Screenshots via Maitland Today, Goldenrod News, and College Park Today
Hundreds of bogus local news websites have popped up across the U.S., many with neighborhood-specific titles and purportedly offering local news. The sites, however, are right-leaning, nearly identical-looking products of a handful of big-business operatives. More than a dozen such sites are set up to represent the Orlando area alone.
Websites like "College Park Today," "Goldenrod News" and "Apopka Times" all use the same layout and show identical stories and images.
Thirteen locally branded sites are identified around Central Florida, nearly all of them pretending to be located in Congressional districts held by Democrats Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy.
Screenshot from Ocoee Today
The lead story on all the sites on Wednesday is headlined "Hospitality industry losses cost Florida $2.2 billion in state, local revenue." The piece is bylined by Florida Business Daily
, which similarly aggregates stories in other states. No authors are named on the news sites, with many bylines reading simply, "Press release submission."
Most of the content's origins are from press releases, business websites and cribbed obituaries, all part of a low-effort attempt to generate local-seeming "news."
It may not seem like much right now, but if and when these sites get their act together enough to resemble independent news outlets, they could muddy the waters for what counts as acceptable local news.
"The growth of partisan media masquerading as state and local reporting is a troubling trend we’ve seen emerge amid the financial declines of local news organizations," reported Duke University researchers Jessica Mahone and Philip Napoli for Nieman Journalism Lab
They say these "right-leaning sites are more focused on local reporting, indicating the potential for these sites to exacerbate polarization in local communities."
Mahone and Napoli set out to determine what these poser news sites are trying to accomplish, and what they mean for journalism in communities like Central Florida.
According to research they used out of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, 450 of the sites are part of 12 state networks operated by five corporate entities. Mahone and Napoli mapped the locations of the outlets, showing their concentration in swing states.
Screenshot via Neiman Journalism Lab
The 13 websites targeting Central Florida, each pretending to be its own brand, are:
Mahone and Napoli's researched showed the outlets are often funded and operated by government officials, political candidates, PACs and political party operatives, all in swing states, "raising a concern about the ability of such organizations to fill community information needs while prioritizing the electoral value of an audience."
The sites took steps to conceal their shared ownership, but the researchers
used the WHOIS database of registered domains, shared IP addresses, and shared analytics identifiers to determine the scope of these networks.
The five organizations operating the networks all have conservative political ties. Conservative businessman Brian Timpone founded the Record network in 2004. As disclosed on Record publications, the network is owned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Timpone also runs Locality Labs/LocalLabs, which operates only in Florida.
Franklin Archer, whose CEO is Timpone’s brother Michael, operates a local news network with over 100 sites and a metro business network with 51 sites. Dan Proft, who ran the conservative super PAC Liberty Principles, created the Local Government Information Services (LGIS) network in Illinois in 2016. Metric Media shares privacy policies, servers, and analytics identifiers with the other four networks.
The map shows there are a few liberal-leaning sites operating in similar networks, but they were found to be only 8 of the 429 sites identified.
"This potentially could change as left-wing funders and operatives seek to counteract similar efforts by the right," say the researchers.
Many more of the sites focused on local and hyperlocal communities than on regions or states. Of the 429 sites mapped, 253 are focused on specific cities or specific neighborhoods. Ninety-five focus on specific regions, or groups of communities or counties, and 77 are focused on entire states.
"We suspect many of the local sites are not based in or actually operating within the communities they serve," say the researchers, who note Timpone had previously operated so-called "local" news sites before using content written in the Philippines under fake bylines.
The research is fairly preliminary, and the authors hope to find out more about what effect such phony-localized content has on real reporting and local self-governance.
Check out the Nieman Journalism Lab study here
and the map of each media outlet here
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