By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Metric Media

A tale of Russian propaganda, international intrigue and pink slime — with a Boston angle

Vladimir Putin reads the Boston Times. Why aren’t you? Photo (cc) 2022 by Presidential Executive Office of Russia.

Call it a tale of Russian propaganda, international intrigue and pink slime. The New York Times today has a fascinating story (free link) about John Mark Dougan, a former law-enforcement official in Florida and Maine who has become a significant producer of online disinformation on behalf of Russia. Dougan’s digital network promotes lies about everything from claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a cocaine smuggler to the fanciful notion that the CIA and the Ukrainian government are working together to harm Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

One of Dougan’s many vehicles, according to the story, is something called the Boston Times. Hmmm. Whenever Ellen Clegg and I talk about our book, “What Works in Community News,” we mention the rise of websites designed to look like legitimate sources of local news — my rough definition of pink slime.

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Our favorite is the North Boston News (North Boston is lovely this time of year), part of the 1,200 or so sites controlled by Metric Media, which in turn goes back to the earliest days of pink slime about a dozen years ago. Those sites are nominally right-wing, though they mainly carry outdated filler like “5.5% of citizens unemployed in Essex County in 2021” and “2022: 14.5% of Essex County students played sports on collegiate teams.” That said, there is a conspiracy-minded story at North Boston News right now falsely claiming that “Jewish left-wing activist” George Soros was behind the recent pro-Palestinian encampment at MIT, which suggests there may be worse to come.

But the Boston Times? That was a new one. I couldn’t get it to pop on Google, yet somehow DuckDuckGo managed to find it. The site seems to be mix of lurid tabloid stories (“Florida Woman’s Public Sex Escape”) and weird pro-Trump content (“Trump Orders Arrest of Journalist for Reporting on Court Filings”). Minor news from New York City is featured, too. Click on the verticals, including “Politics,” “Ukraine War” and “Gaza War,” and the Russian ties become more obvious and disturbing. Here, for instance, is the headline to a false story under “Investigations”: “New Evidence Emerges of Ukraine’s Horrific ‘Forced Fertilization’ Program, Inspired by Nazi Lebensborn.”

The “About” page is a hoot. Here’s how it begins:

Since its inception in 1972, located in the heart of Massachusetts, the Boston Times has been a beacon of journalistic integrity, illuminating the stories that shape our city, our nation, and our world. Founded with a vision to provide a platform for truth, fairness, and accountability, the Boston Times has evolved into a trusted source of news and information for generations of readers.

Of course, there’s no evidence that the Boston Times even existed until recently (I’m not counting a paper by that name that was published between 1887 and 1915), and the bylines, according to The New York Times’ story, may be generated by artificial intelligence. It looks like AI had a hand in designing the logo, too. Among other things, the Boston Times pledges to deliver “Truth and Uboutelicy.” All right, then!

Reach seems to be limited, especially given that I couldn’t find it on Google. I couldn’t find an account for it on Twitter/X, either, although I did find tweets debunking the site as Russian disinformation, such as this one by David Puente. But I also found some of the propaganda on the Boston Times site being promoted by accounts that are probably bots. That sort of automated amplification is the point.

Is the goal of projects such as the Boston Times to persuade? Probably not. Rather, the goal is to “flood the zone with shit,” to quote the political philosopher Steve Bannon. These days truth floats in a sea of falsehood. Its purveyors hope you’ll just throw up your hands at the thought of trying to sort it all out. Don’t fall for it. Get your news from reliable, verified sources.

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Gannett is doing business with a notorious purveyor of pink slime

Photo (cc) 2023 by Ruth Hartnup.

Just when Gannett was making some good news for itself by going on something of a modest hiring spree, splat! Investigative reporter Steven Monacelli has found that our largest newspaper chain, with about 200 daily newspapers, is working with Advantage Informatics, a well-known purveyor of so-called pink slime news sites.

Pink slime is the name given to websites that masquerade as legitimate local news projects but that are actually produced from distant locales. The meaning has morphed over the years. What I call Pink Slime 1.0 arose about a dozen years ago in the form of sites whose writers appeared to be based in local communities but were actually some distance away — in some cases, as far away as the Philippines. Pink Slime 2.0 has an ideological cast, mainly but not exclusively on the right. Pink Slime 3.0 adds artificial intelligence to the mix.

What most of these sites have in common is Brian Timpone, a Chicago-based conservative businessperson who is the founder of something called Metric Media, a network of some 1,200 right-wing sites. These projects tend to be pretty inept; my favorite covers the imaginary community of North Boston.

The Gannett-Timpone connection was exposed last week in a major report for Nieman Lab written by Monacelli on Advantage Informatics, a Timpone venture that produces advertorial content. Monacelli found that, in years past, newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle (owned by Hearst since 1987) and The San Diego Union-Tribune (recently acquired by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital) have taken advantage of Timpone’s services. (The Chronicle told Monacelli that it has no record of such a  relationship.) Gannett is the one newspaper company he found that has a current, ongoing relationship with Advantage. He writes:

A Gannett spokesperson told me that the company works with Advantage Informatics on “advertorial” content. When asked about Advantage Informatics’ relationship with the broader Metric Media network, the spokesperson said, “Ethics and our values are priority for us.”

Monacelli has written quite a tale that includes a Tennessee journalism professor who used to work for Advantage and Advantage’s ambition to offer “dedicated beat reporting” of local sports, governmental meetings and “keeping a close eye” on statehouses and Congress.

