Navigating information online has become increasingly difficult as fake news websites and misinformation campaigns seemingly lurk around every corner of the web — and that task will only get harder.
According to The New York Times, there are a growing number of websites masquerading as local news — a source of information Americans are highly likely to trust — when in fact they are promoting ideological agendas or fostering polarization.
Some of these websites originate from foreign governments seeking to influence American politics, such as those used by Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 election.
But it isn’t just foreign governments propagating misinformation in the United States — the call is also coming from inside the house, so to speak.
The Times noted a Lansing State Journal report last week highlighting “a network of more than 35 faux-local websites across Michigan with names like Battle Creek Times, Detroit City Wire, Lansing Sun and Grand Rapids Reporter.”
Real news releases and town announcements are mixed in with content derived from sources such as the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank in Michigan, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
The company behind these sites, Locality Labs LLC, has also created fake local news websites in Illinois and Maryland, as well as “state and local business and legal sites around the country.”
That these websites lack transparency only complicates matters, The Times reported. “They typically lack mastheads, local addresses and clear disclosure of their ownership or revenue sources,” the newspaper said, leaving voters open to confusion over the origins of the information they contain.
Citing an example from 2016, The Times noted that “websites in the Illinois network interviewed Republican candidates favored by a conservative state political committee, which then paid to mail print newspaper versions of the sites to voters without identifying them as political advertising.”
A similar situation occurred in Tennessee in 2017 with the Tennessee Star, another faux-local news website that pushed conservative content without disclosing its funders or staff.
“Readers and viewers had no way of knowing the Tennessee Star was actually a conservative site run by commentators and activists,” The Times reported. “This group has since started companion sites called the Minnesota Sun and Ohio Star; each draws heavily on syndicated content from conservative sources like The Daily Caller.”
Americans trust local news sources more than they do national news outlets, polling has shown.
The Times wrote:
In the 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey, the political scientists Andy Guess, Jason Reifler and I found that Americans express greater trust in news from local television and newspapers than from national outlets. This is especially true of Republicans, the partisan group that is most skeptical of the national media.
In the 2019 Poynter Media Trust Survey (which found similarly high levels of trust in local news), we asked a representative sample of Americans to repeatedly indicate which of two articles they would prefer to read
[The article summaries] varied between a local television station, radio station or newspaper; national newspapers and broadcast networks; and national online-only outlets.
The results showed that “Holding other factors constant, Americans were 11 percentage points more likely to choose articles from local news sources than ones from online-only national outlets.”
This makes local news a prime target for misleading voters, and such websites are likely to become more pervasive as America heads into the 2020 election.