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Meta is making millions off political ads from fake ‘pink slime’ newsrooms

by Fortune
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Meta is making millions off political ads from fake ‘pink slime’ newsrooms

Facebook and Instagram are running millions of dollars in ads from so-called pink-slime newsrooms — partisan organizations masquerading as local media outlets — in battleground states heading into the midterm elections, according to a report Thursday from NewsGuard.

The media watchdog, which rates the credibility of news outlets, said that both left- and right-leaning organizations are relying on the tactic, spending a total of about $3.94 million on Facebook and Instagram ads so far in 2022. The ads, which are able to reach highly specific audiences using proprietary tools, have been featured on Facebook and Instagram feeds more than 115 million times, NewsGuard found.

“The result is a new kind of political dark money,” according to the report, which analyzed the social networks’ Ad Library, a database of their political ads. “The partisan networks can, and often do, identify their funders as seemingly apolitical entities.”

Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said in response that — while news publishers connected to political entities are allowed on Facebook — they aren’t eligible to be included in the service’s News feature and “are held to the same standards as political entities when it comes to advertising.”

“People access political information in many ways, but on Facebook they benefit from a level of transparency around political advertising that not only leads the tech industry, but TV, radio and print, as well,” said Andy Stone, a spokesperson for the company.

In August 2019, ahead of the 2020 US presidential election, Facebook and Instagram updated their advertising policies to require “paid for” disclosures on political ads running on those services. A year later, the company added a rule for news publishers connected to political entities that barred them from claiming a “news exemption” in Meta’s ads authorization process.

Facebook has other transparency measures in place, including the Ad Library used by NewsGuard and a page transparency feature that shows what group is behind every Facebook page — along with some information about where page managers are located. But in spite of these policies, the news sites identified by NewsGuard are allowed to create and manage their own disclosures, NewsGuard said.

Operations such as Courier Newsroomthe American Independent and the Main Street Sentinel on the left, and Metric Media on the right, have run ads on Facebook and Instagram while veiling their ties to partisan donors on the services, the report found. Their spending has been increasing in the weeks ahead of the Nov. 8 elections, according to the watchdog.

In one example that NewsGuard identified, an article from the Main Street Sentinel was used in an ad to target millions of Facebook and Instagram feeds in Michigan, reporting that the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Tudor Dixon, “said that a 14-year-old girl raped by her uncle was a ‘perfect example’ of a case in which abortion should not be allowed under the law.” On Facebook and Instagram feeds, the post carried a “sponsored” label, saying it was “paid for by the Main Street Sentinel.”

The quote attributed to Dixon was accurate, but the article left out that she favors a statewide ban that makes allowances to save the life of the mother. Moreover, the article wasn’t a case of a local news outlet simply wanting to get more eyes on its journalism, NewsGuard said. As Axios reported in March, the Main Street Sentinel’s listed publisher, Star Spangled Media LLC, was formed in February and had a connection to Will Robinson, a Democratic strategist. Other investors aren’t known, but the site has run multiple stories with President Joe Biden and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as beneficiaries.

The other operations identified by NewsGuard have a similar structure of being used by partisan operatives. In 2020, the New York Times reported that Metric Media, another network named in NewsGuard’s report, runs a fast-growing propaganda network of about 1,300 websites in all 50 states, taking advantage of a void left by vanishing local news outlets across the country. In some cases, the Times found, Metric Media outlets print physical newspapers and deliver them directly to people’s doorsteps.

When reached for comment, some of the news sites identified by NewsGuard objected to the way they were characterized.

Tara McGowan, a former Democratic operative and founder of Courier Newsroom, said that grouping Courier with the other publications mentioned by NewsGuard was inappropriate. Courier is “using every tool available to us to better inform passive news consumers who are being inundated with disinformation online,” she said in a statement. “Because of this, old guard media elites have decided to paint us with the same broad brush they use for actual so-called pink-slime operations like the ones mentioned by NewsGuard’s report.” The media company’s website says that it prioritizes hiring reporters and editors who live in the communities it serves.

The executive editor of the American Independent, meanwhile, said that outlet is “combating this disinformation by delivering readers relevant, fact-based reporting through both our national and state news platforms.”

“Right-wing extremists have flooded Facebook with conspiracy theories and lies disguised as news and designed to influence the media,” said the editor, Jessica McCreight.

Metric Media and the Main Street Sentinel NewsGuard didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The NewsGuard report found that Meta bears responsibility for “contributing to the deception,” by adopting tools and ad policies that facilitate the schemes.

The company provides “the ideological networks with powerful tools to target audiences in battleground states, with loose standards that can be manipulated by partisan actors,” NewsGuard said.

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This story originally Appeared on Fortune

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