BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. And this third part of our episode on tailored messaging is even slimier than the second.
BOB GARFIELD A few facts: One, the newspaper business is in the toilet, decimating local journalism and putting thousands of reporters on the street. Two, digital tools and the Internet make it easy to create genuine looking forgeries of actual documents. Even entire bogus news outlets. And three, bad actors of all stripes are seizing the opportunities afforded by technology to poison the information well with propaganda psyops and lies such as Russia's infamous Internet research agency, which contaminated our 2016 election. As one of the culprits explained on the CBC.
TRANSLATED INTERVIEW I figured out early that the main goal was to create a picture of the world and the Internet that mirrored what was being shown on Russian television. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD All of the above is how Laura Walters wound up as a stooge for the Russians.
LAURA WALTERS I felt pretty stupid. I felt pretty embarrassed. And I just thought, oh, my gosh, how did I not pick this up? I'm usually the person who's reporting on these things. I'm usually the person who's spotting these things.
BOB GARFIELD The specific thing the London based New Zealand journalist didn't spot was that the apparent do-gooder publication that had solicited her work, called Peace Data, was a phony site set up by that same Internet research agency. This time, the Russians covertly paid legitimate Western journalists for articles to establish a veneer of respectability for its disinformation.
LAURA WALTERS A person calling themselves Alice Schultes messaged me on LinkedIn and said, "Hey, we see you have written about issues like human rights and global social issues and geopolitical issues in the past, and we've just started up a brand new, not for profit organization. We're trying to get some good content on our new website, and we're looking to publish the type of stuff you've been writing about. Would you be interested in writing something for us?
BOB GARFIELD So she submitted a story that, as we shall see shortly, was the Hope Diamond of dark irony. But for now, let's just observe that Laura Walters is by no means alone. As reported over the past year by Reuters, Columbia Journalism Review, Deseret News, Lansing State Journal and most recently, The New York Times, various political actors have exploited the tools of digital technology and the financial hardship of struggling journalists to develop sophisticated propaganda operations fronted by innumerable unwitting accomplices. And they are everywhere.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR Over a thousand two hundred local news sites in all 50 states in the run up to the 2020 election. That's a problem. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was Christiane Amanpour. This political grift is an ugly evolution of the so-called content farm, which emerged about a decade ago to provide dirt cheap content for budget strapped news organizations. They scraped official data online, automated basic financial reporting, copied press releases and paid freelancers piecework to mass produce what looked like journalism, but was mainly just filler. Such content came to be known by the same name, applied to the dubious meat like product, also used as filler.
NEWS REPORT Gerald Zirnstein, grinds his own hamburger these days. Why? Because this former USDA scientist, now whistleblower, knows that 70 percent of the ground beef we buy at the supermarket contains something he calls pink slime. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Cheap and filling, yes, and also kinda nauseating.
PRIYANJANA BENGANI You know, it's hard to come by a good business model in local news nowadays.
BOB GARFIELD Priyanjana Bengani is a senior research fellow at Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who has written extensively on the slime beat and its capacity for dressing up readily available information as news.
PRIYANJANA BENGANI They use automated techniques to just flood the pipelines with content which people may or may not care about.
BOB GARFIELD Sometimes, though, the human touch is required.
PRIYANJANA BENGANI If there was something that needed to be reported or that needs to have a little bit more of a human element, those stories would then be outsourced to the Philippines, where they could pay people very little money to either conjure up bylines or conjure up quotes.
BOB GARFIELD In her mention of the Philippines, she refers particularly to a content farm called Journatic, founded in 2006 by Brian Timpone, which counted among its clients and investors, such publishers as Hearst Newspapers and the Tribune Company. It was quite the industry darling until 2012, when This American Life revealed just how slimy the news substitute was.
SARAH KOENIG The reporter's name on the story is Ginny Cox, but there is no Ginny Cox or even if there is a Ginny Cox somewhere out there, she didn't write this story. The writer was someone named Jiselle Bautista in the Philippines who works for Journatic. Again, looking at the computer system the company uses to manage its stories. It seems that when Jiselle worked on this real estate story, there was a button called "select alias" when she clicked on it, she had a choice. She could either be Ginny Cox or Glenda Smith.
BOB GARFIELD That says Bengani was curtains for Journatic, but also the moment when pink slime turned into something far more nefarious.
PRIYANJANA BENGANI In 2014 - 2015, Timpone created a new company called Newsinator, and he started creating a network of local sites in Illinois. This was done in partnership, or at least heavily funded by Don Proff to run a superPAC called Liberty Principles. And Don Proff has been described as a controversial figure in conservative politics in Illinois. Eventually, what's happened with Newsinator was somehow it's rebranded to become something called LGIS, or local government information services.
BOB GARFIELD The main brands nowadays is called Locality Labs, but by any name, she says, it is a pay for play operation. Conservative clients paying for propaganda disguised as vetted local reporting. There's a name for that, actually.
