Guest: Alex Mahadevan of Poynter's MediaWise; Also: Trump CFO goes back to jail; GOP chaos, panic in AZ after 1864 abortion ban restored...
By Brad Friedman on 4/10/2024, 6:32pm PT  

And we thought the real news sites were bad enough. Now, as discussed on today's BradCast, fake ones, aided by Artificial Intelligence and funded by shadowy rightwingers to surreptitiously promote candidates and rightwing propaganda, are springing to life across the country in advance of this year's critical election. Ain't that all that we need? [Audio link to full show follows this summary.]

But first up, a few news headlines of note today...

The Trump Organization's long-time Chief Financial Officer, Allen Weisselberg returned to Rikers Island today after serving a 100 day sentence just last year on tax fraud charges related to unreported perks he received over many years from the company. Today, the 76-year old Weisselberg was sentenced to five more months in the pen after pleading guilty to perjury for lying to state prosecutors in testimony and on the witness stand in Donald Trump's recent $454 million civil fraud trial about the size of the disgraced former President's New York apartment. The lie inflated the value of the Trump Tower penthouse on financial statements by some $200 million.

And, in Arizona, the state's all-Republican Supreme Court unleashed havoc on Tuesday --- for both abortion supporters and opponents alike --- when it reinstated a 160-year old near-total abortion ban originally adopted in 1864, before Arizona was a state or women had the right to vote. Many state Republicans, like U.S. Senate candidate Kari Lake, are now in full panic mode on the heels of the Court approving the law she previously claimed to support. Now, for some reason, she doesn't, as revealed in an incoherent (and hilarious) statement demanding that AZ's Democratic Governor somehow roll it all back, even while Lake also still claims to oppose abortion.

For his part on Wednesday, Donald Trump, who on Monday bragged yet again about his role in overturning Roe v. Wade, both claimed that the abortion issue was now settled to everyone's satisfaction as a states' rights matter, while calling out the AZ Supreme Court for "going too far" in reinstating the 1864 ban on all abortions in the state, with an exception only for saving the life of mother. He insists that the GOP-controlled (for now) state legislature will repeal the ban. But Republicans leaders in both the state House and Senate on Wednesday insisted otherwise, thwarting attempts by Democrats to repeal the antiquated law.

It is all as mad as it sounds. But, despite the havoc this is causing for women and doctors in the state, all of it may turn out to be very good news for Democrats in the battleground state this November. Arizona, and other states, will see ballot initiatives to protect reproductive rights. That is likely to have a remarkable effect on turnout by angry voters.

Of course, that also depends on an educated --- not disinformed --- electorate. And, right now, as the Financial Times recently reported, there is a well-funded scheme underway by rightwing billionaire activists, the Republican Party and fossil fuel interests, among others, to confuse as many people as possible about real news by using real looking "pink slime" websites that push political propaganda while masquerading as legitimate local news sites.

According to media watchdog NewsGuard, as of April 1, there were as many fake "pink slime" websites operating in the U.S., pretending to be real local news outlets, as there were actual, real, local news sites!

We're joined today by ALEX MAHADEVAN, Director at the non-profit Poynter Institute's MediaWise project, which seeks to "empower diverse communities with the skills to identify misinformation."

"The word 'pink slime' encompasses a lot of different types of these algorithmically-generated or poorly reported news websites," Mahadevan tells me. "To me, the 'pink slime' news websites that worry me the most are the ones that aren't necessarily fake news, but have a lot of real news in it. Most of it has been scraped by algorithms from press releases, but then within some of those articles are very biased, misleading articles that favor one candidate or another candidate."

The websites have names like "Chicago City Wire", a cite which doesn't disclose its funding or political purpose other than to say, "Funding for this news site is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government." At least if you bother to dig deep enough on the site to find that statement.

One of the largest networks of "pink slime" sites is run by an outfit named Metric Media, which claims to feature about 1,000 "local" sites, most of which, according to FT, "do not disclose any political funding or partisan stance, saying that they provide 'data-driven information without political bias.'" Metric Media is reportedly run by a web of shell companies, non-profits and corporate entities linked to three men, "conservative businessman and publisher Brian Timpone, Texas oil billionaire Tim Dunn, and Republican Party adviser Bradley Cameron."

Creation of these sites, according to researchers, is now easier than ever thanks to Artificial Intelligence apps, and comes at a time when social media outlets have cut back on their moderation teams that might otherwise prevent links to such propaganda outlets from proliferating. Instead, the "pink slime" sites are spending millions to advertise on those same social media sites like Facebook, Twitter/X and Instagram.

Mahadevan explains how he was able, in February of last year, to use the free version of the AI app, Chat-GPT, to create such a fake cite. "In about a half hour I was able to generate fake news articles, along with fake news reporters, fake editors, and fake publishers --- along with their headshots --- and create the code and launch a fake news website completely out of thin air. To me, that was really frightening."

All of it, in fact, is frightening --- not only the fake news that is taking the place of real local news reporting, but the loss of those critical local outlets in the first place and what happens to "the soul of these communities when we lose local news outlets," laments Mahadevan, who goes on to warn that all of this is "terrible for democracy."

So what, if anything can be done about it? We discuss that as well on today's somewhat disturbing, if hopefully eye-opening, BradCast...


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