Democrats Fire Up ‘Fake News’ Websites to Sway Battleground State Voters

The websites all appear to be standard local news sites but they are dominated by political stories praising President Biden and Democrats and trashing Republicans.

Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP
The so-called 'pink-slime' news websites are intended to rile up voters on such topics as abortion ahead of the midterms. Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP

Democratic activists are ramping up their attempts to sway voters in key battleground states with a new network of so-called “fake news” websites ahead of the November midterm elections, according to a report by a news media watchdog.

The report by analysts at NewsGuard, a for-profit media rating service founded by veterans of Court TV and the Wall Street Journal, says a network of news sites tied to the American Independent began publishing articles in the past few months targeting readers in Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

The American Independent was created in 2014 by Democratic activist David Brock, who earlier founded the progressive and militantly anti-Fox News Media Matters for America. On its website, the Independent professes to be a platform for progressive news “founded with the mission to compare and contrast progressive and conservative solutions to America’s public policy concerns.”

The websites all look like standard local news sites, with sections labeled Lifestyle, Entertainment, Education, and Community, among others. The Arizona Independent, however, carries little or no so-called “soft news” such as entertainment coverage, and is instead dominated by political stories praising President Biden and Democrats and trashing Republicans.

“Biden administration invests $500 million in domestic agriculture to fight crop shortages,” reads one headline. “$118 million from Biden’s American Rescue Plan allocated to support Arizona schoolchildren,” reads another.

Headlines above stories about Republicans, however, read “Arizona Republicans nominate racist venture capitalist Blake Master for Senate” and “Arizona Republicans out of touch with constituents on abortion rights.”

The pattern of coverage is the same on other, nearly identical sites ostensibly set up to cover local news in the other battleground states.

To boost the reach of its articles, NewsGuard notes, the American Independent buys ads on Facebook that insert the “news” stories into users’ timelines. NewsGuard says the group spent nearly $40,000 on Facebook ads touting its articles from Pennsylvania and Arizona in August and September. One of the ads boosted the Arizona Independent article about GOP lawmakers being out of touch with their constituents vis-a-vis abortion.

The firm behind the network of sites also began sending unsolicited copies of newspapers to addresses in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin beginning last summer. Readers in Wisconsin reported getting the July 2022 edition of the Wisconsin Independent with headlines warning readers about the dangers posed by the GOP’s abortion policies. The American Independent embarked on a similar campaign ahead of the 2021 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia that put Republican Glen Youngkin in office.

Progressives are not the only groups using such tactics. A company called Metric Media set up as many as 1,200 sites purporting to be local news outlets ahead of the 2020 election that championed conservative candidates and parroted Trump talking points about rigged elections. The networks have been labeled “pink slime” by journalism watchdogs after the meat by-product sometimes inserted into beef to make it seem higher quality than it actually is.

The NewsGuard analysts noted that, five days before the new websites came online, a nonprofit called American Independent Media was incorporated in Washington, D.C. with a law firm run by Democratic elections-lawyer Mark Elias listed as the “incorporator.” Federal elections records show that Mr. Elias has received millions in donations from Democratic political action committees and candidates throughout the 2022 election cycle.

NewsGuard said that its attempts to reach Mr. Brock, the American Independent, and Mr. Elias for comment went unanswered.

“What started as print newspapers at voters’ doorsteps in Virginia appears to have since morphed into an online and print operation in battleground states in the final days before the midterms,” the NewsGuard report concludes. “NewsGuard’s review of the network, which was not difficult to identify, reveals how these websites continue to fly under the radar, despite well-documented knowledge of their tactics.”


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