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Exploiting trust in local news: Bogus news outlets 


Peter Adams

I am NLP's senior vice president of education. My team runs all of our professional learning opportunities, including NewsLit Camps, and our resource and content development, including Checkology assets. Many years ago I taught middle school ELA and social studies, in an after school program for high schoolers and at the college level.

BuzzFeed News investigation last week exposed a large network of  bogus local and financial news websites — replete with recycled press releases and plagiarized news stories — designed to make money in a number of ways. Matt McGorty*, who has experience in the financial information industry, established some of the sites as far back as 2015, BuzzFeed reported.

Many of the fraudulent sites, some of which are no longer live, had names such as the Livingston Ledger or the Denton Daily to give people the impression they were small but legitimate local outlets. McGorty* used plagiarized news stories to get the sites included in Google News results and to optimize rankings in general search results, and made money through ad revenue, commissions for financial email sign-ups and referral fees for questionable investment opportunities.

Exploiting trust

The network is the latest example of an attempt to capitalize on two aspects of the current information environment: the public’s trust in local news organizations and the likelihood that people will not recognize bogus but legitimate-sounding sources of local news. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Russian disinformation operatives created Twitter accounts such as @ElPasoTopNews and @MilwaukeeVoice to amplify divisive — but real — local news stories from legitimate outlets. More recently, homegrown political operatives — including campaigns, political action committees and partisan activists on both the left and right — have used the same tactic to advance their agendas.

Late last year, The Lansing State Journal and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University uncovered a network of 450 bogus news websites. At least 189 of the sites posed as local news outlets and used algorithms to convert press releases into “pink slime” local news stories that supported conservative talking points.

* UPDATE (April 21, 2020): This item initially said that Matt McGorty and his brother established the network of phony news sites. BuzzFeed News updated its report on April 2 after being told by Matt McGorty that his brother “had nothing to do with any of this.”

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For teachers

Why do you think so many different kinds of people and organizations (foreign disinformation agents, con artists, clickbait farmers, political activists, etc.) are using bogus local news outlets as vehicles for their content?

Idea: As a class, create a list of all the legitimate (standards-based) local news outlets in your community, then create Wikipedia pages for any that do not currently have one. (Big thanks to Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, for this idea.)

Another idea: Have students brainstorm ideas for protecting people in their communities from being taken in by imposter local news sources, then vote for the best one. Make that idea a class assignment, or let students choose one of several ideas to work on in teams.

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