Nobody Seems To Have An Answer For Propaganda Posing As Local News

from the post-truth dept

While traditional local papers deserve no shortage of blame for their failure to adapt, media scholars have long pointed out that media consolidation paved the way for a lot of the problems we’re seeing today. The end result of consolidation was the gradual elbowing out of small local news outfits, leaving the sector peppered with propaganda mills like Sinclair Broadcasting, or hollowed out, hedge fund run papers.

A lack of local, quality news has created a vacuum that’s increasingly been filled by political propagandists. Said propagandists have increasingly created “pink slime” news outlets that look like local news, but exist exclusively to spread bullshit and political propaganda.

And once again, they’re highly active ahead of the midterm elections. A new report by NPR documented how residents around the country have been receiving fake newspapers from fake news outlets, filling their heads with fake election misinformation:

Schoenburg first noticed these papers several election cycles ago, born out of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, which crusaded against greater taxation and regulation. Since then, they have spread across the state, presenting themselves as down-home newspapers in multiple communities with names that hark back to times before people relied on social media to find out out about developments in their communities.

NPR tried to contact story authors at the “papers,” and couldn’t find a single real person. Pri Bengani, a senior researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University (she just wrote a full report that’s worth a read), told NPR that she had counted more than 1,200 bogus local news outlets around the country, all feeding gullible readers a steady diet of misleading bullshit (on top of the bullshit they already consume online).

Researchers have already measured how the death of local news at the hands of consolidation has left Americans less informed and more divided than ever. Nobody has genuinely measured the impact of filling that void with political propaganda. While NPR found that about 5% of these fake news outlets were coming from Democrats, the rest were forged by a broad, right-wing coalition:

She documented instances in which the sites and the larger network provided advertising, SMS messages, robocalls and websites as well as consulting and production costs. Timpone is not the only key figure in the system. Bengani also found links to a huge Texas PAC and a major Republican donor who is an oil-and gas-billionaire. In Texas, articles blamed wind power for the failure of the electrical grid there last year. (That has been discredited by multiple mainstream news outlets.)

Republicans actively opposed financing the press, actively opposed media consolidation restrictions, and have waged a concerted, 45-year effort to build an alternative reality propaganda empire designed to trick Americans into supporting policies that routinely operate against their best interests. Not only that, they managed to get most of the remaining press to act as if this isn’t happening.

Fixing a problem like this requires a multi-tendriled approach we show no interest in adopting. We need more creative funding for journalism untethering it from industry influence and ads. We need better education standards. We need tougher media consolidation guidelines. We need campaign finance reform. We need voting reform. We need a press that can call out right wing propaganda for what it is, instead of hiding between nebulous “bothsideism.” We’re doing… none of that.

Instead, what we mostly get is a lot of hyperventilation about “disinformation,” followed by lengthy conversations about what’s not possible courtesy of the First Amendment. There the problem sits like a giant turd nobody wants to touch. The NPR piece, for example, presents the problem in great detail — then offers not a single coherent vision for how we can do absolutely anything about it.

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Comments on “Nobody Seems To Have An Answer For Propaganda Posing As Local News”

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44 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Fixing a problem like this requires a multi-tendriled approach we show no interest in adopting. We need more creative funding for journalism untethering it from industry influence and ads. We need better education standards. We need tougher media consolidation guidelines. We need campaign finance reform. We need voting reform. We need a press that can call out right wing propaganda for what it is, instead of hiding between nebulous “bothsideism.” We’re doing… none of that.

Aren’t we, in fact, doing almost the exact opposite of almost all of this?

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

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Koby (profile) says:

Can't Have An Alternative

Propaganda, much like the term “hate speech”, simply means speech with which you disagree. When lefty newspapers like the NY Times or the Amazon Post arrive on peoples’ doorsteps, it’s okay. But if a newspaper with a right wing slant appears, suddenly it’s time to go to Red Alert. The United States was founded because folks printed up political pamphlets and handed them out for free

If the legacy media wants to do something about the situation, we’ve already talked about it before: gain credibility. Switch to a neutral point of view, because citizens are able to see through the bias, and the legacy media has lost significant influence and trust because of it. Of course, a neutral news publication wouldn’t be able to influence elections, but that’s why NPR isn’t going to offer up a solution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: not quite

Propaganda, much like the term “hate speech”, simply means speech with which you disagree.

Not quite; Wikipedia’s definition (pulled from Encyclopedia Britannica) lists it as such:

Propaganda is communication that is primarily used to influence or persuade an audience to further an agenda, which may not be objective and may be selectively presenting facts to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is being presented.

