INTERVIEW 

Defunding fake news

Misinformation is a profitable business, made possible by Silicon Valley’s laissez-faire approach and an undiscerning programmatic ecosystem. Two senior media executives have decided to do something about it. Ray Snoddy meets them.

By Ray Snoddy

Defunding fake news
Steven Brill (on the left) and Gordon Crovitz.

By any standards, Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz, both as journalists and media executives, have had long and distinguished careers – separately and together.

Brill founded The American Lawyer magazine, the cable channel Court TV and media watchdog publication Brill’s Content. His books have included ‘America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System’, and ‘Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It’.

Both reached the New York Times Best Seller List.

Crovitz was the founding editorial page editor of the Wall Street Europe Journal in Brussels, editor and publisher of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

Together, they founded Journalism Online whose Press+ service was an early initiative designed to enable news publishers to generate revenue from content on their websites. It still exists under the Piano Media label.

Both believe, however, that it is their current venture, NewsGuard, which rates news publishers and their websites on their reliability and truthfulness, that will have the greatest impact and enduring social purpose in an online world awash with disinformation and misinformation. They are not just co-founders but also co-chief executives.

Based on criteria such as general reliability of content, transparency and willingness to correct errors, NewsGuard awards a green shield icon to media outlets that can be trusted and a red shield to those that can not. A score of less than 60 out of 100 attracts the red warning sign.

The company monitors more than 7,500 news websites representing more than 95 per cent of online engagement in the countries where it operates – the US, the UK, Germany, France and Italy.

The billions of people getting their news mainly from the internet face a shocking amount of disinformation and propaganda.

Silicon Valley

“One of the inspirations to get started was the launch of the Silicon Valley platforms which empowered the Russian government to spread misinformation more successfully than has ever happened before,” says Brill.

He adds that he is thinking of Russia Today – RT – pivoting from being mainly a broadcaster to becoming largely a YouTube operation.

Russia Today became the first news site to achieve 1 billion page views on YouTube and to mark the occasion in 2013, Robert Kyncl, now chief business officer of YouTube, appeared on the TV channel and praised the “authenticity” of RT.

“One billion views because you are so authentic is the best summary of the news judgements of Silicon Valley that you can imagine,” Crovitz argues pointedly.

For the US, the “original sin,” he believes, goes back all the way to the US Telecommunications Act of 1996 which gave immunity to the digital platforms for what appeared on their platforms.

As a result, the likes of Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok were all born into an environment where they were told you are not going to be held responsible for what you publish.

“They don’t have any of the legal liabilities or constraints of a newspaper or broadcaster and lo and behold 25 years later, we should not be surprised when digital platforms who were told they were not going to be accountable, turn out to be irresponsible,” adds Crovitz.

NewsGuard has scored the work of RT – whose television channel has been taken off air throughout the European Union, the UK and the US – and it was found wanting.

The RT website rt.com was given a score of 12.5 out of 100 with the warning: Proceed with caution. This website severely violates basic journalistic standards. It failed the most basic test of all, that it repeatedly published false content.

We should not be surprised when digital platforms who were told they were not going to be accountable, turn out to be irresponsible.

Misreporting Ukraine invasion

Some of NewsGuard’s current work of analysis could be hardly more relevant against the broader political framework – the myths being spread online about Ukraine and the Russian invasion and the way that online platforms such as Google are continuing to profit from the disinformation.

The company has set up a Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Center, which has identified ten myths about the invasion. They include false claims that the Ukrainian government is somehow “illegal and illegitimate,” that it is led by “Neo-Nazis” even though the Ukrainian president is Jewish, or inaccurate revisions of the history of Ukraine and Russia.

There have been statements from Google that the online giant was “barring” Russian state-funded websites from using its ad technology to generate revenues.

But NewsGuard says that dozens of websites promoting Russian disinformation about the Ukraine war are still receiving programmatic advertising revenues from Google and other advertising companies.

The Brill / Crovitz company says they include companies that hide their sources of funding and control and are registered in countries such as Cyprus or are owned by business associates of President Putin.

NewsGuard has identified 116 websites publishing one or more of the ten myths.

“What was President Putin supposed to do? What was Russia supposed to do? Kowtow to neo-Nazi thugs,” asked the Pravda.ru website which scored just 7.5 out of 100 in the NewsGuard credibility rating system.

rt.com failed the most basic test of all, that it repeatedly published false content.

