Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Local news in many Texas communities has been replaced by websites that appear local but are often non-local, ad-revenue operations with political agendas. If Washington won’t act to combat the proliferation of “pink slime,” then Texas and other states experiencing similar activity must act to protect their voters.
Battleground states are likely to be inundated with election disinformation more than ever before. This extends to the largest potential swing state of all—Texas, which is being flooded with a new type of fake news that’s come to be called “pink slime.”
Pink slime journalism is a disinformation tactic that utilizes artificial intelligence to make what appear to be local news sites, which have all but disappeared from many Texas communities. But they aren’t real, and with the federal government unlikely to help, Texans themselves must marshal resources to combat pink slime journalism and other forms of media corruption to prevent this valuable state from swinging in a corrupted direction.
Last year, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported a network of over 450 linked sites purporting to be local and business news sites. Since December 2019, the number of these sites has almost tripled.
Many of these websites are owned by a single organization, Metric Media, which has discoverable ties to a conservative businessman and a network of conservative strategists who have fundraised for conservative candidates. Metric Media is responsible for 95% of the 62 new sites deployed in Texas this year according to data from the Columbia Journalism Review. The sites they create are meant to appear objective but are consistently skewed politically. An algorithm generates “real” local news with predominantly conservative-leaning articles.
The owner of Metric Media, Brian Timpone, says that the purpose of these sites is to fill the void left by the disappearance of local news organizations. But it’s difficult to separate Timpone and his colleagues from their partisan history in advancing conservative candidates and perspectives. Moreover, the universe of reasons for setting up these websites may well go beyond delivering “local news.”
As others public policy professionals have speculated, these websites may be created simply as a data collection vessel to then arm campaigns with information and email addresses to reach people. These sites are a distortion of news and what it means to be a news organization. The understanding and belief in freedom of the press settles in the foundational understanding that the press is the fourth unofficial branch of government and a watchdog for democracy.
A recent poll shows Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in a close race with President Trump, boosting Texas’ potential of emerging as a battleground state in November. These sites are made exponentially more alluring given the veritable dearth of local news across much of Texas. Texans are hungry for news about their communities and too often place their trust in fake sites that are designed to deceive them and push them toward specific political narratives.
Pink slime journalism has the potential to exacerbate our already polarized political landscape. Hyper partisanship has allowed fake news to threaten the underpinnings of our democracy by hampering society’s ability to agree on basic facts. When a society disagrees on what is true and false, achieving consensus on political solutions becomes virtually impossible.
A lack of response to similar disinformation campaigns from abroad in 2016 left us with the presidency we have today. Simultaneously, over the past 15 years, a quarter of the nation’s newspapers have died, pushing more and more Americans to online news. Studies have found individuals increasingly try to get their local news online and, according to the Pew Research Center, gravitate toward websites that are easy to use. These are characteristics pink slime sites effectively exploit.
There are a number of actions state and local governments can take to protect citizens from a flood of fake news sites that look very real. For example, states and municipalities should consider partnering with universities and nonprofits who have already established training programs in digital literacy and launched cohesive campaigns to teach the fundamentals of spotting fake news.
The Brookings Institution identifies funding efforts to enhance digital literacy as a priority for governments. At the state level, this means that legislators and state boards of education consider digital literacy funding a priority. Some states already have legislation in place requiring schools to incorporate rigorous digital literacy efforts into the curriculum. The free curriculum developed by the Stanford University School of Education could be an efficient way to help push back against the reality that high schoolers are ill equipped to determine fake from real news.
Some cities like Philadelphia and Seattle are also investing in digital literacy. Prioritizing digital and media literacy investments are an efficient way to ensure that while we are achieving digital equity, we are also equipping individuals with the tools needed to navigate a digital world of chronic misinformation and disinformation. Including lateral reading tips or ways for individuals to verify what they’re reading by cross referencing multiple sites to curriculums in adult and young adult education courses funded by government agencies is an easy way to promote media literacy across older groups of people. This is particularly important for rural counties that lost their local news sites years ago.
Until the federal government sets a national strategy for tackling disinformation, state and local governments must innovate now. Over the past decade, more issues have moved from the purview of the federal government down to states and municipalities. It appears for the moment that locally targeted fake news is our newest civic challenge to overcome.
It then falls upon states to better prepare citizens for a world of misinformation and disinformation with funding, legislation, innovation in public education curriculums, public-private partnerships and conducting active “big data” research to monitor and combat this problem. With a critically important election fast approaching, we cannot wait for federal legislation or a federal agency to come save us. For the sake of our democracy, and Texas’ ability to help form a more perfect union, we must act now.
Coda Rayo-Garza has taught political science at higher ed institutions for nearly a decade. She is a Truman National Security Political Partner and Term Member of the Council for Foreign Relations.