NewsGuard’s Misinformation SWAT Team Issues Red Ratings to Two Networks Publishing Dozens of Hoax Websites
With Just Over a Week Until Election Day, NewsGuard’s SWAT Team Is Fully Operational—and Catching and Disclosing Unreliable News Sites Within Hours
(New York, October 29, 2018) NewsGuard Technologies, which uses trained journalists to produce red or green credibility ratings and “Nutrition Label” reviews for thousands of news and information websites, today announced that its misinformation SWAT team has discovered and issued red ratings to two networks of hoax websites that are designed to look like local media outlets in the United States—but in fact appear to be based in Macedonia and Australia.
One of the networks has launched at least 48 domains with names such as sacramentopress91.site and phoenixusnews.site which use names and web addresses that suggest that they are local outlets, but in fact are tied to actors NewsGuard believes to be based in Macedonia. The sites publish hyperpartisan stories centered around controversial political topics such as immigration and abortion, some of which are copied word for word from other unreliable websites. Many of the local markets targeted by the network are located in states or districts with competitive congressional or Senate races. The second network has created a series of websites designed to look like local TV news outlets—using domains such as abc14news.com or cbsnews10.com that published hoax stories centered around sensational topics such as murder, pedophilia, and vigilante justice. These websites appear to be operated from Australia.
NewsGuard’s analysts use nine journalistic criteria related to reliability and transparency—such as whether a website regularly publishes false information and whether it reveals its ownership or conflicts of interest—to issue red or green ratings for each website it reviews. NewsGuard’s SWAT team used this same method to review and issue red ratings for each hoax site it flagged within a matter of hours.
“Our trending news alert system is getting more sophisticated every day,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. “Using a variety of data sources, we can now identify a trending story from a site we have not yet rated within a matter of minutes, allowing us quickly to review and rate it.”
Once NewsGuard’s team has identified a network of suspicious sites, it is able to track in real time as the network launches new domains following the same pattern. “Purveyors of false information often operate more than one website,” said NewsGuard SWAT team lead Kendrick McDonald. “So we’re using sophisticated technology to track when a known network launches a new website. At this point, we’re able to get these alerts in real time—allowing us in many cases to issue ratings of these websites before they go viral.”
In the lead-up to the midterm elections, NewsGuard’s SWAT team also has targeted websites designed to look like news sites, that are actually run by political candidates, political action committees, or other partisan actors. NewsGuard has issued red ratings to sites including NevadaSenateupdates.com, a site run by the campaign of Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) and HealthNewsNJ.com, a site run by the campaign of Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Both are designed to look like news websites, instead primarily contain stories attacking the senators’ election opponents, without disclosing the conflict of interest.
In addition to websites run by political campaigns, NewsGuard’s SWAT identified websites run by political action committees and other political organizations without clearly disclosing that conflict to readers. These include FreeTelegraph.com, a site run by the Republican Governor’s Association, and ConservativeCaliforniaReport.com, a site run by a political action committee. Roughly an hour after NewsGuard emailed and called a representative of that political action committee, Conservative California PAC, the political group’s website and Facebook page were taken down.
“We started working on our rating of the website just after noon last Wednesday after it had appeared in one of our recent alerts,” said McDonald, who worked with the NewsGuard SWAT team analysts who were producing the site’s nutrition label. “Within less than two hours our analysts had drafted a rating of the site and left a voicemail seeking comment. An hour later, the site had disappeared.”
NewsGuard Co-CEO Steven Brill said NewsGuard’s browser extension can help news consumers avoid this kind of unreliable news. “It’s become easy for politicans and campaigns to put up a website that looks exactly like a real news site and use it to spread false information to potential voters through social media,” said Brill. “That’s why we’ve made our browser extension, which shows our ratings and makes our Nutrition Labels available next to links on search and social media platforms, available for free to any user who wants it. And it’s why we’re partnering with schools and libraries across the country to make the browser extension and our media literacy tools available to the public at no cost.”
NewsGuard’s browser plugin works on all major browsers, including Chrome, Safari, Edge and Firefox, and displays ratings next to links to news stories that appear on Facebook, Twitter, Google, Bing, Reddit, DuckDuckGo, and other sources of news. Consumers can download the plugin at www.newsguardtech.com. NewsGuard also offers companies the ability to license its database of ratings directly to search engines, social media companies, and platforms so that they can provide more information about news sources directly to their users—and to advertisers, agencies and brand safety companies to keep advertising off inappropriate websites.
Brill encouraged citizens to report suspicious websites to NewsGuard’s SWAT team using NewsGuard’s secure, digital hotline for flagging misinformation. “If you see a news site that looks like it may publish hoaxes or may be clandestinely run by a political actor, we want to know about it,” Brill said. “We have analysts ready to investigate and issue ratings at all hours of the day.”
To access NewsGuard’s misinformation hotline, news readers can email email@example.com, call and leave a voicemail at +1-740-480-1850, or send a secure, end-to-end encrypted message with Signal or WhatsApp to +1-740-1850.
Launched in March 2018 by media entrepreneur Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard provides credibility ratings and detailed “Nutrition Labels,” conducted by trained analysts with diverse backgrounds based on nine journalistic criteria, for thousands of news and information websites. NewsGuard’s ratings are available through NewsGuard’s browser extension for Chrome, Edge, Firefox and Safari browsers and are displayed next to links in users’ search engine results and social media feeds. NewsGuard’s ratings can be licensed by platforms that wish to make NewsGuard’s ratings available to their users. For more information: www.newsguardtech.com.
Co-CEO Steven Brill: 212 332 6301, firstname.lastname@example.org
Co-CEO Gordon Crovitz: 212 332 6407, email@example.com
General Manager Matt Skibinski: 973 818 4698, firstname.lastname@example.org