Misinformation Monitor: February 2022

Don’t be fooled by the .org: The name notwithstanding, nearly 20 percent of .org sites in NewsGuard’s U.S. database do not deserve readers’ trust

By Melissa Goldin
Additional reporting by Sara Badilini, Alex Cadier, Chine Labbé, Kendrick McDonald, Virginia Padovese, Giulia Pozzi, and Marie Richter

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.

The Red-rated website of an anti-vaccine nonprofit, ChildrensHealthDefense.org, published an article in June 2021 promoting the false claim that components of COVID-19 vaccines are toxic. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Public Interest Registry (PIR), a U.S. nonprofit that owns and manages all .org domains and advocates for internet-related policy issues, markets its well-known suffix as “one of the most trusted domains” that “has enabled people and organizations the world over to establish their trusted online identity.” Indeed, many websites tout their .org address as evidence that they meet some standard of trustworthiness.

In fact, there are no such standards. A NewsGuard analysis has found that a significant number of sites with a .org domain traffic in misinformation related to COVID-19, U.S. politics, and other important issues. Of 290 .org sites in NewsGuard’s U.S. database as of February 2022, nearly 20 percent — 56 sites — were Red-rated, meaning they are generally unreliable.

This phenomenon is hardly limited to the U.S. Of 43 U.K. and French-, Italian-, and German- language sites with a .org domain that NewsGuard has rated as of February 2022, nearly 50 percent were Red-rated.

In addition to news and information sites, platforms that publish content from users that they may not have vetted for accuracy have also made use of the .org domain. Among them: 4chan.org, a notorious platform housing online forums rife with pornography, xenophobia, and violent imagery; and MedAlerts.org, a site associated with an anti-vaccine nonprofit that regularly publishes false and misleading information about vaccines.

PIR: Monitoring misinformation is not our job

Asked about the large number of .org sites that have published false claims, PIR Chief Strategy Officer Judy Song-Marshall told NewsGuard in a February 2022 email that monitoring .org sites for quality is not PIR’s role. 

“PIR does not monitor the ‘reliability’ of information on the over 10.6M .ORG domains in existence. This kind of review is more appropriate on the level of the companies hosting such content,” Song-Marshall said. “With that said, both the .ORG registry, as well as the registrars … with which the customers register domain names, both have acceptable use policies that might be implicated depending on the content. PIR is aggressive in combatting abuse and has the least abuse of its peers.”

The registrars Song-Marshall referred to are companies such as GoDaddy and Name.com, through which customers can purchase domain names.

PIR defines domain abuse “as the wrong or excessive use of power, position or ability,” which includes distributing malware, tricking users into giving out financial data, and spamming users with unsolicited bulk messages. The publication of mis- or disinformation is not identified by PIR as a type of abuse.

In 2021, nearly 29,000 .org domains worldwide were flagged as abusive, according to PIR’s anti-abuse metrics. Approximately 7,000 .org domains were suspended in 2021, the organization reported. But again, PIR does not name mis- or disinformation as a reason a domain could be suspended.

Some domain endings (more formally known as top-level domains or TLDs), such as .edu and .gov, can be used only by organizations that meet a certain set of criteria. The .gov domain, for example, is only available to “U.S.-based government and public sector organizations,” according to DotGov.gov, a website run by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which administers the .gov domain. Educause, a U.S. nonprofit that administers the .edu domain, states that entities hoping to use a .edu address “must be U.S.-based postsecondary institutions,” among other requirements.

However, anyone can obtain a .org domain, simply by paying a modest annual fee. The price per year varies, depending on the web-hosting company, but can run as low as $9.99 annually. The .com and .net domain names are other examples of unrestricted domains.

Asked about NewsGuard’s findings regarding the proportion of .org sites that traffic in misinformation, Stanford University education professor Sam Wineburg, whose research focuses on how people judge the credibility of online content, cited health misinformation on .org sites as a major area of concern. “They shamelessly promote it as a symbol of credibility,” Wineburg told NewsGuard in a February 2022 phone interview, in reference to PIR and the .org domain. “This is a public health hazard.”

It would appear that many people do believe that “.org” signals quality. In a 2013 brand study conducted by PIR, 66 percent of respondents in the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Brazil, and India believed “that some criteria must be met in order to purchase a .ORG domain name.”

Major colleges and universities have contributed to this misperception. Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Boston College are among institutions of higher education that have identified .org domains as typically belonging to nonprofit organizations in materials with recommendations on how to evaluate sources online.

