U.S. Campaign Ads Are Popping Up On Russian Propaganda YouTube Channels

Oct 28, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 6:12 pm
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Political advertising is surging online, even though the election is still over a year away. Campaigns are already spending tens of millions of dollars to promote their candidates on platforms like Facebook and Google, but some of those ads may be showing up in unintended places. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: So a couple of days ago, I was tooling around on YouTube, looking at Russia's main propaganda channel, known as RT.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ILYA PETRENKO: Kremlin talking points is what I was talking about, so why waste time on...

BRUMFIEL: But then something really unexpected happened. In between videos, this ad popped up for President Trump. It was from the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, which is part of his 2020 re-election campaign. The ad showed up again and again before a video accusing the U.S. of meddling in the United Nations...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "EP.806: WHISTLEBLOWER KATHARINE GUN- HOW THE US SPIED+BLACKMAILED TO GET SUPPORT FOR THE IRAQ WAR")

AFSHIN RATTANSI: I mean, you believe the plan was to spy on the U.N. Security Council members and then potentially blackmail them.

BRUMFIEL: ...And another one showing a Russian fighter jet confronting a NATO rival. In an email, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told NPR, quote, "we have not targeted those channels at all." So what's going on?

LAURA EDELSON: The Trump campaign is a big advertiser.

BRUMFIEL: Laura Edelson is a graduate student studying online political advertising at New York University. The Trump campaign has already spent over $12 million advertising on Google platforms, including YouTube. She says the type of ad I saw is designed to draw new supporters. It's probably being spread over a large swath of YouTube. A spokesperson for the company told me advertisers do have the option to prevent their ads from appearing on certain channels, but Edelson says the Trump campaign may just not have checked that box.

EDELSON: They could do something like say, I want to advertise against news channels, and they just didn't exclude RT. That is a possibility.

BRUMFIEL: Murtaugh didn't say whether the campaign had excluded RT, but he did say its main strategy is to target the user. That means advertising follows people the campaign wants to reach no matter what they're viewing on YouTube. Shannon Kowalczyk is with the progressive group ACRONYM, which is tracking online advertising this election season. She says going after viewers is pretty common.

SHANNON KOWALCZYK: You know, a political advertiser can go in and define that they want to target more of a Democratic audience or more of a Republican-leaning audience. So if you're on RT, it may happen there. If you're on a cooking channel, it may happen there, et cetera.

BRUMFIEL: If all this sounds complicated, well, it is. And like all software, it's constantly being updated, too.

KOWALCZYK: Platforms like Facebook and Google and others are basically changing the way that the buying of political advertising works on their platforms what seems like every day.

BRUMFIEL: The rules, the technology, the strategy - it's all constantly evolving, and that could lead to more unexpected matchups.

KOWALCZYK: As things change, yeah, I'm sure some weird stuff could happen.

BRUMFIEL: Stuff voters will ultimately have to adjust to as America heads into a big election year online. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.