Just in time for the midterms: New Entry Joins "Pink Slime" Pseudo-News Sweepstakes

A shadowy network of news sites is quietly pushing Democratic propaganda in battleground states ahead of the midterm elections

By Lorenzo Arvanitis and McKenzie Sadeghi | Published on September 20, 2022

The five news websites that launched in April 2022 look like benign, politically independent state news outlets, with local stories about the best Pennsylvania lakes to visit in the summer and The Michigan Museum of Natural History. But a NewsGuard review has uncovered that the network of five websites — which publishes articles online and in print and then invests in ads on Facebook to give them a far broader audience — is part of a coordinated effort ahead of the 2022 U.S. midterms to push voters to vote Democrat in battleground states.

The network, which appears to be connected to The American Independent, a national progressive organization founded by Democratic operative David Brock, is the latest example of mass-produced, partisan news sites masquerading as local news, known as “pink slime” journalism — a reference to the meat-based filler that was supposedly added without a label to ground beef products. The tactic has been used by groups on the left and right, most notably by Metric Media, which operates approximately 1,200 websites disguised as local news outlets that were set up before the 2020 elections to promote Republicans. 

As the pivotal 2022 midterm elections loom, this network — which includes The Arizona Independent, The Michigan Independent, The Ohio Independent, The Pennsylvania Independent, and The Wisconsin Independent — has been publishing a steady stream of partisan content aimed at influencing potential voters without revealing its agenda and the source of its funding. As a result, last week NewsGuard rated all five websites Red, with each having a score of 44.5 points out of 100. Readers are alerted to, “Proceed with caution: This website fails to adhere to several basic journalistic standards.”

On their homepages, the sites only state that they are “a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.” However, NewsGuard found dozens of articles supporting Democrats and criticizing Republicans, including:

  • An August 2022 article from The Arizona Independent titled “Arizona Republicans nominate racist venture capitalist Blake Masters for Senate.”
  • An August 2022 article from The Michigan Independent titled “Whitmer’s Ambitious Budget Prioritizes Education and Fixing Roads.”
  • A September 2022 article from The Wisconsin Independent titled “41 Republican senators break their promise to protect veterans’ health.”
  • A July 2022 article from The Ohio Independent titled “GOP Ohio Senate nominee J.D. Vance has supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” (Vance has since reversed his stance on the issue, according to HuffPost.)
  • An August 2022 article from The Pennsylvania Independent titled “Biden administration sends billions to upgrade airports after Trump failed to help them.”
An August 2022 article published on ArizonaIndependent.com (left) and a September 2022 WisconsinIndependent.com article (right). (Screenshots via NewsGuard)

The outlets appear to be the latest creation of Brock, who was described by Time in 2015 as “one of the most influential operatives in the Democratic Party.” Brock founded the liberal media watchdog site Media Matters in 2004 and leads the anti-Republican American Bridge 21st Century Foundation super PAC. Brock and his super PACs have a well-documented history of devoting resources and money to help elect Democratic candidates in recent elections, including in 2016, 2018, and 2020.

The pink slime outlets share writers and republish articles from The American Independent, which Brock founded in 2014. But the network’s exact ownership structure is difficult to pin down. The websites identify a 501(c)(4) organization called American Independent Media on their homepages and Facebook pages.

On April 4, 2022, five days before the outlets began publishing content, a nonprofit called American Independent Media was incorporated in Washington, D.C. Registration records for this nonprofit identify only an “incorporator,” who is a partner at Elias Law Group. The law group — whose stated mission is in “helping Democrats win, citizens vote, and progressives make change” — has received approximately $11.5 million in 2022 from dozens of Democratic PACs, candidates, and groups, according to Federal Election Commission records. The group’s managing partner, Marc Elias, has represented numerous high-profile Democratic candidates and groups over the years, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign and Democratic Congressional Campaign committees.

But the network’s financing trail ends here. It is unclear who retained Elias Law Group to incorporate American Independent Media, or what the connection is between American Independent Media and The American Independent. Numerous attempts by NewsGuard in September 2022 to contact Brock, The American Independent, and Elias Law Group were unsuccessful.