For example, Harvard’s College Writing Program, on the university’s website, instructs students to check whether a website is a .org to determine if it is a nonprofit site — as if that distinguishes it from a .com even though there is nothing that requires .orgs to be nonprofit, and many, if not most, of the unreliable ones aren’t.

Grouping sites with .org domains with those that actually do screen their registrants, Harvard tells its students: “In addition to considering the author, you should also consider the publishing body of the Web page — the place or server on which the document resides (or from which it originates)…Is the Web document linked to a federal agency (.gov), a non-profit site (.org), an educational institution (.edu), or a business (.com)?” (A .com domain does not actually have to be affiliated with an incorporated business to have such an address.)

VoltaireNet.org, a Red-rated, French-language news site, published in article in October 2021 falsely claiming that the drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are proven treatments against COVID-19. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Bad actors hiding behind .org

LiveAction.org, the Red-rated website of an anti-abortion group, was the Red-rated .org site in NewsGuard’s U.S. database with the most online engagement (defined as the total number of interactions its articles received on social media) that repeatedly published false news in the last 90 days, as of Feb. 1, 2022.

  • An August 2020 article published by the site titled “Report: Birth control increases risk of deadly blood clots from COVID-19,” falsely linked oral contraceptives to poor outcomes for women who have COVID-19, citing a report published in the journal Endocrinology.
  • In fact, the Endocrinology report cited by LiveAction.org was an opinion article, not a study. The article itself stated: “As this Commentary is being submitted, no reports of increased incidence of VTEs [venous thromboembolism] in pregnant women or women taking estrogen preparation who also have COVID-19 have emerged.”
  • The August 2020 article had received approximately 8,500 reactions, shares, and comments on Facebook as of Feb. 1, 2022, according to CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring tool owned by Facebook. 

Asked about this article, Live Action Chief Operating Officer Josef Lipp told NewsGuard in a March 2021 email that “upon review, the only issue one could have with our article is one word in our first line.” Indeed, after NewsGuard questioned Lipp, LiveAction.org changed the language of the first line of the article to state that “women taking hormonal birth control pills may be at an increased risk of blood clots if they contract COVID-19,” rather than stating that they “are at an increased risk.” However, after this change was made, the story still stated baselessly that “in short, taking oral contraceptives like the pill only increases the dangers and risks of COVID-19.”

The second-most popular Red-rated .org site in NewsGuard’s U.S. database that repeatedly published false news in the last 90 days as of Feb. 1, 2022, was ChildrensHealthDefense.org, the website of an anti-vaccine nonprofit chaired by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. 

  • In June 2021, the site published an article titled “‘We Made a Big Mistake’ — COVID Vaccine Spike Protein Travels From Injection Site, Can Cause Organ Damage,” which promoted the false claim that components of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are toxic and can spread throughout the body, harming other organs.
  • The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rely on messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, delivering mRNA to the body’s cells and instructing the cells to make a piece of the COVID-19 virus called a spike protein. However, vaccine experts have said that the vaccine itself does not contain the spike protein, and that the protein produced in vaccinated people is harmless.
  • The June 2021 article had received nearly 28,000 reactions, shares, and comments on Facebook as of Feb. 1, 2022, according to CrowdTangle.

In an extensive interview NewsGuard conducted with Kennedy, chair of the Children’s Health Defense nonprofit, in March 2021, Kennedy called the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “deadly” and referred to COVID-19 vaccines in general as “a mass population experiment.”

ComeDonChisciotte.org, a Red-rated, Italian-language news site, quoted Virginia State Senator Richard Black in a November 2021 interview without challenging his false assertion that the 2020 U.S. presidential election "was massively rigged." (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

In Europe, multiple .org sites have also spread misinformation about COVID-19, as well as other important subjects, such as election integrity.

