. “I didn’t do any movies. I didn’t do any hardcore anything. I took basically pictures of myself behind a protected wall to make sure that people who were underaged would not see it and it was supposed to be private,” he added.
And he often blurs the lines between his campaign and non-campaign social media accounts.
On his primary campaign Facebook page, Boykin mostly shares his daily radio show segments and reposts far-right Breitbart articles—upwards of 15 in a day. Meanwhile, on his personal account, he broadcasts his candidacy and implores his many followers to donate to his campaign.
When asked why the North Carolina Republican Party supports Boykin, Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said via email that the party supports “a long diverse list of Republican candidates across the state.” Woodhouse, who declined a phone interview, did not respond to inquiries about Boykin’s porn-acting history and endorsement of controversial conspiracy theories like those about the Las Vegas shooting.
Guilford County GOP chairman Troy Lawson, who is running for NC House District 57, did not reply to multiple requests for comment about how Boykin’s candidacy reflects on his county’s Republican brand.
Since he filed and automatically became the Republican candidate for District 58 with no primary challenger, Boykin held an October “Boykin for House” fundraiser event at the GOP’s county headquarters. He said that turnout was lower than hoped and his campaign actually suffered a loss in funds after paying to bring speaker Juanita Broaddrick, who is known for alleging that former President Bill Clinton raped her during his bid for governor in 1978, which Clinton has denied.
Guilford County Democratic Party Chair Nicole Quick said she views Boykin’s candidacy as another platform for him to promote his personal brand.
“Given the way he’s chosen to run his campaign it really is more of a publicity stunt for his Gays for Trump network,” she said. “He’s not been out in the community campaigning or making connections.”
Quick added that she has not seen Boykin engage in typical campaign activities in Greensboro, like canvassing door-to-door, while his Democratic opponent, incumbent Amos Quick has. Representative Quick, a Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in High Point, was a Guilford County School Board member for over a decade before his 2016 election to the General Assembly.
Boykin said he has placed 100 “Boykin for House” yard signs across District 58, although without the help of campaign volunteers.
Despite Boykin’s hopes for campaign legitimacy, Quick, who is not related to the District 58 incumbent, said the Guilford County Democrats don’t take Boykin’s candidacy very seriously.
While his chances of winning in heavily Democratic District 58 are slim, Boykin noted that he sees himself as reaching heights beyond his forty-thousand-plus Twitter followers and beyond a state house seat.
“My goal for the future would be U.S. House or Senate,” he said.
For now, though, his following comes from being an unusual online character, sporting his “Boykin for House” red cap and singing to Toby Keith’s “I Just Wanna Talk About Me” with lyrics of his own.
They go like this: “I just wanna talk about Trump, I just wanna talk about MAGA, I just wanna talk about America’s Number One.”
Lizzie Bond is a Duke sophomore and student journalist at the Reporters’ Lab. Since August, students working at the lab have reviewed thousands of political claims on social media for the NC Fact-Checking Project.
Editor’s note: Today we’re releasing the results of our study on article labels. We’ve published an account of our findings and a few recommendations on Poynter.org. The post below has slightly more detail on our methodology and a link to our data.
To assess how well news organizations are labeling their articles, the Duke Reporters’ Lab examined articles from 49 publications.
The study was prompted by the ongoing public debate about declining trust in the news media. Some journalists and educators have said one way to improve trust is for people to better understand the type of content they’re reading.
Online journalism provides readers with access to thousands of news sources, but readers may not understand the type of article they’re reading. Our hypothesis was that many news organizations do not label article types to indicate whether they are news, analysis, opinion or a review.
Students in the Lab analyzed 49 news organizations — 25 local newspapers and 24 national news and opinion websites. Students collected 25 articles from each organization — five articles from five different sections of the publication. For each piece of content, they note, among other things, if that article had a label, what the label said, if the label was clearly defined anywhere on the page and the size, location and color of the label.
* Of the 49 organizations analyzed, the Reporters’ Lab found that only 20 of them — 40 percent — labeled article type at least once in at least one section of their website.
* Of the 20 organizations that did label article types, 16 of them — 80 percent — only used labels in the opinion section. Those labels included editorial (used on 15 news sites), commentary (seven sites), column or columnist (six sites) and letters (seven sites).
* Our students found none of the publications labeled content well across every section of the website.
* Of the 29 organizations that did not label content, 13 of them were local newspapers and 16 were national organizations.
* These 29 organizations often labeled the section of the website in which an article belonged such as sports or entertainment, but they did not specify the type of article being read.
The raw data of our analysis can be viewed on this spreadsheet.