FARGO — Masquerading as local online newspapers, so-called "astroturf news" sites have seen a meteoric rise in the last year as many authentic local news outlets around the country have closed due to financial woes exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
These imposter sites push hyper-partisan propaganda. And while they’re not circulating hoaxes or false conspiracy theories, the sites are increasing on both sides of the political aisle, according to a recent New York Times report that exposed a rash of nearly 1,300 of these news sites across the nation.
Thirty-seven such websites purport to cover news from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, according to a Forum News Service analysis and The New York Times.
One of the main disseminators of this sort of pseudo-local news in the region is a nonprofit group called the Metric Media Foundation, which has at least six North Dakota sites, six South Dakota sites and 19 Minnesota sites. Since 2019, the group’s websites have grown from 300 to at least 1,227 across the nation.
The sites look like knockoffs of mainstream media outlets disguised under legitimate-sounding names such as the Fargo Standard, the Rushmore State News and the Minnesota State Wire.
While Metric Media says its goal is to “fill the void in community news” with “objective, data-driven information without political bias,” the organization says it's funded “in part, by advocacy groups that share our beliefs in limited government,” according to a statement on Metric Media websites.
The organization’s North Dakota and South Dakota websites are filled with snippets of news from press releases, national, not local, COVID-19 statistics, and other information resembling error pages rather than well planned news stories. Some information appears to be auto-generated.
Robert Mejia, an associate professor in the North Dakota State University Department of Communication, specializes in media and technology studies. He says Metric Media’s simplistic-looking sites lead readers to believe they are local when they are actually propaganda machines.
“Local hyper-partisan websites present themselves as being local, but in fact they’re often based elsewhere," Mejia said. "They can be thought of as astroturf news, presenting themselves as home-based news, but they’re often very fabricated. When people come across these, because they appear less sophisticated, it actually helps them to appear more local.”
Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said that while freedom of the press is vital to a democracy, readers need to be cautious about where they are getting their news.
"I think readers need to be extremely aware and be as news literate as possible about the source of the news they are receiving. You have to put it on the readers to be news literate,” Hills said.
Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said astroturf news sites are concerning because they stain the information pool.
“It does have me worried, actually. In one respect it’s good for newspapers, because they’re held to a standard of journalism or have balance, and most people know that. Newspapers are still pretty well trusted, especially local newspapers. But the problem is the more people who taint that information pool, the less trust there is in anything that is out there,” Andrist said.
Metric Media is reportedly overseen by Brian Timpone, a former CBS reporter in Minnesota and later a Chicago TV reporter, who now manages a “pay-to-play” operation taking orders from right-wing think tanks and like-minded politicians to write hit pieces on political players they don’t like, and push conservative talking points, according to The New York Times.
Timpone veered from journalism into conservative politics in 1997 after becoming a spokesman for a Republican lawmaker in Illinois, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Metric Media lists its headquarters as being in Missouri, and the only phone number in its Internal Revenue Service documents led to a pre-recorded car service company’s answering service. Forum News Service attempts to reach a Metric Media representative were unsuccessful.
On most of Metric Media's North Dakota sites, the homepage features a story published Oct. 7 on Republican Gov. Doug Burgum getting a “D” grade from the Washington-based Cato Institute for his tax and spending policies since 2018. The Cato Institute is a right-wing think tank founded by billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch.
On the North Dakota sites, the political page’s sole content is 300 campaign donations to Congressman Kelly Armstrong and 40 campaign donations to challenger Zach Raknerud.
Metric Media’s South Dakota sites mirror North Dakota’s in content, but with Republican Gov. Kristi Noem receiving a “B” grade from the Cato Institute.
“The New York Times article talks about how some of their story watchers dictated the content in the stories,” Mejia said. “In essence you write the story but you remove yourself from the byline so it looks as though this has been an actual story that was written by a staff writer, when in fact the person who paid for it dictated it."
On Metric Media's Minnesota sites, the Cato Institute report is featured prominently, saying Democratic Gov. Tim Walz received a “D” grade for his tax and spending policies since 2018.
The Minnesota sites display one-sided stories focused on hurting Walz’s reputation and bolstering Republican talking points like reopening the state, blasting unions and criticizing Democratic candidates. The Minnesota sites also have stories that take stances critical of presidential candidate Joe Biden's tax and energy proposals.
Although the Minnesota articles are one-sided, they do contain elements of truth, Mejia said.
“There is an element of deceptiveness in the way they represent themselves,” Mejia said. “Most effective propaganda is that which is based on some element of truth. If those truths are found, readers will lower their guard and accept what they’re seeing.”
Dangers of propaganda
Mejia says astroturf news websites can pose dangers to society and government balance. Traditional media outlets have a long history of trying to represent all sides of an issue.
But as legacy media outlets falter, costs of production are low for astroturf news and hyper-partisan sites.
“It’s less expensive to lie on the internet,” Mejia said. “And it’s not that this information hasn’t existed beforehand, it has. It’s the information that has been on the fringes and is coming more into the center and capturing more of the public."
“The truth is propaganda has been here for years," he added. "When we educate the public, we haven’t taught the public on how to recognize propaganda."