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.
Five Duke undergraduates monitored thousands of political claims this semester during a heated midterm campaign season for the N.C. Fact-Checking Project.
That work helped expand nonpartisan political coverage in a politically divided state with lots of contested races for state and federal seats this fall. The effort resumes in January when the project turns its attention to a newly configured North Carolina General Assembly.
Three student journalists who tackled this work with fellow sophomores Alex Johnson and Sydney McKinney reflect on what they’ve learned so far.
Lizzie Bond: After spending the summer working in two congressional offices on Capitol Hill, I began my work in the Reporters’ Lab and on the N.C. Fact-Checking Project with first-hand knowledge of how carefully elected officials and their staff craft statements in press releases and on social media. This practice derives from a fear of distorting the meaning or connotation of their words. And in this social media age where so many outlets are available for sharing information and for people to consume it, this fear runs deep.
Yet, it took me discovering one candidate for my perspective to shift on the value of our work with the N.C. Fact-Checking Project. That candidate, Peter Boykin, proved to be a much more complicated figure than any other politician whose social media we monitored. The Republican running to represent Greensboro’s District 58 in the General Assembly, Boykin is the founder of “Gays for Trump,” a former online pornography actor, a Pro-Trump radio show host, and an already controversial, far-right online figure with tens of thousands of followers. Pouring through Boykin’s nearly dozen social media accounts, I came across everything from innocuous self-recorded music video covers to contentious content, like hostile characterizations of liberals and advocacy of conspiracy theories, like one regarding the Las Vegas mass shooting which he pushed with little to no corroborating evidence.
When contrasting Boykin’s posts on both his personal and campaign social media accounts with the more cautious and mild statements from other North Carolina candidates, I realized that catching untruthful claims has a more ambitious goal that simply detecting and reporting falsehoods. By reminding politicians that they should be accountable to the facts in the first place, fact-checking strives to improve their commitment to truth-telling. The push away from truth and decency in our politics and toward sharp antagonism and even alternate realities becomes normalized when Republican leaders support candidates like Boykin as simply another GOP candidate. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project is helping to revive truth and decency in North Carolina’s politics and to challenge the conspiracy theories and pants-on-fire campaign claims that threaten the self-regulating, healthy political society we seek.
Ryan Williams: I came into the Reporters’ Lab with relatively little journalism experience. I spent the past summer working on social media outreach & strategy at a non-profit where I drafted tweets and wrote the occasional blog post. But I’d never tuned into writing with the immense brevity of political messages during an election season. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project showed me the importance of people who not only find the facts are but who report them in a nonpartisan, objective manner that is accessible to an average person.
Following the 2016 election, some people blamed journalists and pollsters for creating false expectations about who would win the presidency. I was one of those critics. In the two and a half months I spent fact-checking North Carolina’s midterm races, I learned how hard fact-checkers and reporters work. My fellow fact-checkers and I compiled a litany of checkable claims made by politicians this midterm cycle. Those claims, along with claims found by the automated claim-finding algorithmClaimBuster were raw material for many fact-checks of some of North Carolina hottestraces. Those checks were made available for voters ahead of polling.
Now that election day has come and gone, I am more than grateful for this experience in fact-finding and truth-reporting. Not only was I able to hone research skills, I gained a deeper understanding of the intricacies of political journalism. I can’t wait to see what claims come out of the next two years leading up to, what could be, the presidential race of my lifetime.
Jake Sheridan: I’m a Carolina boy who has grown up on the state’s politics. I’ve worked on campaigns, went to the 2012 Democratic National Committee in my hometown of Charlotte and am the son of a long-time news reporter. I thought I knew North Carolina politics before working in the Reporter’s Lab. I was wrong.
While trying to wrap my head around the 300-plus N.C. races, I came to better understand the politics of this state. What matters in the foothills of the Piedmont, I found out, is different than what matters on the Outer Banks and in Asheville. I discovered that campaigns publiclyrelease b-roll so that PACs can create ads for them and saw just how brutal attack ads can be. I got familiar with flooding and hog farms, strange politicians and bold campaign claims.
There was no shortage of checkable claims. That was good for me. But it’s bad for us. I trust politicians less now. The ease with which some N.C. politicians make up facts troubles me. Throughout this campaign season in North Carolina, many politicians lied, misled and told half truths. If we want democracy to work — if we want people to vote based on what is real so that they can pursue what is best for themselves and our country — we must give them truth. Fact-checking is essential to creating that truth. It has the potential to place an expectation of explanation upon politicians making claims. That’s critical for America if we want to live in a country in which our government represents our true best interests and not our best interests in an alternate reality.
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.
Cathy Clabby of The Reporters’ Lab and Andy Specht of The News & Observerappeared on Spectrum Cable’s “Politics Tonight” this week to explain the newly announced NC Fact-Checking Project. The journalists briefed Spectrum News host Tim Boyum on the ambitious plan to fact-check claims by politicians statewide during federal and state campaigns this fall and into the 2019 General Assembly session.
In the project, Duke journalism students and faculty – assisted by Tech & Check bots – will scour campaign messaging and news reports to find newsworthy claims by politicians that can be verified. Journalists at The News & Observer will select statements to check, report their veracity and craft the fact-checks. The reporting will be shared for free with print, broadcast and digital newsrooms statewide. To watch, click here.
The Duke Reporters’ Lab is joining McClatchy Carolinas and the UNC Reese News Lab in an ambitious project to expand non-partisan fact-checking throughout North Carolina.
With a $50,000 grant from the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project will build on the existing work at The News & Observer, add the work of student journalists and take advantage of new automated tools from the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative.
The project will evaluate statements by state and federal candidates in the 2018 election as well as lawmakers in the General Assembly session that begins in January 2019. The fact-checks will be produced by N&O journalists as part of PolitiFact North Carolina and will be made available for free to any news organization in the state for use online and in print.
The project will get support from the new TruthBuzz program of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which is hiring an engagement fellow based on Raleigh to promote the North Carolina fact-checking.
The North Carolina Fact-Checking Project will put special emphasis on claims by politicians in rural parts of the state. Students in the Reporters’ Lab will scour news coverage and campaign ads for factual claims made by state, local and congressional candidates. The Lab will build new versions of its Tech & Check Alerts that use automated bots to find statements by politicians in social media that could be of interest to the North Carolina fact-checkers.
The Duke students and bots will provide daily suggestions of possible claims to The News & Observer, which will select which statements to research.
The UNC Reese News Lab will co-host a student seminar on fact-checking and help select a student journalist to work on the project. Representatives from Duke, TruthBuzz and the News & Observer will hold outreach sessions around the state to promote fact-checking and encourage news organizations to publish the project’s work.
About the partners:
The North Carolina Local News Lab Fundis a collaborative fund at the North Carolina Community Foundation established by a group of local and national funders who believe in the power of local journalism, local stories, and local people to strengthen our democracy.
The Duke Reporters’ Lab at the Sanford School of Public Policy is a center of research on fact-checking and automated journalism. The Lab tracks the growth of fact-checking around the world, conducts studies on important topics and develops tools to help journalists.