When Elon Musk amplified a conspiracy theory about the hammer attack on US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, he joined the growing ranks of Americans routinely sharing misinformation published by dubious websites presenting themselves as local news outlets.
The new Twitter owner eventually deleted his tweet linking to the false article by the Santa Monica Observer, but millions had already digested and re-circulated a smear that went viral on Facebook and other social networks.
Many US voters seeking and sharing news about midterm elections may find themselves in both a desert and an ocean, only to be left in a fog.
“Fewer journalists means more opportunities for conspiracy theories without any check at all,” said Daniel Kreiss, a University of North Carolina (UNC) political communication professor.
Hundreds of newspapers have shuttered since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are plenty of imitators popping up in their stead.
The Santa Monica Observer received a trust score of just 12.5 out of 100 on media monitor NewsGuard’s rating scale last year, being described as: “Another example of a publisher producing unreliable content under the guise of local news.”
The site, according to NewsGuard, has published numerous conspiracy theories and false and misleading claims about politics, vaccines and the pandemic.
A Northwestern University report in October revealed the huge newspaper dropoff. It also showed more than a fifth of Americans live in “news deserts” or in communities at risk of losing local outlets.
Most of the sites filling the gaps make little or no attempt to show balance or be transparent. NewsGuard flagged many of them as failing to meet “basic journalistic standards.”
“People say there is no shortage of information — there’s news on my phone, there’s news anywhere,” said Steve Waldman, president of Report for America, a non-profit group that deploys journalists to news organizations nationwide.
But Waldman and other experts say the relative deficit of credible reporting — about one in four US newspapers has disappeared since 2005, and another third are likely to be gone by 2025 — makes it harder for voters to separate fact from fiction.
“People are repeating and sharing the most outrageous and nonsensical information imaginable,” said Les High, former publisher of the Whiteville News Reporter in eastern North Carolina and founder of a nonprofit news site called the Border Belt Independent.
“It’s awfully hard to have a democracy when nobody can discern the truth.”
– Masquerading as neutral –
More than 1,200 outlets that Kreiss of UNC described as “thinly veiled actors posing as neutral news websites” have cropped up in the past few years, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Priyanjana Bengani, a senior research fellow at the center, said most of the sites are not transparent.
“They don’t always say they are funded by advocacy groups,” she noted.
Both sides of the political divide are involved, issuing news articles that are little more than campaign pitches for local Democrat and Republican candidates.
The sites get readers by delivering content in paid ads on social media platforms, which allow targeting of specific groups by geography or demographics. This can mislead readers into thinking the articles are “organic” content from established news outlets, researchers say.
NewsGuard said in a report in October that millions of dollars are being poured into such ads for the midterms, notably on Facebook and Instagram.
“These pseudo-newsrooms have taken advantage of Meta’s low costs, hyper-targeting tools and porous policies related to political ad spending to target voters in battleground states while underplaying or entirely hiding their partisan-driven agendas and financing,” NewsGuard said, referring to the owner of Facebook and Instagram.
– Filtering misinformation –
Recent research by the nonprofit Reboot Foundation, which focuses on media literacy, found just 28 percent saying they felt very confident in their ability to filter election misinformation, a finding that suggests US voters are primed to fall for misleading or one-sided political narratives.
Roughly half get at least some of their news from social media sites, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report. An estimated 10 percent get news from TikTok, according to a separate Pew report, and some six percent get news from “alternative” platforms such BitChute, Parler and Truth Social.
Penelope Abernathy, a lead researcher for Northwestern’s news deserts study, said social media fundamentally changes the nature of the news people consume, fueling partisanship.
“What appears on your feed may be posted by a friend or determined by algorithm, and this tends to favor (content) designed to inflame passions,” she said.
UK unveils £11 bn windfarm investment by UAE, German firms
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced Friday plans by UAE state-owned renewables firm Masdar and German energy giant RWE to invest up to £11 billion ($14 billion) in a giant offshore windfarm.
The joint investment plans will help erect turbines at the UK’s massive Dogger Bank site in the North Sea, he said at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai.
The long-planned offshore windfarm off the coast of Yorkshire in northern England, will be the largest in the world, the UK government claims.
Several other multinational companies are involved in ventures.
“I’m pleased to announce a new deal between Masdar and RWE, which includes a commitment to jointly invest up to £11 billion into the UK’s new windfarm at Dogger Bank,” said Sunak.