  • VoltaireNet.org, a Red-rated, French-language news site, posted an October 2021 article falsely claiming that the drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are proven treatments against COVID-19. 
    • The article stated: “Historically, in all previous epidemics without exception, doctors sought to cure the sick. That was the old world. In the new transhumanist world, no one is to be cured, all are to be protected with a new technology, messenger RNA. Most developed states forbid their doctors to treat their patients and their pharmacists to sell drugs that might help them (hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, etc.).”
    • In a November 2021 email to NewsGuard, Thierry Meyssan, the owner of VoltaireNet.org, did not address NewsGuard’s questions about this article. Responding to NewsGuard’s overall rating of the site, he wrote: “We do not think that you own the truth, and that others are mistaken. We are happy with each of us thinking differently. We consider that the truth emerges when all viewpoints are taken into consideration.”
  • ComeDonChisciotte.org, a Red-rated, Italian-language site that describes itself as publishing “alternative news,” quoted former Virginia State Senator Richard Black in a November 2021 interview as stating that “the U.S. presidential election was massively rigged” without challenging this false assertion.
    • There is no evidence that widespread fraud occurred during the 2020 U.S. election. Top election officials in all 50 states affirmed the integrity of the 2020 election, according to a New York Times report, and numerous federal officials and independent observers reached the same conclusion, including top Trump administration officials.
    • In February 2022, NewsGuard sent an email to a general address for ComeDonChisciotte.org, seeking comment on the false claim mentioned above, but did not receive a response.
  • AnonymousNews.org, a far-right, German-language news site rated Red by NewsGuard, published an article in October 2021 reporting false claims made by Idaho physician Dr. Ryan Cole about alleged connections between COVID-19 vaccines and cancer.
    • The article stated that Cole had “noted that there is a massive increase in various autoimmune diseases and cancers in vaccinated patients.”
    • NewsGuard was unable to contact AnonymousNews.org to seek comment about this article because the website does not list contact information, nor does it disclose information about its ownership or editorial leadership.
AnonymousNews.org, a far-right, German-language news site rated Red by NewsGuard, published an article in October 2021 reporting false claims about alleged connections between COVID-19 vaccines and cancer. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

The origins of .orgs

The .org domain was established in 1985 as one of seven original domains (referred to as “generic domains”) that included .com, .net, .edu., .gov, .mil, and .int. The first-ever .org was Mitre.org, the site of the nonprofit Mitre Corporation, a research and development nonprofit that works in lucrative areas such as U.S. defense, cybersecurity, health care, homeland security, and transportation.

PIR has managed the .org domain since 2003, when it took over the operations from VeriSign Global Registry Services. In 2020, PIR generated approximately $96.3 million in revenue — most of which came from domain-registration fees — and ended the year with approximately negative $38 million in net assets, according to its U.S. Internal Revenue Service filings. Its CEO was paid $574,000.

PIR is controlled by the Reston, Virginia-based nonprofit Internet Society, which appoints the PIR board of directors. In November 2019, the investment firm Ethos Capital and the Internet Society reached terms under which Ethos Capital would acquire PIR and its assets, including all .org domains. Ethos Capital indicated it intended to invest in .org “for the reputation of the platform and the values it represents in the marketplace. The Internet Society said the new owner would bring resources to allow PIR “to invest in the registry” and would use the proceeds as “an endowment of sustainable funding” for its work on the open internet. However, the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the internet’s naming system, vetoed the sale in April 2020 over concerns raised by nonprofits that there could be higher fees for .org domains.

The bottom line: It does not matter what kind of content a website publishes; anyone can slap a .org domain on their site and reap the benefits of this supposed trust indicator. Nevertheless, many people believe — for understandable reasons — that .org connotes reliability. And out of the more than 10.6 million .org domains that PIR oversees, there are sure to be many more sites than those noted here that are reaping the benefits of a reputation they may not have earned.


NPR’s unproven Supreme Court ‘scoop’: Who looks worse, its revered veteran reporter or the ombudsman who’s supposed to hold her accountable?

By Eric Effron

Citing unnamed “court sources,” National Public Radio generated controversy and internet buzz last month when longtime legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reported that when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes, told her colleagues she was not comfortable sitting near people who were unmasked, Chief Justice John Roberts “in some form asked” the other justices to wear a mask. As a result, “All were now wearing masks. All, that is, except Justice Neil Gorsuch,” NPR reported. “His continued refusal since then has also meant that Sotomayor has not attended the justices’ weekly conference in person, joining instead by telephone,” Totenberg said in her story.

Totenberg cited unnamed “sources.” She did not specify any number of said sources. And she did not report having done the basic Journalism 101 job of asking Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Gorsuch, Justice Sotomayor, or anyone else for comment.

Stories reporting on behind-the-scenes tensions at the Supreme Court are rare, and NPR’s story was picked up by media outlets nationwide, including USA Today, CNN, CNBC, and Business Insider. USA Today’s headline was “Report: Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch refuses to wear mask in the courtroom, despite request from Roberts,” while the Business Insider story was headlined “Neil Gorsuch defied a request from Chief Justice John Roberts to wear a mask out of respect for Sonia Sotomayor, a report says.”

In an unusual move, the famously secretive Supreme Court then released a statement from Sotomayor and Gorsuch, which said: “Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.” The court also issued a statement from Roberts, who indicated that he “did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.”

