The Election-Swinging, Facebook-Fueled, Get-Out-the-Vote Machine

It was a sunny June afternoon in Washington, DC, and even though Tara McGowan professes to hate this city, she was having fun.

A political operative turned publisher, she sat in a conference room in a WeWork office downtown, her fingertips loudly drumming away on the bright orange table. The energetic 36-year-old is the CEO of a company called Good Information, where she oversees a mini empire of progressive local news sites across the United States.

Beaming in on a big videoscreen was Pat Rynard, himself a Democratic operative turned journalist and founder of a small political website called Iowa Starting Line, which The New York Times once declared “the ‘It’ read for political insiders.” McGowan had bought the site from him in 2021, making it the eighth in her growing collection of two- to six-person newsrooms stretching from Arizona to North Carolina.

McGowan believes these outlets are the antidote to bad information—the hyperbole and lies that proliferate in Americans’ social media feeds and promote ideas mostly from the ideological right. Through the calculated injection of news stories into these feeds, McGowan thinks she can claw a crumbling republic back from the brink and—this is the important part—get more people to vote. She’s confident these new recruits to the democratic process will lean decidedly left.

Rynard walked her through an experiment in using Facebook’s powerful ad-targeting tools. Iowa’s primary elections were taking place the next day, and he wanted to know whether a handful of Iowa Starting Line’s stories could shape the results. Primaries are the sort of political contest that both keep democracy afloat and tend to be roundly ignored.

“Remind me when the actual boosting of the coverage started?” asked McGowan, sipping from a giant pink water bottle.

“Three weeks ago,” Rynard replied. Working with a political data shop, McGowan’s team had gotten a list of residents in blue-collar counties in the state’s east. They cut the hardcore Republicans from the list, then dumped the remaining names into Facebook’s ad-buying portal. An analyst used the app’s “lookalike” tool to find other people like them, then bought ads that would appear in those users’ newsfeeds. The ads weren’t selling anything; they were just promoting a few stories from Rynard’s site—straight reporting on Democratic candidates vying to run against sitting US senator Chuck Grassley, an infographic of voting deadlines. So far, Rynard was pleased. One ad he’d tossed in on a whim, which riffed on a story titled “Iowa Passed 70 New Laws This Year. Here’s What They Do,” was clicked on by 3.5 percent of the people who saw it. (Digital ads work on painfully small margins; anything above 2 percent is reason to cheer.)

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