Just in time for the 2020 election, a conservative conglomerate is poised to flood Montana with some real “fake news”: right-leaning coverage that, despite appearances, will neither be objective nor local. The content mills, evocatively called “pink slime” sites, are designed to leverage the ongoing collapse of local journalism and problematic levels of media literacy to influence elections and state policy. Along the way, if everything goes as planned, they’ll further erode public trust in real journalism.
The sites, which evoke the design of the Lee Newspapers in the state, purport to be local, with versions like “Northeast Montana News, “Glacier Country News,” and “Big Sky Times,” but in reality, they are all run by a shady organization called Metric Media. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism reports:
In increasingly popular tactic challenges conventional wisdom on the spread of electoral disinformation: the creation of partisan outlets masquerading as local news organizations. An investigation by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School has discovered at least 450 websites in a network of local and business news organizations, each distributing thousands of algorithmically generated articles and a smaller number of reported stories. Of the 450 sites we discovered, at least 189 were set up as local news networks across ten states within the last twelve months by an organization called Metric Media.
Titles like the East Michigan News, Hickory Sun, and Grand Canyon Times have appeared on the web ahead of the 2020 election. These networks of sites can be used in a variety of ways: as ‘stage setting’ for events, focusing attention on issues such as voter fraud and energy pricing, providing the appearance of neutrality for partisan issues, or to gather data from users that can then be used for political targeting.
And the “local journalism” they produce is shady as hell.
Take, for instance, the work of “reporter” Glenn Minnis, who purportedly conducted an interview with Bureau of Business and Economic Research Director Patrick Barkey on February 17 for the Big Sky Times, wrote three pieces for the Dupage Policy Journal in Illinois the same week, and dabbled in some coverage of Louisiana politics for the Louisiana Record.
That’s not local coverage; that’s covering all the locations.
The coverage Mr. Minnis provides at all of these sites illustrates the real danger of these content mills: combining lifted content and the illusion of local coverage, the real aim of the sites is to facilitate the spread of conservative coverage that appears objective on social media. Even a brief look at his coverage shows how it spreads conservative messaging about tort reform, taxation, immigration, and more. None of these stories–which are presented as straight news–contain a single quote or fact that challenges conservative orthodoxy.
The Tow Center for Digital Journalism deconstructs the elaborate scheme to hide the origin of these fake news sites, which claim they exist to “fill the void in local communities,” but actually undermine objective coverage and our faith in news organizations:
Websites and networks can aid campaigns to manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media. The demise of local journalism in many areas creates an information vacuum, and raises the chance of success for these influence campaigns. The strategy is further made possible by the low cost of automating news stories, repurposing press releases (including obituaries from funeral homes), and replicating design templates, as well as the relative ease with which political or single-issue campaigns can obscure their funding and provenance.
Having spent more time on conservative Facebook than anyone should, it’s easy to see the appeal of these sites for conservatives. Combining liberal use of plagiarism, automated content, and lifted press releases, they can easily post an enormous amount of content that will be shared by low-information voters. That much of the content is inoffensive and apolitical(the Tow Center notes that they even scrape content from funeral homes) is actually part of the appeal; it furthers the illusion that the sites are truly journalism.
And that’s what makes these pink slime news site so insidious and potentially far more effective than earlier, laughable efforts from conservative groups like American Tradition Partnership to influence elections with bogus news coverage. The thin veneer of objective coverage obscures the agenda driving these sites.
There’s nothing wrong with journalism having a point of view. There is a long tradition of media outlets that approach the news from a liberal or conservative viewpoint. As Rachel Davis Mersey, executive director of the Media Leadership Center at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, noted in an interview with the Lansing State Journal:
“[Advocacy journalism] comes from a point of view, and I think there’s plenty of room for that in the ecosystem of news and information,” Davis said. “I think the challenge becomes when that transparency disappears.”
In the long-term, as the bots and manipulative sites become more sophisticated, we need to improve media literacy across the board in this country and make it a more central element of high school curricula. In the short-term, we need to be aware these sites are out there and let our friends who share the “news” know the sites aren’t in our communities and aren’t to be trusted.