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In US, fake news websites now outnumber real local media sites

A June 20, 2024, screenshot of disinformation watchdog NewsGuard's website. NewsGuard warns that there are now more fake news websites than actual local news sites.
A June 20, 2024, screenshot of disinformation watchdog NewsGuard's website. NewsGuard warns that there are now more fake news websites than actual local news sites.

Fake websites masquerading as news now outnumber legitimate local news websites, with Russia playing a leading role in their proliferation, say media analysts.

Research by disinformation watchdog NewsGuard shows a surge in “pink slime” websites. Known for publishing low-quality content or disinformation, the sites take their nickname from a meat byproduct used as a filler.

The producers of such sites are generally partisan entities or those producing clickbait content for maximum profit, says NewsGuard. The watchdog said the use of technology and generative AI has allowed for an increase in production of fake sites.

NewsGuard’s editor for AI and foreign influence, McKenzie Sadeghi, told VOA the numbers are a grim development that could pose a threat to press freedom and the U.S. presidential elections. It contributes to the already declining trust in online media, she said.

“The number of these sites have increased in size and scope and sophistication,” Sadeghi said. “We now find that the number at 1,265 has surpassed the number of daily local newspapers in the U.S., which is a bit alarming.”

Data from the Medill Local News Initiative, run out of Northwestern University’s Journalism School, shows the number of legitimate local news sites in the U.S. at an historic low of 1,213.

“We have an acceleration and loss of local news organizations across the country,” said Tim Franklin, director of the Medill Local News Initiative. “More than half of U.S. counties now are news deserts or only have limited access to local news.”

News deserts are large geographical swaths where communities have no or limited access to local news. Dwindling profits and shrinking audiences are two of the factors that contribute to the decline.

As News Deserts Spread Across US, Trust Breaks Down
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“I think ... these kind of cynical actors who run these pink slime operations understand that we have seen the collapse of the local news business model across the country,” said Franklin.

“They are going to try to fill the void of the loss of legitimate local news,” he said. “I think we are going to be flooded with a tsunami of misinformation and disinformation.”

Sadeghi said that more than 150 Russian-backed sites are contributing to the proliferation of fake news.

“These sites heavily rely on AI to generate their content,” Sadeghi said. “All the way down to their text, their images and logos. They are spread widely on social media, and people have fallen for them, thinking they are trusted normal local publications.”

One of the key players in the Russian-backed sites, says NewsGuard, is John Mark Dougan, a former Florida sheriff deputy who fled to Moscow in 2016 to escape U.S. criminal charges. NewsGuard says all 167 sites in the Russian network appear connected to Dougan.

According to NewsGuard, Dougan lives under Kremlin protection and propagates fake U.S. news sites under names like DC Weekly and Boston Times.

Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub tracked the fake website of to Dougan in Moscow through its IP address. The hub says that the site is most likely backed by the Russian government.

NewsGuard reports that when it asked Dougan about the sites, he denied any involvement.

“This Russian-aligned narrative laundering scheme may be a glimpse into the future of influence operations,” the Media Forensics Hub wrote in a December 2023 report.

“AI and other new digital technologies allow these same bad actors to create fake systems and organizations, entire publications which, short of careful investigation, are able to offer credibility to the most absurd of narratives,” the report found.

Franklin believes the surge in pink slime websites is tied to the U.S. elections.

“We potentially have this toxic stew of misinformation and disinformation coming up in the fall,” he said, “and in a volume we’ve never seen before, and that’s what gives me great concern going into this fall election.”

Sadeghi said he believes the sole purpose of the newest pink slime sites is to influence U.S. elections.

“Last time they surged was the 2022 midterm election,” Sadeghi said. “They crop back up in election years and just expand in size and scope to influence voters and boost candidates.”