On the one hand, I’m not sure it’s that big a deal who produces advertorial content. On the other, the fact is that Gannett is working with the pink slimiest company in the country. Despite Gannett’s recent good news on the hiring front, it would hardly be surprising if company executives played around with having Advantage try its hand at community coverage as well. After all, it was just a few months ago that Gannett was caught using AI to write local sports stories, to hilarious effect.

A final note: If you’d like to learn more about pink slime, Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Pri Bengani, an expert based at Columbia University who’s quoted in Monacelli’s article, on the “What Works” podcast last fall.

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Follow the money: Right-wing funding of ‘pink slime’ websites tracked in new study

Photo (cc) 2016 by Kurayba

Previously published at GBH News.

Here are a few stories you missed if you haven’t been perusing the North Boston News: a report that the libertarian Cato Institute has given Gov. Charlie Baker a “D” for fiscal management; a claim by the Tax Foundation that the marginal tax rate for Massachusetts residents could rise to 54.34% if President Joe Biden’s tax proposal becomes law; and an interview with a voter from Salem on why she casts her ballot on the basis of “values.”

All of these prominently featured stories, by the way, are from last fall. But lest you think I’ve merely stumbled upon a ghost website, there are also a number of nearly identical reports from just this past week on teachers from Peabody, Lynn, Andover and other communities who have pledged to teach critical race theory in their classrooms.

So what weird manner of website is this? And where is North Boston, anyway?

The answer to the first question is it’s part of Metric Media, a network of some 1,200 websites in all 50 states that purport to be sources of local news. In fact, they are right-wing propaganda projects funded by wealthy conservative interests with ties to the Tea Party movement and a Catholic group that spent nearly $10 million in an effort to defeat President Joe Biden last fall, to name just two of many examples. And there are 14 of these sites in Massachusetts alone.

As for the second question — well, I can’t help you. North of South Boston? South of the North End? East of the sun and west of the moon?

These sites are sometimes called “pink slime,” no doubt because the head of Metric Media, Brian Timpone, was involved in an earlier venture nearly a decade ago that was also referred to as “pink slime.” That project, Journatic, produced local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines.

Metric Media, by contrast, is a political play. Right-wing interests give money through a series of interlocking organizations in return for publishing indoctrination disguised as local news. And if the out-of-date content makes sites like the North Boston News seem harmless, well, just wait until 2022, when the mid-term election campaigns start heating up and the websites spring back to life.

Priyanjana Bengani, the author of a major new report on pink-slime sites published by the Tow Center at the Columbia Journalism School, puts it this way: “Increasingly, we are seeing political campaigning which uses news as a cloak for campaigning activities potentially further undermining trust in legitimate local news outlets. For such operations to be successful, the network does not have to be widely read or deliver broad impact, it simply has to gnaw away at the edges of the consciousness of the voting public.”

The phenomenon has been called out before, most notably in a New York Times story last year. And it is not exclusively the province of right-wingers; as the Times reported, there are some Democratic-leaning sites as well. But the overwhelming preponderance of pink slime is on the right, with Timpone the biggest player.

The study that Bengani oversaw, published in two parts by the Columbia Journalism Review, comprises a blizzard of details — related ventures, a multiplicity of business partners and a range of political players. Her team relied on specialized software, IRS filings, Facebook and Google ad libraries and an internal analytics tool to ultimately trace the spiderweb of connections between Metric Media and right-wing interests.

Consider one such relationship: Local Government Information Services, or LGIS, is a collaboration between Timpone and Illinois right-wing activist Dan Proft. One of Proft’s associates at LGIS is John Tillman, who, according to IRS filings, has been involved in multiple organizations that have paid Timpone’s various groups. Tillman’s financial backing, in turn, has come from wealthy Illinois interests as well as foundations affiliated with the Koch, Mercer and Uihlein families.

Of course, the Kochs are already well known. The Mercers came to prominence during the Trump era as backers of and Steve Bannon. The Uihleins, though, are new to me and maybe to you as well. They shouldn’t be. According to a 2018 profile in The New York Times, Liz and Dick Uihlein are “the most powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of,” spending tens of millions of dollars “to advance a combative, hard-right conservatism, from Washington to the smallest town.”

Another organization with ties to Timpone’s sites is the Convention of States, affiliated with Mark Meckler, who in turn appears to have what Bengani refers to as a “co-branding” relationship with Metric Media. Meckler is a founder of the Tea Party Patriots and became interim chief executive of Parler, the right-wing Twitter alternative, after the original chief executive was removed following the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Convention of States has called for a constitutional convention “to dramatically restrict the power of the federal government.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. What we are talking about, essentially, is a vast pay-to-play scheme, with right-wing organizations funneling money to Timpone in return for being allowed to publish on his multifarious networks. I don’t know how effective it is; the examples I’ve looked at are pretty thin gruel compared to the weaponized propaganda you find at Fox News or Newsmax.

Unlike Fox or Newsmax, though, Metric Media flies under the radar, publishing its partners’ messages on sites that purport to be a solution to the local news crisis. In that respect it’s like Sinclair Broadcasting, whose 185 television stations in 86 U.S. markets sprinkle right-wing political content into local newscasts.

The alternative to pink slime is more nutritious fare — real local news that informs us and grounds us in our communities. The problem is that there is a lot less of that than there used to be.

And if that doesn’t change, we may all find ourselves living in North Boston.

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