Just because someone disagrees with the content doesn’t inherently make it propaganda.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Koby, the commies are fucking dead.

There are no practicing commies in America. And they’re deeply unpopular in most parts of Europe.

Russia is a dictatorship, China is a successful totalitarian CAPITALIST state, and outside of South America and Cuba, the Marxists hold so little ground and support they could NEVER be a legitimate force anymore. And even then, those “commie” states are slowly becoming totalitarian states as well.

And even disregarding the whole “there are no commies anymore” argument, the big issue is that RUPERT FUCKING MURDOCH helped create the apocalypse that is today’s America.

Disinformation and partisan propaganda is big fucking profit. As is total information control. Your disingenuous ass is simply saying “leave it to Murdoch”, which is nothing more than sending America in the direction of India and China.

Is that what you really want Koby? Don’t bother to answer, I know your answert is yes.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re:

When lefty newspapers like the NY Times or the Amazon Post arrive on peoples’ doorsteps, it’s okay. But if a newspaper with a right wing slant appears, suddenly it’s time to go to Red Alert.

There is a difference. A difference that has been pointed out by those who actually came out of the “conservative” media world. Do the NY Times and WaPo have some biases and blindspots? Fuck yeah. We call them out all the time here. Do they get stories wrong? Yes. Also all the time.

But they’re actually usually willing to correct actual errors and respond to the actual criticisms when levied. And, more importantly, even as they will get stuff wrong, they’re actually looking to publish the truth, not trying to advance a particular interest.

Much of the conservative media sphere is entirely about pushing a narrative. Facts are not important. They don’t correct errors. They don’t care how flimsy things are. They don’t care if the story is wrong. If it pushes the narrative, it goes.

That’s a pretty big difference.

Read this. https://twitter.com/mattsheffield/status/1324908316548493313

Of course you’ll deny it. But you won’t bring facts.

That’s the difference.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Bravely bold Sir Koby
Rode forth from the Internet.
He was not afraid to die,
Oh brave Sir Koby.
He was not at all afraid
To be killed in nasty ways.
Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Koby.
He was not in the least bit scared
To be mashed into a pulp.
Or to have his eyes gouged out,
And his elbows broken.
To have his kneecaps split
And his body burned away,
And his limbs all hacked and mangled
Brave Sir Koby.
His head smashed in
And his heart cut out
And his liver removed
And his bowls unplugged
And his nostrils raped
And his bottom burnt off
And his penis
“That’s, that’s enough music for now lads, there’s dirty work afoot.”
Brave Sir Koby ran away.
(“No!”)
Bravely ran away away.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

I get why we pin most of the blame on the large corporations. But the papers lining up to sell out have to share some responsibility. Quite frankly having a McClatchy local paper and no paper is roughly the same. For example it would have been much better for my community if the paper maintained independent ownership but went to a 2-3 day per week publication to cut costs. I only read the website like once a week since there’s such sparse coverage even being owned by a large company and sending it 6 days a week.

Anonymous Coward says:

Fixing a problem like this requires a multi-tendriled approach we show no interest in adopting. We need more creative funding for journalism untethering it from industry influence and ads. We need better education standards. We need tougher media consolidation guidelines. We need campaign finance reform. We need voting reform.

These policies require voting candidates in who’ll be able to make these reforms. Voting them in requires an informed populace. And an informed populace requires less disinformation and lies being spread on a daily basis.

We’re not going to get the reforms we need when, for example, there are people with nearly a million followers named Catturd spreading false information about elections. Disinformation is indeed a huge part of the problem.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

If you think some posts get flagged only for disagreement, you’re sorely mistaken.

I, for one, flag posts that come from the usual brigade of trolls and bad-faith dipshits who drop into these comments, metaphorically take a shit, and expect everyone else to call what they’ve left behind a rose. People like Chozen, Hyman Rosen (who ran back to anonymous posting like the coward he is), and other such assholes get flagged on sight not because of “disagreement”, but because they have a reputation of arguing in bad faith, sometimes lying about what others (or themselves) have said, using shitty rhetorical tricks like the “right?” gimmick, and generally being a worse person than…well, me, frankly.

(Don’t give me that look; I’m well aware of how fucked up I am and how much I can also clog these comments sections. I’m not proud of that; I’m only saying that it is what it is.)

