During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Internet served up the digital equivalent of junk food — hearty helpings of false and distorted news that wasn’t all that good for us. Now, four years later, heading into what promises to be another bitterly contested election, many voters are still hungry for more.
NewsGuard, a media startup that rates the reliability of news sites, found a sharp increase last month in the popularity of sites that run questionable content, just as the impeachment of President Trump and the Democratic presidential race were heating up.
NewsGuard considers a site unreliable if it trafficks in faked or distorted news, fails to correct mistakes, or doesn’t disclose its political slant or reveal its owners and funders, among other criteria.
Nearly 10 percent of the online stories followed most closely by readers in the United States in December came from such sites, a 20 percent increase from the previous month. NewGuard said the numbers indicate that the tolerance for fake news may be increasing right along with the intensity of political disputes.
“We think it’s happening just as the political season heats up,” said Steven Brill, NewsGuard’s co-chief executive. “As things become more polarized, there is an increased incentive for people to create misinformation and an increased incentive for people to read it.”
For some reason, people in the United States seem especially susceptible. NewsGuard tracks the popularity of untrustworthy news sites in four other countries — France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Enthusiasm for these sites in the United States far outstrips that of the other countries. The British are especially resistant; news from unreliable sites made up just 1.2 percent of the most-followed stories among British Web surfers.
NewsGuard was founded in 2018 by Brill, founder of the American Lawyer magazine, and Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal. The company uses a team of veteran journalists to evaluate the trustworthiness of Internet sites. They don’t verify individual stories, but rate the journalistic and business practices of the sites that publish them. It also checks whether the site identifies its owners and financial backers, and identifies the people who write the stories.
News sites that meet a minimum standard of reliability and transparency get the NewsGuard seal of approval — a green check mark that’s visible to Internet users who install NewsGuard software in their browsers. If they visit a site NewsGuard deems unreliable, they’ll see a red check mark.
NewsGuard doesn’t measure a site’s political bias. Major left-wing sites such as Mother Jones and MSNBC have earned the green check mark; so have prominent right-wing sites Fox News and Breitbart. The company has frequently worked with red-checked sites, showing them how to upgrade their fact-checking and disclosure policies in order to meet NewsGuard’s standards.
It also works with NewsWhip, a company that measures social media engagement. Rather than just tracking how often a story is read, engagement measures how widely it is shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
NewsGuard and NewsWhip found that 9.4 percent of the most shared and liked stories in the United States in December came from red-checked sites. For instance, LifeNews.com, an antiabortion site, earned a red check mark for posting claims of a link between abortion and breast cancer. According to NewsGuard research, such claims are false. But LifeNews was popular in December, with a higher engagement rate in the United States than the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, or the Dallas Morning News.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that more people read LifeNews. It means that a higher percentage of its readers clicked the “like” button or shared stories with their Facebook friends, making it more likely that stories from this site go viral.
LifeNews.com’s editor Steven Ertelt disputed Newsguard’s findings, and asserted that multiple studies since 1957 have found an abortion-breast cancer link. (The nonprofit Susan G. Komen organization, which promotes research and awareness of breast cancer, said there is no medical evidence that supports such a link.)
NewsGuard is finding that medical information, like politics, attracts unreliable publishers. A health food site called Healthy Food House is cited by NewsGuard for repeatedly promoting “potentially dangerous and unproven natural health remedies.” For instance, the site has published claims that doses of Laetrile, a substance found in the pits of fruits such as apricots, may be an effective cancer treatment, even though scientific studies have concluded the compound is useless. Moreover, Healthy Food House doesn’t reveal who owns it or the writers who produce its articles. Yet the NewsGuard-NewsWhip survey found that the Healthy Food House website attracts 62 times as much engagement as the website of the Mayo Clinic, one of the nation’s top medical centers.
The publishers of Health Food House could not be reached for comment.
The NewsGuard survey also singled out the growing prominence of local news sites created by political partisans of the left or right, but with names that sound like traditional media properties — the Ohio Capital Journal, for example, or Kalamazoo Times. They often run stories with a strong political slant, but without revealing that they’re funded by conservative or liberal activists. Whether individual stories are accurate or not, NewsGuard’s Crovitz said that sites like these can’t be considered reliable unless readers know who is in charge of them.
Even The Boston Globe, which has earned a green checkmark, gets dinged by NewsGuard because the Globe doesn’t disclose the name of the publication’s owner, John Henry, in a section of the website accessible to nonsubscribers.
The NewsGuard software is currently free, but later this year the company will charge $2.95 a month. The new policy could mean a big reduction in use of the software, which has been downloaded by about 165,000 people.
But Crovitz hopes to persuade Internet service providers and data security companies to pick up the tab, and provide Newsguard as a free service to end users.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.