A Republican media group is creating a swath of propaganda sites—sites that purport to be outlets for local media, but which actually push content created by big Republican donors. They’re using everything learned by decades of AM radio and Fox News to present these sites as “fair and balanced,” leaning into the trust that people award local sources, and taking a big lesson from Russia—if people read something on what appears to be a news site, they often don’t check to see if that site is anything more than a front.
During the 2016 election, one of the tactics taken by Russian hackers was creating sites that looked like new sites, but weren’t. These sites, openly mimicking legitimate national and local news sites, often contained a set of stories clipped from real world sources, with a few extra bits—like how Donald Trump had been endorsed by the Pope, or the FBI had issued sealed indictments for both Bill and Hillary Clinton—pitched in. The sites were directly embedded social media, or passed along as links in Tweets and emails. At times during the 2016 campaign, these sites were some of the most popular “news” locations on the internet.
When the Russian origin of these sites was made clear following the election, Republicans were dismissive of their importance. What’s a few hundred sites, distributed by a few thousand sources, seen by a few million readers in critical swing districts? Plenty. Stories written to appeal to preconceptions spread virally, spread mostly by older conservative voters, created more than two million engagements on Facebook alone. And these stories weren’t just written to hit voters in critical areas, they were often painted as if they were coming from sources in those areas.
Now they’re coming again, but not from Russia. An investigation conducted by Snopes has uncovered a trio of hard-right Republican activists—Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri—who are working with a conservative PAC to create authentic-looking “local news” sites that are packed with false stories sourced straight from lobbyists and interest groups. And it’s no surprise that their latest additions are The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun.
Across the country, real local papers and associated sites are failing as ad revenue declines. The Associated Press reports that over 1,400 communities and towns have lost their local papers over the last 15 years. Cuts in revenue lead to cuts in staff, creating a “death spiral of quality” that reduces many papers to flimsy shadows of what they were two decades ago, before they pop out of existence entirely.
But at the same time, a Pew Research study indicates that Americans continue to rate the reliability of local news sources above those of national sources. Republicans in particular trusted local news sources almost twice as much as they did national sources, but across the board a higher trust rating was awarded to local sources than national sources. It’s why thirty percent of the links created by Russian troll farms in 2016 pushed stories on local sites … or sites pretending to be local.
The Republican group behind the fake local sites, now incorporated as Star News Digital Media, is aware of that. In fact, it’s their explicit strategy to take advantage of this fact. And it’s not just the way they mimic local news sites that makes them dangerous. The conservative groups took other lessons away from Russia’s 2016 social media success — such as how to manipulate search engines.
If you were to search for these three “newspapers” in Google, they would each show up described identically as the “most reliable” newspapers in their respective locales, providing “unbiased updates on Investigative Reports, Thoughtful Opinion, Sports, Lifestyle”:
Star News has been a long way from perfect to this point in pretending to be what they’re not. For example, The “local” Minnesota site has featured everything from the wrong weather, to the wrong candidate for governor as the GOP group tries to perfect their faux-Minnesotan accent. But they’re getting better. And, like Sinclair Media, they’re spreading.
It’s not as if they have to be concerned about accuracy. In an article on a debate between Tennessee gubernatorial candidates, the “local” Star News site didn’t stop with just naming the Democratic candidate as a communist. They mingled real questions and responses from the debate with fake questions and fake responses that never happened. It’s that sort of mixing reality with propaganda at every level — from completely fake stories, to stories that include a few fake quotes — that make these sites particularly dangerous.
Star News is actually Political Financial Management, a company that manages campaign financing for conservatives. And both the company and the “investigative journalists” it employs are directly tied to multiple conservative PACs. That relationship is symbiotic. The Star News sites frequently cover the actions and position statements from the PACs as if they are news. The PACs then turn around and cite the Star News sites to show that they’re getting favorable coverage. It’s quite likely that the funding behind Star News exceeds everything the Russian plowed into their fake media effort for 2016.
It’s not just that Republicans are creating fake news sites. It’s that creating fake news sites and citing their stories to give them the appearance of legitimacy is an integrated strategy—a strategy made more effective by the lack of any real local news sites in many areas that could check the spread of propaganda.