By Dan Kennedy
A recent report by NewsGuard, a project that evaluates news organizations for reliability and transparency, found that clickbait generated by artificial intelligence is on the rise. McKenzie Sadeghi and Lorenzo Arvanitis write:
NewsGuard has identified 49 news and information sites that appear to be almost entirely written by artificial intelligence software. A new generation of content farms is on the way.
The report didn’t specifically identify any local news websites that are using AI to write low-quality stories aimed at getting clicks and programmatic advertising. Perhaps non-local stories about health, entertainment and tech, to name three of the topics for which content farms are using AI, more readily fly under the radar. If you’re going to use AI to produce articles about the local tax rate or the women’s track team, you’re going to get caught pretty quickly when the results prove to be wrong. Still, the use of AI to produce some forms of local news, such as routine articles about real-estate transactions, is not new.
According to the NewsGuard report, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort yet to use AI in order to produce deliberately false stories, although there have been a few examples, including a celebrity death site that claimed President Biden had “passed away peacefully in his sleep.”
Call this Pink Slime 3.0. Version 1.0 was low-tech compared to what’s available today. Back in 2012, the public radio program “This American Life” found that a company called Journatic (pronounced “joor-NAT-ik,” though I always thought it should be “JOOR-nuh-tik”) was producing local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines.
Pink Slime 2.0, of more recent vintage, consists of hundreds of websites launched to exploit the decline of local news. Under such banners as “North Boston News” (!), these sites purport to offer community journalism but are actually a cover for political propaganda. Nearly all of them serve right-wing interests, thought there were a few on the left as well.
Pink Slime 3.0 threatens to become more insidious as AI continues to improve. As Seth Smalley wrote for Poynter Online, this is “pink slime on steroids.”
Of course, AI could prove to be a boon for local news, as Sebastian Grace wrote last week for What Works. By eliminating repetitive drudge work, AI can free journalists to produce high-value stories that really matter.
Still, bottom-feeders like CNET — not exactly a content farm, but not much better than that, either — have already been caught publishing error-laden stories with AI. You can only imagine what sort of advice these content farms are going to give people about dealing with their medical problems.
OpenAI, which likes to portray itself as a responsible player in discussions about the future of AI, would not respond to NewsGuard’s inquiries. Neither would Facebook, which is amplifying AI-generated content.
The only thing we can be sure of is that a new, more insidious version of pink slime is coming to a website near you — if it hasn’t already.