Guest Editorials, Opinion

Now, for your local fake news …

Politically funded websites that advance a partisan agenda under the guise of publishing local news are sprouting up across California. The majority of them are operated by a shadowy entity called Metric Media, which operates 74 distinct websites across the state that masquerade as legitimate local newspapers.

These disturbing findings are contained in the “California News Integrity Report,” a document released recently by NewsGuard, an entity that rates news sites with the goal of separating reliable sources of journalism from purveyors of false or misleading information.

NewsGuard rated 202 local news sites across California along nine criteria. To assess credibility, NewsGuard reviewers assessed whether the sites refrained from repeatedly publishing false content, gathered and presented information responsibly, regularly corrected errors, differentiated responsibly between opinion pieces and news stories, and avoided deceptive headlines. To measure transparency, the reviewers assessed whether the sites disclosed their ownership and financing; clearly labeled advertising; revealed who’s in charge, including any possible conflicts of interest; and provided names of content creators, including contact or biographical information.

Of the 202 sites, 62% were rated credible and trustworthy and 38% failed the test — the vast majority of them right-wing sites that purport to be credible news sources.

Take, for example, the “Fresno Leader.” At first glance it appears to be a bare-bones local news site, with sections devoted to schools, business, local politics and real estate. But look closely. Nearly every article is devoted to attacking Democratic politicians or reporting Republican campaign contributions.

Closer to home, another site, the “Santa Monica Observer,” owned by onetime City Council candidate David Ganezer, is notorious for publishing false news. In 2016, for example, it claimed that Hillary Clinton had died and that a body double had been sent to debate Donald Trump. Months later it reported, incorrectly, that Trump had appointed Kanye West to a high-level position in the Interior Department. Last year, it reported falsely that sunlight could be a remedy for COVID-19 sufferers and that Bill Gates, a major funder of vaccine research, had been responsible for a polio epidemic.

Such claims are so outlandish that they might seem obviously fraudulent, akin to supermarket tabloids reporting on the discovery of extraterrestrials in the desert. But the damage is cumulative: By pretending to be legitimate news, these websites cast doubt on the veracity and trustworthiness of all sources of information, leading to greater mistrust and apathy.

The internet has inundated users with a tsunami of information, some of it false and pernicious. Schools should teach basic news literacy, helping students assess the credibility of news sources, using criteria like the ones outlined by NewsGuard.

Fake news is cropping up in part because real news is expensive to gather and produce. Most traditional newspapers have been weakened by sweeping changes in technology. Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to decide whether they value real news over fake news. The best response to bogus outlets is to support the real ones.

This editorial  first appeared in the Los Angeles Times last Thursday]. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.