Programmatic funding

NewsGuard believes that the spread of misinformation goes far beyond state-sponsored propaganda and as a result of programmatic advertising, a stream of perfectly respectable brands have been infected.

A joint report by NewsGuard and media measurement group Comscore found that more than 4,000 brands had inadvertently funded Covid-19 misinformation with more than 1,600 brands unintentionally funding sites claiming that the 2020 presidential election had been rigged.

The study estimated that such disinformation sites are bringing in more than $2.6 billion a year because a mixed bag of hostile governments, bad actors or health care websites were able to leverage the internet.

Crovitz notes that for years, President Putin was able to spend money on disinformation while, in effect getting a subsidy from blue chip American and European companies whose ads were unintentionally appearing on RT and Sputnik, the Russian news agency.

Against such an extreme background, it seems strange, and more than a little controversial, that the MailOnline website should have received a NewsGuard warning red shield.

“The initial rating made a mistake in one the ratings. Before we published our rating, we had called them six different times for comment and they had ignored us,” says Brill who notes that after discussions, NewsGuard gave the site a green icon with a score of 64.5 out of 100.

The current assessment is that “this website generally maintains basic standards of credibility and transparency – with significant exceptions.”

The reservations include concerns over how information is gathered and presented and the regularity with which errors are corrected and clarified.

A joint report by NewsGuard and Comscore found that more than 4,000 brands had inadvertently funded Covid-19 misinformation.

Focus on transparency

NewsGuard has 50 staff journalists to assess the output of websites. The work begins with a single draft assessment, which then goes through five or six additional layers before being signed off by both Brill and Crovitz.

Findings are discussed at a daily meeting of all staff and Crovitz explains that NewsGuard itself seeks to win trust for its processes with what it calls radical transparency.

“Everything is fully disclosed and how a site performs against our criteria is explained at great length. Twenty per cent of sites we have rated have done something after discussions with our analysts to improve their disclosure and that includes The Times of London and The Sun,” says Crovitz.

In most cases, the red ratings sites are easy to identify and are often repeat offenders.

“Gordon’s favourite example is that in 2019, a bunch of sites, including one in France, were saying that 5G causes cancer. In 2020, all of these sites did a brilliant pivot and said 5G causes Covid,” said Brill.

NewsGuard, founded in 2018, raised an initial $6 million followed by a further $6 million but says it is now in the black.

Some of the Californian tech giants were initially interested in investing but Brill and Crovitz believes this was blocked at the highest corporate levels.

There are individual subscribers but most revenue comes from major companies such as Microsoft seeking to protect the integrity of material on its Edge browser, all five of the international advertising holding companies such as Interpublic and pharmaceutical groups wanting to avoid fake news sites.

“Look at our model this way. There is $80 billion in programmatic advertising. One hundredth of one per cent of that can protect programmatic advertising,” Brill explains.

For example, Crovitz adds, a pharmaceutical company with an annual $100 million advertising budget can spend $100,000 to $150,000 a year with NewsGuard to keep their ads away from health care hoax sites.

A government security agency wants to use NewsGuard data to find out who is propagating particular pieces of disinformation.

But Brill and Crovitz believe what they do goes further than putting up red warning icons and that they help to make the advertising market work more efficiently while boosting the prospects of smaller – honest – websites.

NewsGuard has compiled an inclusion list – RANS – Responsible Advertising for News, which includes validated local news sites and independent start-ups, that advertising agencies would not otherwise have known about.

“With the laws of supply and demand, you have more sites to choose from and the cost of advertising goes down. By using RANS, you save money, you get better response rates and you stop supporting illegitimate journalism now being supported to the tune of $2.6 billion,” Brill explains.

NewsGuard, which is expanding its rating assessments to television news, has just negotiated a licence agreement with the teacher’s union in the US making its material available for free to all its members and 20 million American school children, a significant news literacy initiative.

Crovitz believes that the billions of people getting their news mainly from the internet face a shocking amount of disinformation and propaganda.

“If we can bring transparency to the internet and empower consumers with information on who is feeding them, that will have a dramatic impact on democratic societies and make it more difficult for autocrats to spread misinformation,” he says.

Brill concludes: “This will be, I think, the business we have been involved with that will have the most impact around the world and will have the most lasting effect.”

In most cases, the red ratings sites are easy to identify and are often repeat offenders.


This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.