Until a teenager shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin, a local news website largely pumped out automated articles on petrol prices and house construction.
Then the Kenosha Reporter’s content changed. Stories highlighted the criminal records of the victims, while their alleged killer, Kyle Rittenhouse, was portrayed as a hero “protecting businesses” — a popular interpretation among rightwing groups.
An article last week carried the headline: “See the names of the 269 Kenosha teachers who called in sick to shut down their public schools.” The anonymously written article then named the local teachers involved in an apparent protest against a return to classrooms during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Kenosha Reporter is one of hundreds of local news outlets that have proliferated in recent years, particularly in the run-up to the US presidential election. Despite presenting themselves as apolitical, many are what researchers have dubbed “pink slime”: outlets that push low-quality, partisan material through their own sites and social media pages.
The phrase is thought to have been coined in 2012 by freelance journalist Ryan Smith, who found himself working at one such outlet and exposed the practice on US radio, comparing it to food producers clandestinely adding pink slime — a low-cost food additive — to beef.
As media outlets are not legally required to disclose their ownership or donors, there are fears that some could be wielded to spread propaganda and misinformation around the November 3 election.
“The issue in 2020 I think is not going to be foreign interference,” said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and formerly head of cyber security at Facebook. “It’s much more likely that legitimate domestic actors possibly operating under their own name — with LLCs or corporations with very shady funding that are not required to disclose what that funding is — are going to dominate the online conversation about the outcome of the election.”
Research from Columbia University found that between January and August, the number of local pink slime sites almost tripled from 450 to more than 1,200. Of those, some 960 — including the Kenosha Reporter — are part of a portfolio of sites operated by an umbrella group, Metric Media LLC, with conservative affiliations, according to Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
With traditional local news decimated by the shift toward digital advertising dominated by Facebook and Google, the pink slime has filled a gap.
Many of these sites purport to be independent, but are financed by “government officials, political candidates, PACs [political action committees] and political party operatives”, according to research by Harvard University’s Nieman Lab.
They tend not to run advertising on their sites and do not require a subscription, suggesting they rely exclusively on funding from donors keen to influence public opinion rather than generate profits.
“They raise money and they spend it to persuade people politically . . . spending so-called journalistic resources to get you to vote a certain way,” said Steven Brill, co-chief executive of NewsGuard, which ranks the quality of news sites. “It really is the total undermining of what anybody thinks journalism is.”
While there is no way of knowing their collective audience, some use social media advertising and post promotion tools via Facebook or Twitter accounts and pages to boost their reach.
A study by Nieman Lab published in July of about 400 sites it said were “partisan media masquerading as state and local reporting” found that the majority were established in swing states. The majority are rightwing; of the 429 sites in its study, Nieman Lab identified only eight as “liberal leaning”.
Metric Media’s hundreds of outlets are aesthetically simple and almost identical, while its presence on social media is minimal. Indeed, more than 90 per cent of its articles are “algorithmically generated” using public data sets or rejigged versions of previous stories, according to the Tow Center research.
But when there are notable events that can be cast in a way that might benefit a conservative agenda, human writers appear to step in.
According to its local news websites, Metric Media LLC publishes “under a licensing agreement” with Metric Media Foundation, a non-profit group that casts itself as “non-partisan”. Both the general manager of Metric Media LLC, Bradley Cameron, and one of the board members of Metric Media Foundation, Victor Chen, work for the public affairs consultancy Situation Management Group — which lists Metric Media as “a division” of the company on its website.
Mr Cameron, who in the 1990s served as a “senior adviser to the Republican strategy leader in the US House of Representatives” according to his biography, did not respond to a request for comment. The email account listed on the SMG website for Mr Chen does not exist, according to an automated response.
The chairman of Metric Media Foundation is listed as Rakesh Donthineni, an Oakland-based orthopaedic surgeon. When contacted by the Financial Times, he shared a Metric Media press statement that it said was issued to “correct false statements” about its business. This said the group was “strictly non-partisan” and “interested in promoting news innovations, not political agendas”.
“Funding by the Metric Media Foundation has helped produce thousands of interviews with local leaders, small business owners and other citizens to give them a voice in their communities,” it said, adding that it had funded “tens of thousands of data stories, which are based on often difficult to use government and other public information that is made relevant to local communities”. Metric Media shared the same press statement when asked for comment.
The Nieman research also found that Metric Media shares “privacy policies, servers and analytics identifiers” with four smaller information networks, two of which are run by conservative businessman Brian Timpone. Another lists Mr Timpone’s brother Michael as its managing director, and the final one is headed by Dan Proft, a talk-show host and former Republican candidate for Illinois governor who ran a conservative super PAC in 2016. They did not respond to requests for comment.
There are some notable leftwing local news efforts. The Courier Newsroom, which has built up newsrooms in six swing states, says that it is “owned by the non-profit Acronym and other private investors’’ — without disclosing that Acronym is a Democratic-aligned group that invests in campaign technology.
Unlike some low-cost, automated sites, it has hired more than 50 reporters and editors, and research by NewsGuard found the outlet produces factual reporting, but also “a one-sided, positive vision of Democratic policies and . . . politicians, typically leaving out key details that do not advance this narrative”.
Lindsay Schrupp, editor-in-chief of Courier Newsroom, said that it had “strict editorial ethics and standards”, and that Acronym has “absolutely no say or influence” over its newsroom. She added that Courier Newsroom was created specifically “to counter the growing proliferation of misinformation spread in large part by rightwing ‘pink slime’ sites”.
Facebook has recently taken some small steps to address concerns about the rise of pink slime. In August it announced that adverts from pages with “direct, meaningful ties” to political groups would be logged in its political advertising archive, unlike regular news outlets. The sites will no longer be featured in Facebook’s news tab and will not be able to use its news messaging features on WhatsApp.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber security policy, said if “opaque pages” inhabiting this “greyer area” were suspicious and could be spreading fake news, the social network will ask them to disclose their backers. “We have to be very careful that we’re not completely silencing innocent voices,” he added.
YouTube said news organisations looking to run “electioneering adverts” — promoting a candidate for example, rather than just their coverage of events — had to verify their identity, and their advertisements were logged in a public database.
Twitter has no way of forcing accounts to disclose who is behind them, but said it had banned all political advertising globally.
But experts say the platforms could go further.
Richard Zack, chief executive of the news ratings group Our.News, questioned why his small company was able to develop software to automatically label questionable news sources, while deep-pocketed Facebook had no such system. “We believe that labelling is the answer,” he added. “There’s a huge amount of things that every social platform can and should be doing immediately.”