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Fox News catches McAuliffe campaign buying 'fake news' ads to take down Youngkin

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An investigation has found that former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has spent nearly $100,000 promoting "fake news" websites on Facebook that give favorable coverage to his Virginia gubernatorial campaign against Republican Glenn Youngkin.

McAuliffe's campaign has purchased Facebook ads that link to third-party websites that are designed to look like local news sources but instead publish disinformation and "partisan propaganda," Fox News reported. The ads have been viewed up to 3.5 million times so far in a tight election, with McAuliffe and Youngkin tied in the polls just one week from Election Day.

Fox News describes the McAuliffe campaign's fake news ads as "sophisticated and opaque."

The campaign operates a Facebook page called "The Download Virginia," which was launched in June. The page's name sounds like the name of a news outlet, but according to Fox News it has not published any posts or photos and only 104 people are following it at the time this article was published.

By looking through Facebook's Ad Library Report, a tool for journalists and researchers, Fox News discovered that the McAuliffe campaign has spent $471,044 on ads distributed by this page since June.

"The advertisements generally contain a comment and a link to a mainstream news article that covers the campaign favorably. But sprinkled among the links to legitimate media are seven separate advertisements (and dozens of variations) that promote websites widely considered to be 'fake news,'" Fox News reports.

A July advertisement, for example, featured a favorable comment about McAuliffe's views on small businesses and then linked to an article published by a third party website called the Virginia Dogwood.

The Dogwood is designed to look like a local news website and it claims to publish "credible, fact-based reporting." But the website discloses it is owned and operated by Courier Newsroom, a group that was founded by the progressive dark money group ACRONYM and funded by multibillionaire Democratic donor George Soros, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and several Hollywood movie producers. Courier Newsroom has since been purchased by former Democratic strategist Tara McGowan's group Good Information Inc., a public benefit corporation that says it aims to fight "disinformation" by investing in local news companies, which is financially supported by many of the same progressive donors.

A Washington Post editorial from February 2020, written by a correspondent for a fact-checking organization, said that Courier Newsroom creates "hyperlocal partisan propaganda" through websites like the Dogwood.

Another advertisement from the Download in October claimed that Youngkin has a "very concerning" policy on vaccination and linked to an article published by the American Independent.

The Independent describes itself as a platform for "progressive news" and admits it is funded by the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation. The foundation is a liberal dark money group founded by David Brock, "a wealthy and influential Democratic donor who is also a close ally of the Clinton family," Fox News reported. In 2020, Brock's group spent $59.7 million to oppose Republican candidates, according to OpenSecrets.

Both the Dogwood and the Independent are labeled "fake news" websites by OpenSecrets. And Fox News reported that the McAuliffe campaign has reached millions of Facebook users through ads promoting disinformation from those websites:

The McAuliffe campaign has spent a total of between $90,200 to $106,398 on advertisements linking to the Independent and the Dogwood. Those advertisements have garnered the campaign a total of between 3,290,000 and 3,470,000 "impressions," a term that Facebook uses to describe the number of screens that an advertisement has reached.

Each ad contains a disclaimer that it was paid for by "Terry for Virginia" and authorized by the candidate himself (Facebook requires candidates to add disclaimers like these to all political ads). But none of the advertisements disclose that the websites are considered to be "fake news" or that their information may be misleading.

The Democratic National Committee, which has publicly condemned misinformation on social media platforms, did not respond to Fox News' requests for comment on the McAuliffe campaign's fake news ads.

The McAuliffe campaign also did not respond to Fox News' requests for comment, but the network reports that two advertisements that linked to the American Independent as recently as last week were disabled after Fox News made inquiries.

A spokesperson for the Youngkin campaign said "disinformation practices are standard for McAuliffe, whose lies go into overdrive when he's desperate."

The spokesperson added that "not a single left-wing propaganda arm disguised as a news organization will turn the tide" of this close election.

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