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GOP creates look-alike news sites targeting Minnesota Democrats

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The Moorhead Update looks like a news site.

There's a headline at the top, big and bold, with a photo of U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson underneath. And along the right-hand side of the page, there are sections for the "Most Popular" and "Most Viewed" stories. There are social media sharing buttons, and even an update sign-up form.

There's a Duluth Update site too, with the exact same template and layout, but with Rep. Rick Nolan as the focus.

But down at the bottom of both, you'll see the following.

"Paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee."

The new websites, even though they're designed to look like local news sources, are actually advertisements – two of at least 20 targeting Democratic candidates for the U.S. House, and paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Journal reports.

The Washington Post has a list of those 20 websites.

Peterson, who has represented Minnesota's 7th Congressional District (western Minnesota) since 1991, is one of those Democrats being targeted. He's seeking his 13th term, and is being challenged by Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom, an attorney born in Golden Valley.

Nolan is finishing his first term in Congress, having ousted Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack in the 2012 election by a margin of 54-45 percent. Republican Stewart Mills is looking to take the seat back this November.

Targeted ads in Google searches

The NRCC is promoting the sites through Google search ads, the National Journal says.

So anyone located within the 7th Congressional District (see map at right) who searches for Collin Peterson or related terms gets a link to the Moorhead Update site at the top of the search results. The same things happen with the Duluth Update if you live in the 8th Congressional District and search for Rick Nolan.

A small graphic signifying the result as an ad is visible next to the link.

BringMeTheNews searched for "Collin Peterson" and "Rick Nolan" on Google a few times, changing our search location from Moorhead or Litchfield, to Duluth or Grand Rapids – spots all over the targeted districts. You can see an example of what shows up in the search in the screenshot below.

The ads do not appear to show up when searching from outside the district.

Innovative or deceptive?

The Hill spoke with NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato, who called the sites an "innovative digital effort ... focused on getting the truth out about Democrat candidates.

He continued: "So it’s perfectly understandable why Democrats would be both scared of it, and jealous they didn’t think of it first."

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Josh Schwerin told TIME the sites are "deception," part of a "campaign strategy to overcome their own historic unpopularity."

Politico described the sites as "legal, if ethically sketchy."

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