Sounds like NPR needed to issue a correction, or an apology — or at least elaborate on Totenberg’s “sources.” But in an equally unusual move, Totenberg appeared on “All Things Considered,” NPR’s marquee afternoon program, to both report the court’s denials as well as make a statement on NPR’s behalf, defending her own reporting. In part, it declared “The NPR report said the chief justice’s ask to the justices had come ‘in some form.’” According to Totenberg, “NPR stands by its reporting.” She then backpedaled her own reporting by using an inference instead of the fact she had reported: “What is incontrovertible,” she declared, “is that all the justices have at once started wearing masks — except Gorsuch. Meanwhile, Sotomayor has stayed out of the courtroom. Instead, she has participated remotely in the court’s arguments and the justices’ weekly conference, where they discuss the cases and vote on them.” So, had the chief justice “asked” the justices to wear masks? And had Justice Gorsuch “refused”?

The network’s public editor, Kelly McBride, then weighed in, writing that “Totenberg’s story merits a clarification, but not a correction. After talking to Totenberg and reading all justices’ statements, I believe her reporting was solid, but her word choice was misleading.” McBride also noted that “Later Tuesday on ‘All Things Considered,’ she changed the word ‘asked’ to ‘suggested,’ saying, ‘So Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding that, in some form or other, suggested that the other justices mask up.’ McBride added, “Exactly how did Roberts, in some form, ask or suggest that his colleagues cover up? Totenberg told me she hedged on this: ‘If I knew exactly how he communicated this I would say it. Instead, I said ‘in some form.'”

McBride thus concluded that the story’s primary failing was use of the word “asked,” rather than “suggested,” in characterizing Roberts’ communication with colleagues regarding masks.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reported in January 2022 that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch declined to wear a mask after Chief Justice John Roberts "in some form" asked each of the justices to wear one. (Wikimedia Commons, LBJ Library)

McBride’s assessment did not mention whether the original story had sought comment from Roberts or the court’s spokeswoman. Nor did McBride describe the steps she took to ascertain that Totenberg’s reporting was “solid.” Her assessment also did not include how many “sources” Totenberg had and why she hadn’t specified the number in her report. Nor did the assessment say whether Totenberg had tried to get comment from Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Gorsuch, or the Supreme Court press office. Seeking comment might have cleared up any confusion about whether Roberts “asked” or “suggested” his colleagues wear masks. Then again, if one or more of the parties denied Totenberg’s claim, as they subsequently did, doing the basic job of seeking comment could have called into question the story’s dramatic implication — that one justice selfishly caused another discomfort and perhaps even put her health at risk.

NewsGuard asked McBride, Totenberg, and the network’s communications office a series of specific questions regarding what efforts Totenberg made to verify her story before it was published, including who, if anyone, at NPR was aware of her sourcing for the story, whether Totenberg sought to verify the claim about Roberts with Roberts himself, whether Totenberg’s editors were fully aware of her sourcing, and whether McBride, the public editor, was aware of Totenberg’s sources when McBride determined that a correction was not called for in this case.

“She told me her sources were solid and her editor was aware of who they were. Others at NPR confirmed that was true,” McBride told NewsGuard, declining to say whether she knew the actual identities of any sources.

McBride directed other questions to the network’s communications office, as did Totenberg. Neither the communications office nor Totenberg responded to NewsGuard’s inquiries.

NPR’s website says that its ombudsman, called the public editor, “stands as a source of independent accountability.”

Here’s a list of specific questions we asked Public Editor McBride and her answers, if she provided one, regarding how accountable she held Totenberg, a highly regarded 47-year NPR veteran.

Q: There was no mention in Nina Totenberg’s first or second piece on this subject that she sought comment from Chief Justice Roberts or the Court. Did she seek comment from them before the articles were published?

A: McBride did not respond to this question.

Q: Did you ask Ms. Totenberg about her sources? Were/are you aware of who they are? Were the editors who worked on the pieces informed about her sourcing?

McBride: She told me her sources were solid and her editor was aware of who they were. Others at NPR confirmed that was true.

Q: Is it NPR’s policy to always seek comment from the principals in any story?

A: McBride did not respond to this question.

Q: By standing by the story, is NPR essentially saying that Justices Roberts, Gorsuch, and Sotomayor are not telling the truth with their unequivocal denials?

A: McBride did not respond to this question.

Q: You wrote that the piece merited a clarification rather than a correction. Can you comment on what led you to that conclusion, and what the difference is between those two categories?

A: Nina’s own admission was that her reporting revealed that the Chief Justice had somehow conveyed his preference for masks in deference to his colleague, but that she did not know exactly how that was communicated. By that description, her original story overstated what her reporting showed.

Send us ideas or questions.