Hiding posts from the troll brigade isn’t “censorship” and it certainly isn’t an attempt to stifle criticism of, or disagreement with, Techdirt. It’s an attempt, vain though it may be, to send the trolls a message: “You’re not welcome here.” They’re the ones who keep ignoring that message and coming back to a site they obviously hate and haranguing people who obviously don’t like them for the sake of…I’unno, making themselves feel like shit because that’s the only way they can feel alive? Hell if I know or care.

If you want to disagree with Techdirt, you can do it without acting like you’re a victim of “censorship” because your comment got flagged for being some bad-faith bullshit. Polite, well-reasoned, good-faith disagreement won’t get flagged.

That bullshit you posted, on the other hand…

Anonymous Coward says:

I will just say this. I understand why Techdirt defends freedom of speech, and I realize what can happen when speech isn’t free, however there is still a part of me that thinks we push that principle a bit too far and that is what enables all the propaganda outlets.

I once read (and have no idea if it’s really true, but it sounds logical) is that the reason there is no Fox News in Canada is because they prohibit lying on their airwaves. That doesn’t mean you can’t hold or express contrary opinions, but if you engage in constantly spouting “facts” that are at odds with verifiable truth then you aren’t allowed to broadcast in Canada. For example, stating as fact that Trump won the 2020 election would probably be a violation – you are stating something that is verifiably false. It’s not stating you don’t agree with how some government official does things, it is deliberately spreading lies.

Honestly, I wish we had that in the USA sometimes. Yes, I like freedom of speech, and the right to criticize government officials, and even the right to say that it still looks like there was something fishy about the way WTC building 7 came down so quickly after not having been hit by any airplane. People can have honest disagreements, and we can’t rely on the government or the media to always give us the facts. But dammit, when you constantly trade in lies with the intent of turning people against each other and bringing our democracy to its knees, there ought to be some kind of prohibition against that. Our country is getting in such a bad way because of Fox News and the even more ultra-right networks (not to mention the lying preachers who are protected by freedom of religion AND freedom of speech) that it’s almost starting to make a country like Singapore look good by comparison (I did say ALMOST).

I just don’t think this is a problem that can be solved with any solution that will coexist with the degree of “free speech” that is often advocated here in Techdirt articles. But the thing to consider is, does absolute freedom of speech really make us less free, because we can never really trust that we’re not being lied to 24/7 and are being constantly assaulted with lies and propaganda? Somehow I doubt the authors of the Bill of Rights equated freedon of speech with freedom to deliberately and knowingly lie.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

I doubt the authors of the Bill of Rights equated freedon of speech with freedom to deliberately and knowingly lie.

My friend, let me introduce you to The Onion.

…no, seriously, The Onion requires the protected legal right to make shit up wholecloth so it can publish its satirical view of the world. The First Amendment must guarantee the freedom to lie because satirists like the Onion writing staff require that freedom.

I know people will use that freedom to say awful things. And yes, that sucks. That said: People will do heinous shit with damn near anything⁠—and we don’t stop Craftsman from selling power tools only because someone might use such a tool to kill someone else. If you value free speech, you must also accept⁠—and tolerate⁠—the fact that some people will use their freedom to say heinous bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If you value free speech, you must also accept⁠—and tolerate⁠—the fact that some people will use their freedom to say heinous bullshit.

Agreed, but there is no requirement to support them, listen to them, or tolerate their company, which is what the those people are actually complaining about when they claim their freedom of speech is being infringed on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Someone using a power tool to kill someone and someone using lies to mobilize their followers to commit acts of stochastic terrorism, like [firebombing a donut shop after it hosted a drag show(https://twitter.com/Esqueer_/status/1588159323116605441) are two completely different things. We don’t have to tolerate this. We shouldn’t tolerate things like people being radicalized to commit arson on LGTBQ spaces.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

We shouldn’t tolerate things like people being radicalized to commit arson on LGTBQ spaces.

This is exactly when being an adherent to the idea of free speech gets complicated.

Yes, people being radicalized by right-wing lies about queer people sucks ass. Yes, we shouldn’t tolerate people committing violent acts intended to intimidate a marginalized community (and their allies) into silence. That being said: Hate speech is still free speech. And saying that isn’t something I like saying⁠—sometimes, I wish hate speech was outlawed. But therein lies the rub: Where does it end?

You can’t ban hate speech without banning a wide swath of protected speech. Historical records containing such speech could possibly be memoryholed out of existence because of such bans. To ban the word *queer( as a means of placating those who consider it a slur is to tell people who identify as queer that they no longer have the right to do that. Existing cultural works with anti-queer language and themes would have to be ripped off the shelves, and future works wouldn’t be able to use that language and those themes without running afoul of those bans.

