Fighting fake news

Seen in this Saturday photo is a screen grab from the Shiawassee Times website.

SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — At first glance, the Shiawassee Times website and Facebook page make it look like a normal, legitimate news outlet — but the true intentions of the outlet and its owners are not so innocent.

The Shiawassee Times website is filled with what looks like different sections of news regarding business, local government, schools and more. It also includes press releases from municipalities and elected Republicans.

The articles mostly have authors with unfamiliar names and publications. The website is actually part of a network of 37 different websites in Michigan which basically all look the same and have many of the same stories. Many have a conservative political bias. Some of the names include the Genessee News, Battle Creek Times and the Grand Rapids Reporter.

In the “about us” tab of the Shiawassee Times, it lists its owner at Metric Media LLC, and states “Metric Media LLC began to fill the void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media.”

It goes on to say, “This site is one of the hundreds we are launching nationwide to fill the void in local communities.”

The CEO of Metric Media LLC is Bradley Cameron. Among other jobs, Cameron previously served a senior advisor to the Republican strategy leader in the House of Representatives in the 1990s.

Metric Media LLC could not be reached for a comment regarding the Shiawassee Times.

Matt Grossmann is the Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. Grossmann was the first to piece together the vast network of biased websites.

Grossman said he first discovered the network of websites when one, called the Lansing Sun, started advertising on Facebook in the fall. To his knowledge, these websites were launched sometime toward the end of 2019.

“I saw this ad for a story that was about how we had plenty of money to fix the roads in Michigan, and I’ve been following that debate pretty closely, and that wasn’t even an argument that the Republicans were making in the Legislature,” Grossmann said. “The story had data and statistics but it was clearly coming from a conservative perspective and clearly trying to oppose Governor Whitmer’s efforts.”

Grossman said another flag to him were some of the strange-sounding names, like the site the Northwest Wayne News. To him, that was a tip that maybe the sites were created by someone out of state and unfamiliar with Michigan because he said no one really identifies with that area.

He said that he started to explore the website and soon discovered a network of similar looking sites, almost carbon copies of each other, and all were made to look like real local news websites.

After doing his own research, he started posting on social media to see if others were observing the same thing. Grossman said that he came to find out that the sites aren’t just limited to Michigan, in fact, there are similar websites in Illinois, Tenessee, and Kentucky.

The network of sites is mostly populated with news from the Michigan Business Daily and Great Lakes Wire, and both look and operate like regular wire services like the Associated Press, but are also made and controlled my Metric Media LLC and have a conservative slant.

A lot of the articles are penned by out of state conservative writers and members of think tanks.

Since the 2016 eletion, Facebook has been under increasing pressure to bring more transparency to its platform, specifically advertising on it.

The Facebook page for the Shiawassee Times says it was created on Sept. 16, 2019. The page posts regularly but has minimal engagement from the public.

The Shiawassee Times ran its first paid on Jan.10 and it ran through Jan.14. The article it paid to boost for less than $100 had to do with an Owosso women who say her parked car was hit by a Shiawassee County Road Commission plow.

The story doesn’t appear to be original and quotes a local TV station in Lansing several times. It was seen by about 5,000 people.

The network of sites has gotten national attention. Observers of the situation have speculated that the ad strategy with these websites starts with seemingly local non-partisan news and becomes increasingly more political in nature and biased.

“There’s reason to believe Michigan would be targeted. Michigan has been targeted in the past on Facebook in order to influence elections,” Grossman said.

He said there are a lot of problematic things with the network of websites. Some news outlets have clear conservative or liberal opinions and are open about it, but Grossmann said the fact that the creator attempts to mask their true opinions is particularly troubling.

“The environment has declined in local news generally, and increased on social media, with less attention to a long-standing relationship with the community. The attempt to make it look like a local news website in a time when people are less familiar with their newspaper. It’s particularly problematic,” Grossmann said. “It seemed clearly intentional and different than some publications that have a more obvious liberal or conservative slant and are open about it. This seemed clearly intentional and meant to confuse people about the source of the information.”

A quick survey of people in downtown Owosso Saturday found that no one was familiar with the Shiawassee Times.

Grossman said he isn’t 100 percent sure what the goal of the Shiawassee Times is, but it seems to be more political in nature than driven by profit.

“They seemed to be targeting the national elections but are also talking about state issues in a way that seemed designed to influence the political debate,” he said.

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