Less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, U.S. news is under increasing threat from people looking to disrupt the upcoming presidential election cycle with misinformation and confuse voters, an investigation by Columbia University researchers shows.
The safety and security of local news is at risk, according to the study by Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which was published Wednesday. It identified dozens of “mysterious, partisan local news sites,” all set up within the last year with the goal of “manipulating public opinion” and exploiting public trust in local news media.
Researchers found that at least 189 out of the 450 websites they identified were set up as local news networks across 10states within the last 12 months by an organization called Metric Media. While these suspicious sites don’t disclose their sources of funding, researchers linked them to partisan political campaigns and lobby groups. The investigation showed some of the sites only quoted Republican officials, while others described impeachment in partisan terms as a “witch hunt.”
The report is the latest to highlight the extent of the misinformation proliferating in the U.S., as governments and societies globally struggle to keep up with technological advances and the rise of malicious actors.
“The worst outcome of the 2020 election would be a scenario in which disinformation makes it impossible to know who really won.”
The Tow Center found that these news sites pulled data from several government agencies, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Congressional Research Service, the Federal Election Commission and the Census Bureau. It’s unclear what measures, if any, these government agencies have taken to address the issue.
Tow Center didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In many ways, technological advances have fueled the spread of misinformation in the media space.
“The demise of local journalism in many areas creates an information vacuum, and raises the chance of success for these influence campaigns,” Columbia Journalism Review reported. “The strategy is further made possible by the low cost of automating news stories, repurposing press releases (including obituaries from funeral homes), and replicating design templates, as well as the relative ease with which political or single-issue campaigns can obscure their funding and provenance.”
As a result, misinformation presents one of the biggest threats to the integrity of the U.S. election and safeguarding democratic processes from outside interference.
“The worst outcome of the 2020 election would be a scenario in which disinformation makes it impossible to know who really won,” Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, wrote in an opinion piece Tuesday in The New York Times.