I don’t like how the First Amendment allows the worst people to spread lies about queer people. But I accept and tolerate that fact because the alternative is to silence more speech than I am comfortable with silencing. The price we pay for the freedom of speech is that some people will use their freedom to say some awful bullshit. But we can use our freedom to refute their bullshit as best we can and tell our stories to those who will listen. I cannot and will not abide by the idea of using government power to silence people because I don’t like their speech⁠—not now, not ever. If anyone thinks worse of me for holding that position, I pay that price willingly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Someone using a power tool to kill someone and someone using lies to mobilize their followers to commit acts of stochastic terrorism, like [firebombing a donut shop after it hosted a drag show(https://twitter.com/Esqueer_/status/1588159323116605441) are two completely different things. We don’t have to tolerate this. We shouldn’t tolerate things like people being radicalized to commit arson on LGTBQ spaces.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

But the thing to consider is, does absolute freedom of speech really make us less free, because we can never really trust that we’re not being lied to 24/7 and are being constantly assaulted with lies and propaganda?

Congratulations, you’ve just described the dilemma the Founding Fathers had… when drafting the Constitution.

I mean, it’s kinda hard to not have that dilemma when, uh, their views were not heard despite being actual taxpayers of the British Empire, which SHOULD have given them that right to be heard in British Parliament.

nasch (profile) says:

Re:

I once read (and have no idea if it’s really true, but it sounds logical) is that the reason there is no Fox News in Canada is because they prohibit lying on their airwaves.

They used to, but that law was struck down and I think not replaced.

https://www.lawfareblog.com/canadian-law-better-equipped-handle-disinformation

(search for “until 1992” for the part about the falsehood law)

Honestly, I wish we had that in the USA sometimes.

Setting aside the constitutional issue, Americans are deeply distrustful of a government telling them what they’re allowed to say. There are the narrow exceptions for things like defamation, but to have a governmental body determining what is true and what is false and prohibiting what it deems to be falsehoods would not go over very well I think.

Rocky says:

Re: Re:

Some countries actually have laws surrounding news and press ethics. Most of them say that what you report has to be based on facts but you are allowed to spin those facts a bit as long as you don’t lie.

There’s something to said about such a system, because it still allows you to have whatever opinion you want but if you are a news media company it’s your duty to report the facts as accurately as possible together with your opinion. One benefit of such a system is that although there will always be news with different political leanings and opinions, you don’t get the same type of political polarization (and pure lies) that afflicts the US media eco-system.

Are they compatible with the US notion of free speech? Not really and I don’t think the founding fathers would have written the 1A they way they did if they knew what is happening today.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

If only critical thinking & civics were still taught.

People who believe the “news” coming out of these “media outlets” are sure they are better informed than anyone else & anything trying to tell them different is lying.

A bunch of rich people are spending their money to tell you fairytales… you think they are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts?
Do you also think people run for Congress to help society and not to gain power and cash?
And they tell you things to keep you on their side & ignoring reality that your life is getting worse because of those you support not the other side.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Yeah, see, Techdirt isn’t trying to think for you. It’s trying to make you think for yourself instead of blindly accepting a partisan take on an issue like this one. If you disagree with what this article says, fine, great⁠—but have the balls to have a good-faith disagreement and, if necessary, refute/argue against specific parts of the article on their merits. To put this in Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement terms: Anything above and including Counterargument is good; anything beneath Counterargument is…not so good.

nasch (profile) says:

News and opinion

The NPR piece, for example, presents the problem in great detail — then offers not a single coherent vision for how we can do absolutely anything about it.

To be fair, “what’s happening” is a news piece, and “what we should do about it” would be an opinion piece. It would be great to interview people about possible solutions, but IMO also OK to just present the situation.

Anonymous Coward says:

This article seems to imply that only Republican or conservative fake local propaganda outfits are doing this. The first time I learned about the phenomenon of political dark money-funded “local” propaganda was when I discovered a suspicious local news org that turned out to be a liberal propaganda outlet. I wish I could find it again, but can’t remember where it was.

Republicans definitely seem to have won the Most Loony Coalition Award this decade, but I’m sure they’re not the only true believers willing to dabble in questionable enterprises in their conquest of the world.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Oh yes, the Dems are finally starting to build their own slush fund networks of think tanks and disinfo agencies, like the Republicans.

Problem is, the Republicans have turned disinfo into an art to the point that “George Soros” is a boogeyman, despite him being so blatantly transparent about his involvement that it borders on sheer incompetence.

The commies are still dead, btw.

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