The nature of the news misinformation problem may be changing. As consumers become more skeptical about the national news they encounter online, impostor local sites that promote ideological agendas are becoming more common. These sites exploit the relatively high trust Americans express in local news outlets — a potential vulnerability in Americans’ defenses against untrustworthy information.
Some misinformation in local news comes from foreign governments seeking to meddle in American domestic politics. Most notably, numerous Twitter accounts operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency were found to have impersonated local news aggregators during the 2016 election campaign.
A recent Senate Intelligence Committee report found that 54 such accounts published more than 500,000 tweets. According to researchers at N.Y.U., the fake local news accounts frequently directed readers to genuine local news articles about polarizing political and cultural topics.
Domestically grown dubious outlets are also proliferating. Last week, The Lansing State Journal reported the existence of a network of more than 35 faux-local websites across Michigan with names like Battle Creek Times, Detroit City Wire, Lansing Sun and Grand Rapids Reporter.
These sites mix news releases and town announcements with rewritten content derived from other sources, including the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank in the state, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
All of them originate with a company called Locality Labs L.L.C., which created similar networks of questionable local websites in Illinois and Maryland, and state and local business and legal sites around the country. There’s little information about these sites. They typically lack mastheads, local addresses and clear disclosure of their ownership or revenue sources.
Voters could easily become confused about the origins of information from these seemingly innocuous local-sounding outlets. In 2016, for example, websites in the Illinois network interviewed Republican candidates favored by a conservative state political committee, which then paid to mail print newspaper versions of the sites to voters without identifying them as political advertising.
A similar pattern cropped up in Tennessee, where a website called the Tennessee Star began publishing political news in 2017 without disclosing its funders or staff. One headline was featured in an ad by a member of Congress running for re-election. Readers and viewers had no way of knowing the Tennessee Star was actually a conservative site run by commentators and activists. This group has since started companion sites called the Minnesota Sun and Ohio Star; each draws heavily on syndicated content from conservative sources like The Daily Caller.
These three sites now attract substantial engagement on Facebook. CrowdTangle data shows they are frequently linked on public pages with millions of followers and have generated more than 100,000 interactions. In August and September, President Trump’s official Facebook page linked three times to the Minnesota Sun, which had published commentaries by the leader of the state’s Republican Party and the chief operating officer of the Trump re-election campaign.
As the tactic has become more common, political leaders have also created or promoted seemingly independent local websites. For instance, a website called the California Republican, which appeared in 2018, describes itself on Facebook as providing “the best of U.S., California and Central Valley news, sports and analysis.” But it was paid for by the campaign committee of Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman from California. Kelli Ward, a Republican representative from Arizona, promoted an election endorsement from the Arizona Monitor, another pseudo-local site. And in Maine, a website called the Maine Examiner, which published leaked emails from a Democratic candidate, was revealed to have been created by the state Republican Party’s executive director.
Covertly ideological local sources aren’t exclusively online. The media giant Sinclair has similarly blurred the lines between local and national journalism in television news. When local stations are acquired by Sinclair, a recent study shows, their news content becomes more nationally focused and more conservative. The company often issues so-called must-run national segments, such as a recent commentary that sought to blame illegal immigration for sexual violence against children. And in March 2018, Sinclair directed local stations to air a promotional clip in which anchors read a company script denouncing “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news” as if they were using their own words, a tactic that was exposed in a viral clip.
All of these outside groups seem to be trying to capitalize on people’s trust in local news. In the 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey, the political scientists Andy Guess, Jason Reifler and I found that Americans express greater trust in news from local television and newspapers than from national outlets. This is especially true of Republicans, the partisan group that is most skeptical of the national media.
The differences in trust we observe translate into differences in interest and consumption preferences. First, a Pew survey found that three in four Americans say they follow local news somewhat or very closely — the same fraction as those who report following national news closely.
Moreover, what people say in surveys tracks their behavior under controlled conditions. In the 2019 Poynter Media Trust Survey (which found similarly high levels of trust in local news), we asked a representative sample of Americans to repeatedly indicate which of two articles they would prefer to read.
Each article summary included a randomly assigned headline, date, author and source type, which varied between a local television station, radio station or newspaper; national newspapers and broadcast networks; and national online-only outlets. This approach allowed us to account for differences in topics between national and local news.
Over all, we found that people preferred to consume local news most. Holding other factors constant, Americans were 11 percentage points more likely to choose articles from local news sources than ones from online-only national outlets — precisely why dubious websites might impersonate local news sources. This differential was largest among Republican identifiers and people with a negative view of the news media.
The prevalence of these impostors is likely to increase as the 2020 election approaches, threatening to mislead more voters and to promote greater skepticism toward all news media, including the local outlets that so many Americans rely on and trust.