The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beware partisan ‘pink slime’ sites that pose as local news

Why you should ask more questions before posting that enraging story on social media

With stories, as with hot dogs, you may want to ask what’s inside and where it comes from. The beef product often criticized as “pink slime” as seen in a Nebraska factory in 2012. (Nati Harnik/AP)
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It’s always tempting to share news that comes across our social media feeds when it not only seems outrageous but also confirms our biases, fears or suspicions.

“See?!” we seem to say, as we retweet or post, this latest exciting development is just what we knew could happen all along!

But there’s a question we need to ask these days before sharing one of these scintillating stories with friends and followers: Is it true?

Increasingly, “articles” that look like news may be something entirely different — false or misleading information grounded not in evidence but in partisan politics, produced not by reporters for a local newspaper but by inexperienced writers who are paid, in essence, to spread propaganda.

Last week provided a case in point when what looked like a legitimate news story went viral.

Published in the “West Cook News,” the story purported to reveal that a suburban Chicago school would soon be giving students different grades depending on their race. It started like this:

“Oak Park and River Forest High School administrators will require teachers next school year to adjust their classroom grading scales to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students. … In an effort to equalize test scores among racial groups, OPRF will order its teachers to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionally hurt the grades of black students. They can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan.”

It found a ready audience. “But of course,” tweeted the conservative author Andrew Sullivan, as he shared the story to his hundreds of thousands of followers.

He was far from alone in promoting the story. There was a big problem, though: It wasn’t true.

Democracy is at stake in the midterms. The media must convey that.

The school issued an unequivocal statement denying the story. While school board members have considered all sorts of research about grading practices — the bogus story relied on out-of-context material presented in a meeting for discussion — the school “does not, nor has it ever had a plan to, grade any students differently based on race.” Georgetown professor Donald Moynihan debunked the story point by point: “The piece has failed the most basic journalistic standard: it has not provided evidence either for the sensationalistic headline or its core claims.”

Some of those who shared it later expressed regret or deleted their original posts, as Sullivan did, but, of course, it’s impossible to put the viral genie back in the bottle.

This single incident was bad enough; what’s worse is what it shows us about our poisoned news environment. While fact-based, accountable local newspapers are struggling to survive — many of them facing budget cuts or closure — what’s known as “pink slime” sites are sneakily trying to fill the void. They traffic in falsehood and exaggeration, paid for by political groups, especially on the right.

“These sites are insidious,” said Alan Miller, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, the D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works to make students and the public smarter news consumers and better citizens.

Named after a meat-processing byproduct used as filler — in other words, it looks like meat but isn’t — pink slime news sites are often funded through secret and politically motivated “dark money” contributions. And they are growing fast. In 2020, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School identified at least 1,200 such sites.

With names such as the Des Moines Sun and Illinois Valley Times, they leverage the trust that people have for local newspapers, built up over many decades, to boost their own dubious credibility. Their content is “rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency,” according to a New York Times investigation that referred to them as “Pay-for-Play” outlets. Most of them, for example, don’t disclose the funding they get from advocacy groups. Davey Alba, one of the reporters who co-wrote the Times investigation, noted that the “West Cook News” is part of a network of local sites run by Republican operatives.

Meanwhile, of course, local newspapers are shrinking or dying. Between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers were closed, as I detailed in my book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” And although many legitimate and admirable news sites have sprung up to help fill the gap, it isn’t always easy for news consumers to know the difference.

I asked Miller for his advice to news consumers.

First, he said, take a pause when you see a story that gets your blood pressure jumping: “Don’t let your emotions take over. If something makes us angry, anxious or excited, that’s when we are most vulnerable to being manipulated.”

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Then, he suggested, spend a minute doing your own research. Glance at the comments to see whether anyone has done a fact-check or has credibly challenged the findings. Use a search engine to see whether any other news outlets have covered this story. Try to find the original source of the story or ask the person who shared the post for evidence supporting the claim. Ask yourself whether it seems too good to be true.

You don’t need to take all of these steps, he noted, acknowledging that this is more work than most people will probably undertake. But “doing any of them will be beneficial.”

The News Literacy Project has managed to reach tens of thousands of educators and, through them, potentially millions of students. Because older people are most likely to share false information, according to research published in 2019 in the journal Science Advances, the News Literacy Project is working with an affiliate of AARP and hopes to expand the partnership.

There’s really only one solution, after all: skeptical awareness.

News consumers must cultivate their own ability to know the difference between journalistic meat and fraudulent filler.

And, whatever their politics may be, those who care about truth need to slow down — way down — before sharing content that appeals to their emotions or preconceived ideas. It’s increasingly likely that it may be nothing but slime.

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