Targeting Voters on Facebook

The network’s efforts to sway voters extend well beyond publishing written articles on its sites. In August and September, the Facebook pages for The Pennsylvania Independent and The Arizona Independent, the only two in the pink slime network with Facebook pages, spent approximately $39,000 total on anti-Republican advertisements touting their “news” articles, with spending increasing daily before the midterms. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 13, 2022, The Arizona Independent spent $15,952 on Facebook for political advertisements.

The Arizona Independent, which began running advertisements in mid-August, spent approximately $26,000 on political ads as of Sept. 15, disguised as local news articles from its website, according to data from Meta’s ad library, a database of ads posted to Facebook and Instagram, both Meta products. Ads that ran in September 2022 included articles titled “Arizona Republicans out of touch with constituents on abortion rights” and “Arizona Republicans failed to address education funding.”

A September 2022 Facebook ad from The Pennsylvania Independent (left) that received 150,000 to 175,000 impressions and cost $2,500 to $3,000. A September 2022 Facebook ad from The Arizona Independent (right), which was posted four times, received 200,000 to 250,000 impressions from users in Arizona and cost $6,000 to $7,000, according to Meta’s ad library. (Screenshots via NewsGuard)

Since late August, The Pennsylvania Independent has spent $13,000 on similar political advertisements on Facebook, including “Republican-led General Assembly Prioritizes Corporate Tax Cuts Over Education or Inflation in New State Budget.” Others highlighted Mandy Steele, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania House’s 33rd District, “who wants to revitalize PA’s 33rd district with good-paying green jobs,” one of the ads says.

Under Meta’s guidelines, news pages with ties to political entities are allowed to run advertisements on Facebook as long as they are labeled and identify the provenance of their funding. The ads published by The Arizona Independent and The Pennsylvania Independent disclose on Facebook that they were paid for by “American Independent.” A transparency page on Facebook’s ad library provides an email address for Alice Visocchi, The American Independent’s outreach and partnerships coordinator. (It would take a user multiple steps on Facebook to access her contact information). Visocchi did not respond to NewsGuard’s September 2022 request for comment.

Print “Newspapers,” Too

Beyond targeting voters through Facebook advertisements, the network has also sought to influence them through oldfashioned print newspapers. 

Beginning in July, social media users on Twitter and Facebook posted complaints about receiving unsolicited newspapers emblazoned with logos for The Pennsylvania Independent, The Michigan Independent, and The Wisconsin Independent in those respective states. The papers featured the same design and fonts as the websites, but were delivered to voters’ doors.

An image of The Wisconsin Independent’s July 2022 mailer shared by a Twitter user in Wisconsin (left), and a September 2021 “Virginia edition” of The American Independent shared to Twitter (right). (Screenshots via NewsGuard)

“Anyone else looking to stop the Michigan Independent newspaper from being delivered to your house?” Michigan resident Scott Cadorette wrote in an August 2022 Portland, Michigan, community group on Facebook. Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, City Councilman Mason Becker tweeted: “Interesting insert in today’s paper. I have no idea who the publisher is.” His post included an image of The Wisconsin Independent’s July 2022 front page, which stated: “As Supreme Court Overturns Roe, Wisconsin Doctors Could Face Penalty for Performing Abortions,” and “Wisconsin Republicans support abortion bans.” 

The print campaign appears to build off of a similar October 2021 operation in the run-up to the Virginia gubernatorial election, when registered voters in Virginia were mailed nearly identical newspapers, this time identified as the “Virginia edition” of “The American Independent,” according to conservative news site FreeBeacon.com. Articles in the newspaper negatively covered Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, then the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Unlike the papers sent to Virginia voters, however, the newspapers mailed in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in the summer of 2022 made no mention of “The American Independent,” and it appears that no news outlet has covered the new, multistate newspaper campaign.

What started as print newspapers at voters’ doorsteps in Virginia appears to have since morphed into an online and print operation in battleground states in the final days before the midterms. NewsGuard’s review of the network, which was not difficult to identify, reveals how these websites continue to fly under the radar, despite well-documented knowledge of their tactics.