Even by the standards of Breitbart News, an outlet known for its obsessive coverage of crimes committed by immigrants, the ad was alarming: Black text on a white background, reading, simply, "They're all terrorists."
But clicking on the ad reveals a site, The Real Story, which seeks to to quell alarm, not raise it. Here, a similarly stark black and white background implores visitors to "Fight Fake News. Spread the Truth" and informs them of the plight of Syrian refugees through videos, images, and statistics.
It's a bait and switch, conservative media bubble style.
And in a moment when activists and concerned employees are organizing campaigns to pressure companies to pull advertising from conservatives sites — Breitbart in particular — it's a fascinating strategy: Paying the very outlets that buttress the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee narrative in order to try to tear it down.
The Real Story is a project of the American chapter of Doctors of the World, a Doctors Without Borders offshoot that, according to its website, "provides emergency and long-term medical care to vulnerable populations while fighting for equal access to healthcare worldwide." It differs from the latter organization mainly in its goal of "bearing witness to suffering" in addition to providing care.
It's in this spirit that the organization's head of communications, Tamera Gugelmeyer, and her team conceived The Real Story. After a December trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, during which Gugelmeyer and her staff recorded interviews with dozens of Syrian refugees, they returned to the States determined to find a new way to spread what Gugelmeyer said was "compelling, emotional content."
Past videos about refugees the group had promoted on Facebook, Gugelmeyer said, tended to draw strong negative reactions from some conservatives, but also "moderatering voices, countervailing forces [who] know we live in a world that is shades of grey."
With the intention of reaching those more moderate conservatives, Doctors of the World purchased ad space not just on Breitbart, but also before InfoWars segments on YouTube. The group also bought pre-roll space based on conservative search behavior on YouTube and text ads based on Google searches for terms like "Radical Islamic Terrorism" and "crimes committed by refugees in america." Since the campaign began in the beginning of March, Gugelmeyer said, it has generated more than 1 million impressions across Google and YouTube.
"It was a programmatic ad buy, not a direct ad buy," said Chad Wilkinson, a spokesperson for Breitbart, distinguishing display ads selected by a third party ad network from those selected by someone from Breitbart itself.
"That said, we've got no problem with it," Wilkinson added. "The more voices, the better."
To put its ad in front of its desired audiences, Doctors of the World had to pay the outlets whose message it opposes. It's far different strategy than the one used by organizations like Sleeping Giants, an anonymous group of digital marketers who pressure companies through social media into dropping ads from outlets like Breitbart.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, one of the organizers of Sleeping Giants wrote that they were ambivalent about the tactic.
"On one hand, we can see value in trying to speak to a readership that has been fed articles that are extreme in their anti-refugee views. It will definitely get them some much-needed attention for their cause as well. On the other hand, we're not in favor of giving Breitbart (or Infowars) any extra ad money even if it's for a good cause. They are funded to the hilt by The Mercer Family, who is pushing their extreme ideology to an audience that is clearly buying it. They don't need the extra money and the chances of swaying opinion is likely very slim."
Indeed, the implications of paying outlets that helped build and sustain the anti-refugee fervor in parts of the American electorate aren't lost on Doctors of the World.
"We gave - and continue to give - it considerable thought," Gugelmeyer wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. "We have had some lively discussion as to what is more important: maintaining a sense of our own moral/political purity, or engaging with the other side. We decided that the life and death realities of this massive humanitarian crisis demanded that we try to give a voice to the refugees, challenge current assumptions about Syrians, and extend a hand across the divide. Because, in the end, change is rarely made by talking just to those with whom you agree."
But measuring that change is difficult. Gugelmeyer said that the organization hasn't experienced any major blowback from the campaign yet, but that donations are up. (Though, she added, that could be attributable to the dissemination of The Real Story campaign through more sympathetic outlets.)
Ultimately, Gugelemeyer said, the campaign was about "offering alternative narratives" and finding a way into the news bubbles that have come to define media consumption in 2017.
Said Gugelemeyer, "If we surface five people who are willing to have a conversation. Then I feel like we’ve done our job."
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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