Following the 2016 election season, Americans realized the powerful influence of fake news, with the nation at large questioning the extent to which it may have swayed the election. With 2020 elections just around the corner, Michigan’s critical role as a swing state has made the community especially wary of politically motivated news stories.
First reported Oct. 20 by the Lansing State Journal, nearly 40 websites have appeared this fall, masquerading as local Michigan news outlets and maintaining a conservative-leaning tone.
The different websites are nearly indistinguishable, sharing identical stories and using regional titles such as the Ann Arbor Times, Grand Rapids Reporter and Lansing Sun. The only articles with named authors contain politically skewed content. The rest of the articles on the sites are primarily composed of press releases from local organizations and articles written by the Local Labs News Service.
Articles featured on the websites include a summary of a report by the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, a story about the failure of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s, D-Mich., to rally a crowd at a pro-impeachment event and a front-page piece about Michigan Republicans supporting President Donald Trump.
Each site has an identical “About Us” page, explaining the site is “one of hundreds” being launched nationwide to allegedly “fill the void in local communities,” due to the steady decline of local reporting. “Our approach,” the page continues, “is to provide objective, data-driven information without personal or political bias. We let the facts speak for themselves.”
The websites were all published by Locality Labs, LLC on behalf of their client, the Metric Media Foundation, according to a Locality Labs employee who wished to remain anonymous. Locality Labs already operates its own networks of similar websites in Maryland and Florida.
The Metric Media Foundation, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization registered in Missouri earlier this year, only lists a Kansas City-based attorney on its filings, though an online biography lists Bradley Cameron as its CEO. The biography describes Cameron as being a strategist “presently retained by national conservative leaders to direct responses to government targeting of their operations and initiatives.”
Locality Labs, the company building the websites, emerged out of Journatic, LLC and BlockShopper, LLC — two now-defunct companies with histories mired in ethics concerns.
Tribune Media Company, a media conglomerate that once owned major outlets including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, invested in Journatic as a service to provide hyperlocal news coverage. Journatic reportedly distributed fabricated and plagiarized content and used workers in the Philippines writing under pseudonyms to remotely produce stories. Due to these scandals, many outlets suspended their use of the service and stopped publishing Journatic articles.
Tribune Media has since been absorbed by Nexstar Media Group, Inc., the largest local television and media company in the U.S., but still has not fully divested from the venture, which has since reorganized as Locality Labs. The Daily requested comment from Gary Weitman, chief communications officer at Nexstar, regarding investment in Locality Labs, and was told Locality Labs was not a subsidiary. While acknowledging Nexstar does partially own Locality Labs, Weitman downplayed the influence of Nexstar’s investment.
“We have very, very, very small ownership stake in the company,” Weitman wrote.
Locality Labs CEO Brian Timpone has a long history of facing ethical questions regarding his enterprises. When asked about one of his ventures in 2004, he told the Washington Post, “I’m a biased guy. I’m a Republican.” Brian Timpone did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily.
Timpone is also the co-founder of Local Government Information Services, a network of more than 30 Illinois print and web publications that have been considered to propagate conservative news and hold an identical layout to Metric Media’s websites.
Before the conception of LGIS, Timpone founded Newsinator Receivable, LLC. Newsinator began producing publications LGIS has since acquired and has come under fire for engaging in paid political and marketing work.
In 2016, the Liberty Principles PAC, a conservative super PAC established by Dan Proft, a conservative radio personality and co-founder of LGIS, provided almost $200,000 to Newsinator for the sake of mailing print publications to voters.
That same year, Think Freely Media, a nonprofit supporting “limited government” in which Proft has served as a consultant, funneled almost $350,000 to Newsinator to aid in the creation of their websites. Think Freely is prohibited by law from spending on politicking due to its status as a nonprofit, but has described the articles it funded as strictly news content.
In addition to these enterprises, Timpone is associated with Franklin Archer, a publishing organization operated from Chicago. Franklin Archer hosts a similar network which consists of a set of nationwide business journals. Earlier this year, Franklin Archer published the Hinsdale School News — a publication that infringed upon the name and logo trademarks of Hinsdale High School District 86 in Illinois and potentially violated election law by attempting to influence the vote on a $140 million school district referendum.
The Hinsdalean reported on this violation in March, with district officials denying any association with the publication printed by Franklin Archer. In the aftermath, an attorney communicated with district officials on behalf of “Brian Timpone of Franklin Archer.” Additionally, the Franklin Archer publication included an article from Glenn Minnis, a writer who has produced articles that have appeared on the Ann Arbor Times website, among other websites in the Locality Labs network.
Pam Lannom, original reporter of the article and editor at The Hinsdalean, said reporting on the issue was vital to alert readers that the publication was not a product of Hinsdale Township High School District 86, as it was clearly designed to appear. In an email interview to The Daily, she described the event as concerning, though the referendum ultimately passed with about 60 percent support.
“Its distribution in the final days before a $140 million facilities referendum appeared on the ballot was particularly troubling,” Lannom wrote to The Daily. “Its content was clearly designed to promote a “no” vote on the referendum. While newspapers have a history of weighing in on election issues (our paper wrote an editorial encouraging voters to approve the referendum), most of those publications are a part of the community and offer regular coverage of the issues. To have a publication — printed on newsprint to look like a newspaper — appear right before an election is troubling.”
At the University of Michigan, students like Information senior Jamie Lai are on guard for these types of websites, especially on social media. Last year, the School of Information’s Center for Social Media Responsibility released the Iffy Quotient, which highlights the number of unreliable articles on a given social media website. Lai described the dangers of these websites because of their lack of transparency for unassuming readers.
“I think these websites are really dangerous because it’s one thing to have a blog that explicitly states a person’s opinions and viewpoints, it’s another thing to make a politically targeted message under the guise of journalism,” Lai said. “And it feels like this is what the websites are going for; giving the guise of legitimacy and objectivity so independent or unassuming readers are more likely to give this more weight in their political considering than it should.”
Josh Pasek, associate professor of communication and media, focuses on new media and its ability to shape political attitudes and behaviors. He said in the fragmented media environment today, there exists the ability to produce one-sided information at a lower cost, and there is also demand for it. These two factors, Pasek explained, have very real consequences.
“The two of those collectively lead to a situation where it’s fairly easy to distribute extremely partisan, low quality or complete misinformation in a way designed to influence voters,” Pasek said. “It appears that these news sites purporting to be Michigan-based news outlets are attempting to do this, to some extent. They’re targeting Michigan in part because Michigan is viewed as a critical state for this upcoming election, with the goal of providing a presentation that implies that the local news story is indeed one that’s more favorable to the president, and less favorable to his potential opponents, whoever they may be.”
Pasek said while it’s normal for outlets to have different biases, these sites are disregarding journalistic standards.
“The question is not about bias — it’s about journalistic standards and how journalists are misunderstood.” Pasek said. “It’s okay to have outlets that have varying different views out there, but there’s a certain point at which the attempt to be an outlet with a particular angle oversteps how journalism is supposed to operate. And once that occurs, now there becomes a substantive question as to whether what you’re observing is in fact news, or is instead a disinformation campaign.”