“This is a huge boost for UK renewables, creating more jobs, helping to power three million homes and increasing our energy security,” he told a press conference on the fringes of COP28.
Masdar will purchase a 49-percent stake in RWE’s 3.0 gigawatt (GW) projects at Dogger Bank South, both companies said.
The southern section is capable of powering three million typical UK homes, creating 2,000 jobs during construction and over 1,000 direct and indirect roles during its operational phase, it added.
The financial deal is expected to complete in the first quarter of next year, the state-owned UAE enterprise noted.
Sunak has come under pressure over his commitment to climate change mitigation this year, after softening several policies aimed at reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
But he used his appearance at the United Nations climate conference to defend those decisions and insist the UK was on course to meet its commitments.
“What I can reassure you is we’re going to continue to do more than others going forward to,” Sunak told reporters.
“We can meet targets that are already more ambitious than anyone elses but we can do so in a more pragmatic way,” he added, noting the cost-of-living crisis impacting many Britons.
The British leader, struggling in the polls ahead of an expected general election next year, claimed no other world leaders at COP28 had raised his slew of recent rollbacks to UK climate policies.
“Because most of their targets are less ambitious than the UK’s,” he said.
EU wants to know how Meta tackles child sex abuse
The EU on Friday demanded Instagram-owner Meta provide more information about measures taken by the company to address child sexual abuse online.
The request for information focuses on Meta’s risk assessment and mitigation measures “linked to the protection of minors, including regarding the circulation of self-generated child sexual abuse material (SG-CSAM) on Instagram”, the European Commission said.
Meta must also give information about “Instagram’s recommender system and amplification of potentially harmful content”, it added.
The investigation is the first step in procedures launched under the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), but does not itself constitute an indication of legal violations or a move towards punishment.
Meta must respond by December 22.
A report by Stanford University and the Wall Street Journal in June this year said Instagram is the main platform used by paedophile networks to promote and sell content showing child sexual abuse.
Meta at the time said it worked “aggressively” to fight child exploitation.
The commission has already started a series of investigations against large digital platforms seeking information about how they are complying with the DSA.
It has sought more information from Meta in October about the spread of disinformation as well as a request for information last month about how the company protects children online.
The DSA is part of the European Union’s powerful regulatory armoury to bring big tech to heel, and requires digital giants take more aggressive action to counter the spread of illegal and harmful content as well as disinformation.
Platforms face fines that can go up to six percent of global turnover for violations.
US judge halts pending TikTok ban in Montana
A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked a ban on TikTok set to come into effect next year in Montana, saying the popular video sharing app was likely to win its pending legal challenge.
US District Court Judge Donald Molloy placed the injunction on the ban until the case, originally filed by TikTok in May, has been ruled on its merits.
Molloy deemed it likely TikTok and its users will win, since it appeared the Montana law not only violates free speech rights but runs counter to the fact that foreign policy matters are the exclusive domain of the federal government.
“The current record leaves little doubt that Montana’s legislature and attorney general were more interested in targeting China’s ostensible role in TikTok than they with protecting Montana consumers,” Molloy said in the ruling.
The app is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance and has been accused by a wide swathe of US politicians of being under Beijing’s tutelage, something the company furiously denies.
Montana’s law says the TikTok ban will become void if the app is acquired by a company incorporated in a country not designated by the United States as a foreign adversary.
TikTok had argued that the unprecedented ban violates constitutionally protected right to free speech.
The prohibition signed into law by Republican Governor Greg Gianforte is seen as a legal test for a national ban of the Chinese-owned platform, something lawmakers in Washington are increasingly calling for.
The ban would make it a violation each time “a user accesses TikTok, is offered the ability to access TikTok, or is offered the ability to download TikTok.”
Each violation is punishable by a $10,000 fine every day it takes place.
Under the law, Apple and Google will have to remove TikTok from their app stores.
State political leaders have “trampled on the free speech of hundreds of thousands of Montanans who use the app to express themselves, gather information, and run their small business in the name of anti-Chinese sentiment,” ACLU Montana policy director Keegan Medrano said after the bill was signed.
The law is yet another skirmish in duels between TikTok and many western governments, with the app already banned on government devices in the United States, Canada and several countries in Europe.
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