Example of a partisan “news” story on the Courier’s website.

A fake online newspaper that aims to elect Democrats to Congress has spent at least $50,000 this year on social media advertising that promoted its stories touting U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat who is seeking reelection in a district he narrowly won two years ago.

The Democrat has disavowed the stories and ads, and criticized the dark money sources behind the effort.

What makes the Courier different from most other partisan news sites, which are increasingly common on both sides of the aisle, is that its stories appear to exist almost entirely as an excuse to advertise them on social media to audiences its supporters hope to influence.

The Courier has been running pieces aimed at protecting potentially threatened Democrats across the country for months, spending more than $1.4 million along the way to ensure they show up on millions of Facebook and Instagram feeds.

The Courier’s stories tend to be thinly rewritten news releases put out by first-term Democrats in the U.S. House who, like Golden, won marginal districts in 2018. The pieces are generally factual, but have a distinctly partisan spin.

In one typical example, the Courier shows a picture of Golden along with the line, “Rep. Jared Golden said students in Maine are disproportionately affected by unreliable internet service.”

It links to a piece that is nothing more than a low-budget video consisting of a few more photographs and some words snatched from one of the congressman’s news releases.

The Courier spent at least $5,000 on the advertisement that showed up about 750,000 times on social media feeds, almost all of them in Maine, with the clear intent of pushing the message that Golden is working to improve broadband access.

Golden, who is seeking reelection in the 1st Congressional District against Republican Dale Crafts of Lisbon, insists he has no use for the fakery involved.

The congressman “opposes the efforts of organizations on the left and the right that claim to be impartial news sources and mislead the American people,” his spokesman, Nick Zeller, said.

“This is yet another reason he’s working to get dark money out of politics,” Zeller said Friday. “Our democracy relies on trustworthy local news, and these organizations’ efforts harm the mission of the free press.”

Republicans have partisan “news” organizations similar to the Courier dotted around the nation, including the Maine Examiner, and have openly discussed the possibility they could be used to help destroy the traditional media.

Some of the members of Congress who are highlighted by the Courier and its affiliated “local” news organizations have shared the pieces as if they came from legitimate sources. Golden, though, has not done so. His office and campaign feeds on social media lean on his own news releases and stories that have appeared in the Maine media or nationally recognized news sources.

The Courier touts its stories widely.

One advertisement on Facebook, which cost the Courier $8,000 or more, got more than a million impressions, mostly in Maine, for a piece highlighting Golden’s effort to help veterans get COVID-19 tests.

Another, which the Courier paid $12,000 or more to share, hails Golden’s help for small businesses.

The Courier purports to “empower individuals and communities through local reporting that helps people understand and affect the issues impacting their lives.”

“We examine national stories through a local lens, and elevate local news that’s relevant to a broader audience,” it says on its website.

The Courier, a for-profit online publication, was created in 2018 by Tara McGowan as an arm of Acronym to boost Democratic candidates. She rounded up rich donors to fund it.

In addition to the Courier, the organization also has a few “local” news organizations like Dogwood, in Virginia, and Cardinal & Pine in North Carolina.

Because they masquerade as media organizations, none of the outlets is required to disclose who covers the bills or detail how much advertising is used to tout its so-called stories.

Nearly all of its work touts Democrats, though there are a smattering of issue stories that promote a progressive agenda rather than a particular politician.

In a 2019 memorandum, McGowan said the content produced is “designed to drive strategic narratives to key audiences” and will be delivered “on a drip over time, reaching voters through targeted ads and boosted posts across Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Twitter and other online properties.”

There is nothing on the site to make it clear to unwary visitors that the site has a clear political objective to boost Democrats.

“Because it obscures its funders and agenda, Courier’s ‘news’ operation leads to the same result as conspiracy theories or outright lies: Readers are deceived,” Gabby Deutch, Washington correspondent for NewsGuard, a New York-based nonpartisan organization that reviews news sites to combat misinformation, wrote in an opinion column for The Washington Post.

What makes it different from a conventional news organization is not just that its stories have a strong partisan tilt. There is no effort at all to be fair.

Publishing its pro-Democratic pieces, though, is just the beginning.

The Courier then takes the stories and uses them in advertising that is not really meant to draw readers. It’s intended instead to draw attention to the ads themselves and to encourage people to share them as if they’re legitimate news stories.

The ads for Golden say they are paid for by the “Courier Newsroom.”

Real news organizations, especially local ones that are often struggling just to pay the bills, don’t spend thousands of dollars to tout their stories online, an idea that is financially ridiculous unless losing money is irrelevant.

Deutch wrote that Courier and Acronym “are exploiting the widespread loss of local journalism to create and disseminate something we really don’t need: hyperlocal partisan propaganda.”

It’s not something new.

Fake news organizations have become increasingly common. Both parties have come to embrace them, though few have the money the Courier has clearly attracted.

In Maine, the executive director of the state Republican Party, Jason Savage, was caught secretly operating one a couple of years ago.

Savage’s Maine Examiner remains online.


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