The fake news sites pushing Republicans’ critical race theory scare

电阻ightwing operatives in the US are using a huge network of fake local news sites to target crucial state elections, with the sites publishing tens of thousands of conservative-skewed articles on politically charged subjects, many of them misleading or wrong, over the past 11 月.

An investigation by Popular Information, an online newsletter founded by journalist Judd Legum, found that in Virginia 28 sites, each purporting to be local news outlets and all owned by the same company, published almost 5,000 articles about critical race theory in schools.

CRT is an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society. It is not taught in Virginia schools. But the idea of CRT has become an inflammatory call to arms, or at least to the ballot box, among the right wing.

维吉尼亚州 sites published the articles, many of which addressed spurious Republican claims about CRT threatening to dominate school curriculums, as the gubernatorial race in the state loomed.

Glenn Youngkin, 共和党人, triumphed over Terry McAuliffe in the 3 November election, after he exploited concerns over teaching about race and promised to ban CRT from classrooms.

Virginia “local news” sites, which include the Central Virginia TimesFredericksburg Leader, are run by Metric Media, an organization that operates more than 1,300 “community news sites” across the US and is linked to Locality Labs, both of which are overseen by Brian Timpone.

在 2020 the New York Times revealed that the two companies, along with others involved in publishing the sites, “have received at least $1.7m from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups”. The Times reported that conservative organizations were able to “order” articles from news websites owned by Metric Media and its affiliates attacking Democratic political candidates.

Metric Media and Brian Timpone did not respond to requests for comment.

Between January and November 2021, 这 28 Virginia Metric Media sites published 4,657 articles about critical race theory in schools, Popular Information found.

Many of those stories were automated, referencing an online pledge to “refuse to lie to young people about US history and current events” – described by Metric Media as a pledge by educators to teach CRT. But there is no evidence on the website for the pledge that the people who have signed it are teachers.

Signees must list their city and state, and Metric Media appears to use an automated system to generate articles based on whether anyone has signed from a town or city covered by a Metric Media news outlet.

That system enables the Central Shenandoah News, which theoretically covers the area in north-west of Virginia, to run regular articles based on the same source. 上个星期, it ran the following two pieces:

No new teachers in Harrisonburg sign pledge on Nov. 2 to teach Critical Race Theory

No new teachers in Harrisonburg sign pledge on Nov. 1 to teach Critical Race Theory

The Central Shenandoah News has run the same version of the Harrisonburg article since August, 包括 almost daily since the beginning of October. It has also regurgitated the format for nearby Staunton.

Timpone is an ex-journalist with a track record of operating dubious news organizations. Timpone’s predecessor to Locality Labs was a company called Journatic, which saw a licensing contract with the Chicago Tribune torn up after it published plagiarized articles and made up quotes and fake names for its writers.

Popular Information found that as well as targeting Virginia with anti-CRT articles, Metric Media has also ramped up the tactic in other states with looming governor elections.

News sites owned by the company have published 11,988 anti-CRT articles in Florida over the past 11 月, 10,096 articles in Texas, 和 6,262 in Ohio. Sites claiming to represent New Hampshire have published 2,162 anti-CRT articles.

Legum said he found no evidence that any of the Media Metric sites have significant traffic or readership: “But I don’t really think that’s the purpose,“ 他说.

“I think that it’s more the idea of injecting something into the political conversation and giving it a more credible sheen than if you were just to put it out as an advocacy group or something like that.”

After one of the “news sites” covers a candidate or political group, that person or organization can use quotes or cite favorable coverage from the related article. Quotes from an outlet like the Central Shenandoah News could be used for online ads, tv ads, or political mail-outs.

In Virginia, Youngkin won the governorship by a little more than 60,000 votes. The fake news sites might not win an election by themselves, but in a tight race, every little bit helps.

“I think that they could have a meaningful impact. Not because necessarily they’re going to influence that many voters, but because elections are decided at the margins,” Legum said.

“So I don’t think it necessarily will reach that many people, but I do think it can make a meaningful difference, and it’s one of the things in the toolkit that could make a difference.”