TRUMP I'm the president, and you're fake news. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Only this is actual fake news. From countless sites whose ownership is intentionally obscured by a confusing array of entities. It is the quintessential shadowy network which Bengani's internet sleuthing and other reporter's shoe leather reporting has now bathed in unwelcome light.
PRIYANJANA BENGANI There are various metadata-y things and websites that you can identify. What other domains are sitting on the same IP address as the Michigan sites. Who else is using the same Google Analytics I.D.? The Facebook pixel I.D.? Who else is sharing the same SSL certificate?
BOB GARFIELD Essentially, Timpone charges his almost entirely rightwing clients to create and publish their made-to-order propaganda, dressed up as news mixed in with some legitimate content, precisely like Laura Walter's story in Peace Data. In other words, a homegrown version of Russia's Internet research agency.
INTERVIEW The IRA specifically sent people to the United States to study the political sphere in the U.S. and to understand what the pressure points were.
BOB GARFIELD From the HBO documentary Agents of Chaos.
INTERVIEW The depth of the content was surprising. Our assumption was that all of this content would be on one side politically. But what they had done very effectively was find pay friction point and then try to manipulate people on both sides. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD 2016 redux. And again, the con depends on real journalists, some unwittingly, some not, who provide actual reporting as a cover for the scheme. Florida reporter Pat Morris, who until the Great Recession had been a staffer and a dozen small market dailies, weeklies and alt weeklies has lately depended on freelance gigs, including a year in the Timpone Archipelago.
PAT MORRIS You know, I was laid off in 2009, so I haven't been in a newsroom since then. But yes, that never occurred to me. I would be part of anything like that. Like I said, I read last November's, I guess the first thing that the Columbia Journalism Review had published. And I just I wanted to throw up. I really, really wanted to just throw up.
BOB GARFIELD Not just because her stories created a cover for political mischief, but because her readers and her own stories subjects were themselves abused in service of lies.
PAT MORRIS You know, talking to people like at the Urban League in Charleston. Farmers who would stop and talk to me from their tractor for an hour while a tariff is killing them. Doing all that interesting, me thinking that they're helping their communities.
BOB GARFIELD But instead helping the purveyors of not pink but red made in the USA, political slime.
PAT MORRIS I mean, you know, you kind of expect the Russians to do stuff, too, but you don't expect, you know, your own country to, you know, people using the mechanisms of your own country and the mechanisms of freedom of the press, which is not a Russian concept, but it's an American concept. I think it's certainly more hurtful personally, and I think it's more dangerous socially because, you know, Americans. If you're American, you know you know how to do it. I mean, the Russians, I guess, were masters of social media, but what these guys are doing is using local community news, and that's something that Americans know and trust.
BOB GARFIELD We asked Timpone for comment, but he did not respond. So let's return now to the Masters, the Russians and the story of Laura Walters. In the analog cloak and dagger world of espionage, intelligence operatives tend to seek agents who are vulnerable for one reason or another. The slime sites are no different.
LAURA WALTERS I did have a certain vulnerability. I didn't have that protection of being a staff reporter. I also didn't have the certainty of, you know, weekly or a monthly paycheck. And it's not just being a freelancer. It's being a freelancer within the media environment during COVID. You know, where there aren't a whole lot of jobs going, if anything, there are jobs being slashed. So, of course, it makes you vulnerable. It makes you more likely to, you know, jump on any opportunity that comes your way.
BOB GARFIELD Which is why she and Pat Morris have gone on the record to warn others of the dangers, even if it means exposing the grim irony of failing to do the journalistic due diligence on their employers that they routinely do in their reporting.
LAURA WALTERS The fact that Ellis Schults used a gmail account and not, you know, a staff account like @peacedata.com, they used AI generated profile pictures. So these were pictures of people who don't exist and have never existed, and there are ways to pick up on those. Of course, I didn't search. I didn't look into it, but if I had, maybe I would have spotted that. They only wanted to pay via PayPal. No, they didn't want to use any other form of Internet transfer or payment option. And the social media accounts were quite new and quite unpopulated as well, so you'd think that someone who was, you know, very connected, working in an NGO space or a media space would probably have had quite an established social media presence, and they didn't. So those were some of the obvious things that jumped out to me, looking back at it.
BOB GARFIELD But irony wise, really, that's nothing. Earlier, I promised you a true Gob's smacker and I am about to deliver. Laura Walters wrote exactly one piece for Peace Data. It was a thousand-word story about a sinister foreign scheme to plant disinformation in her home country. A story Alice Schults or Vladimir McPutin or whoever the editor really was said was "just perfect."
LAURA WALTERS They got this gushing response where they said we'd all like to thank you. You know, from the bottom of our hearts, it's such a fantastic piece. And then Ellis went on to say, It's hard to believe how totalitarian countries like China or Russia are finding their ways to meddle even in the strongest democracies around the globe. And of course, at the time, I thought nothing of it. Now, you know, I look back at that and I just can't help but laugh.
BOB GARFIELD It is to laugh, or it is to cry.
LAURA WALTERS Exactly. And I teetered on the edge. I really did.
BOB GARFIELD Don't we all, don't we all? And democracy right along with us.
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