US local news swamped by ‘pink slime’ as political influence ramps up

The number of partisan news outlets in the US masquerading as legitimate journalism now equals genuine local newspaper sites, researchers say, as so-called pink slime operators gear up ahead of November’s presidential election.

Pink slime sites mimic local news providers but are highly partisan and tend to bury their deep ties to dark money, lobbying groups and special interests.

NewsGuard, which rates the quality and trustworthiness of news sites, has identified 1,197 pink slime sites operating in the US as of April 1 — about as many as the estimated 1,200 real news sites operated by daily local newspapers.

Backed by a shadowy network of political operatives, action committees and donors, such sites have filled a vacuum left as traditional local news has been decimated by brands moving their advertising dollars into digital spending at Silicon Valley groups such as Meta and Google.

The number of these sites has nearly tripled since 2019 but ebbed and flowed with American electoral cycles. Today’s volumes are similar to those identified by researchers in mid-2020, with some outlets disappearing and others emerging in the interim.

“They’re all about laundering political influence as journalism,” said Philip Napoli, public policy professor at Duke University and director of its DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.

One such outlet is Chicago City Wire, which ran a recent report about an upcoming local event about decriminalising sex work under the salacious headline “Hookers and chicken parm”.

The article, which has no named byline and does not mention chicken parm apart from in its headline, taps into ongoing American culture wars, labelling a local LGBTQ+ organisation as a “pro-homosexual and cross-dresser ‘rights’ group”.

Over time, such outlets are becoming more sophisticated and investing more into advertising to legitimise their brands, experts say. NewsGuard found nearly $4mn in advertising spending on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram in the 2022 midterms cycle by four of the largest players. 

The advance of pink slime also comes as social platforms have shrunk their moderation teams as part of wider lay-offs. Meta, in particular, has cut back on efforts to curate reliable journalism on Facebook. Critics say social media platforms should do more to tackle its rise.

Kathleen Carley, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said her research suggests that following the 2022 midterms “a lot more money” is being poured into pink slime sites, including advertising on Meta.

“A lot of these sites have had makeovers and look more realistic,” she said. “I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of that moving forward.” 

Meta said that it requires publishers with political connections to complete an authorisation process in order to run political ads, and to disclose that publicly on their marketing.

The phrase “pink slime” originates in fast food, where some US producers clandestinely add a low-cost food to hamburgers and other processed meats.

Since the previous US presidential election, the advance of artificial intelligence has opened a front in the information wars. Pink slime outlets can wield AI to spew out mundane content based on publicly available data, on top of articles designed to manipulate opinion, particularly in battleground states.

“Any swing state, any swing Senate race is going to have AI-generated phoney websites,” says Steven Brill, co-chief executive of NewsGuard. “The whole thing is going to be a shitshow.” 

With generative AI technologies making it easier than ever to create convincing articles, “the barriers to entry for someone who wants to set up a network of pink slime sites is lower than they have ever been”, said Alex Mahadevan, director of MediaWise at the Poynter Institute. “You’re going to see them targeting these news deserts.” 

Tim Dunn
Texas oil billionaire Tim Dunn, believed to be one of the backers of Metric Media © Brian Shumway/FT

Of the pink slime outlets identified by researchers, the largest is the conservative-leaning Metric Media, which consists of about 1,000 local titles, according to the website for its parent company. 

Priyanjana Bengani, a Tow computational fellow at Columbia Journalism School who has tracked pink slime sites since 2019, describes Metric Media as a “convoluted network” run by a web of shell companies, non-profit structures and corporate entities, all with links to three men: conservative businessman and publisher Brian Timpone, Texas oil billionaire Tim Dunn and Republican party adviser Bradley Cameron. None of the three responded to requests for comment.

In the run-up to the US 2022 midterms, the Metric Media network received at least $1.6mn in funding from conservative PACs, according to a Tow Center report, which found that the group acted as “a convergence of special interests for free-market advocates, multiple political action committees, the fossil fuel industry, a politically motivated Catholic group, and a group propagating notions of election fraud”.

The Chicago City Wire, which researchers say is affiliated with the wider Metric Media network, notes on its website that funding “is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government” without providing further details. Other Metric Media sites do not disclose any political funding or partisan stance, saying that they provide “data-driven information without political bias”. Metric Media did not respond to a request for comment but has previously said it is “strictly non-partisan”.

In a sign that the network and its leadership are becoming more established, a report by Nieman Lab last month found that another company set up by Metric Media’s Timpone, Advantage Informatics, has a deal to produce “advertorial content” for Gannett, a large US news group and publisher of USA Today. Gannett confirmed the relationship.

Where right-leaning groups have typically dominated, more left-leaning groups are now entering the space.

According to NewsGuard, this includes a network with titles such as the Pennsylvania Independent and the Michigan Independent, which it links to The American Independent, a national progressive site founded by Democratic operative David Brock with ties to a Democratic PAC.

Joe Conason, president of The American Independent Foundation, said that in late 2023 the group had separated the foundation, a non-profit operating the Independent state newspapers, and spun off a separate site called the American Journal News, whose for-profit owner is partly backed by the Democratic PAC.

The Chicago City Wire and Advantage Informatics did not respond to requests for comment.

Duke University’s Napoli said that pink slime sites can avoid having to follow campaign disclosure and communications rules because the Federal Election Commission grants media outlets an exemption. He called on the FEC “to more rigorously apply to the media exemption, to make sure they fit the criteria”.  

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