ARTICLE

Will NewsGuard Block Your Favorite Alternative Media?

News Image By Whitney Webb/Mint Press January 14, 2019
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Those organizations that survived the social media "purge" of independent media sites and pages this past October, can look forward to a new offensive that is being launched against websites via an organization called NewsGuard.

NewsGuard -- by virtue of its deep connections to government and Silicon Valley -- is lobbying to have its rankings of news sites installed by default on computers in U.S. public libraries, schools, and universities as well as on all smartphones and computers sold in the United States.


In other words, as NewsGuard 's project advances, it will soon become almost impossible to avoid this approved news site's ranking systems on any technological device sold in the United States. Worse still, if its efforts to quash dissenting voices in the U.S. are successful, NewsGuard promises that its next move will be to take its system global.

Red light, green light . . .

NewsGuard has received considerable attention in the mainstream media of late, having been the subject of a slew of articles in the Washington Post, the Hill, the Boston Globe, Politico, Bloomberg, Wired, and many others just over the past few months. Those articles portray NewsGuard as using "old-school journalism" to fight "fake news" through its reliance on nine criteria allegedly intended to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to online news.

NewsGuard separates sites it deems worthy and sites it considers unreliable by using a color-coded rating -- green, yellow, or red -- and more detailed "nutrition labels" regarding a site's credibility or lack thereof. Rankings are created by NewsGuard's team of "trained analysts." 

The color-coding system may remind some readers of the color-coded terror threat-level warning system that was created after 9/11, making it worth noting that Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security who oversaw the implementation of that system under George W. Bush, is on NewsGuard's advisory board.

As NewsGuard releases a new rating of a site, that rating automatically spreads to all computers that have installed its news ranking browser plug-in. That plug-in is currently available for free for the most commonly used internet browsers. NewsGuard directly markets the browser plug-in to libraries, schools and internet users in general.

According to its website, NewsGuard has rated more than 2,000 news and information sites. However, it plans to take its ranking efforts much farther by eventually reviewing "the 7,500 most-read news and information websites in the U.S.--about 98 percent of news and information people read and share online" in the United States in English.

A recent Gallup study, which was supported and funded by NewsGuard as well as the Knight Foundation (itself a major investor in NewsGuard ), stated that a green rating increased users likelihood to share and read content while a red rating decreased that likelihood. 

Specifically, it found 63 percent would be less likely to share news stories from red-rated websites, and 56 percent would be more likely to share news from green-rated websites, though the fact that NewsGuard and one of its top investors funded the poll makes it necessary to take these findings with a grain of salt.


However, some of the rankings NewsGuard itself has publicized show that it is manifestly uninterested in fighting "misinformation." How else to explain the fact that the Washington Post and CNN both received high scores even though both have written stories or made statements that later proved to be entirely false? 

NewsGuard describes itself as an organization dedicated to "restoring trust and accountability" and using "journalism to fight false news, misinformation and disinformation." While it repeatedly claims on its website that its employees "have no political axes to grind" and "care deeply about reliable journalism's pivotal role in democracy," a quick look at its co-founders, top funders and advisory board make it clear that NewsGuard is aimed at curbing voices that hold the powerful -- in both government and the private sector -- to account.

Why give folks a choice?

While even a quick glance at its advisory board alone would be enough for many Americans to decline to install NewsGuard's browser extension on their devices, the danger of NewsGuard is the fact that it is diligently working to make the adoption of its app involuntary. 

Indeed, if voluntary adoption of NewsGuard's app were the case, there would likely be little cause for concern, given that its website attracts barely more than 300 visits per month and its social-media following is relatively small, with just over 2,000 Twitter followers and barely 500 Facebook likes at the time of this article's publication.

To illustrate its slip-it-under-the-radar strategy, NewsGuard has gone directly to state governments to push its browser extension onto entire state public library systems, even though its website suggests that individual public libraries are welcome to install the extension if they so choose. The first state to install NewsGuard on all of its public library computers across its 51 branches was the state of Hawaii -- which was the first to partner with NewsGuard's "news literacy initiative," just last month.

According to local media, NewsGuard "now works with library systems representing public libraries across the country, and is also partnering with middle schools, high schools, universities, and educational organizations to support their news literacy efforts," suggesting that these NewsGuard services targeting libraries and schools are soon to become a compulsory component of the American library and education system, despite NewsGuard's glaring conflicts of interest with massive multinational corporations and powerful government power-brokers.



Notably, NewsGuard has a powerful partner that has allowed it to start finding its way into public library and school computers throughout the country. As part of its new "Defending Democracy" initiative, Microsoft announced last August that it would be partnering with NewsGuard to actively market the company's ranking app and other services to libraries and schools throughout the country. Microsoft's press release regarding the partnership states that Newsguard "will empower voters by providing them with high-quality information about the integrity and transparency of online news sites."

Since then, Microsoft has now added the NewsGuard app as a built-in feature of Microsoft Edge, its browser for iOS and Android mobile devices, and is unlikely to stop there. Indeed, as a recent report in favor of Microsoft's partnership with Newsguard noted, "we could hope that this new partnership will allow Microsoft to add NewsGuard to Edge on Windows 10 [operating system for computers] as well."

NewsGuard , for its part, seems confident that its app will soon be added by default to all mobile devices. On its website, the organization notes that "NewsGuard will be available on mobile devices when the digital platforms such as social media sites and search engines or mobile operating systems add our ratings and Nutrition Labels directly." 

This shows that Newsguard isn't expecting its rating systems to be offered as a downloadable application for mobile devices but something that social media sites like Facebook, search engines like Google, and mobile device operating systems that are dominated by Apple and Google will "directly" integrate into nearly every smartphone and tablet sold in the United States.

A Boston Globe article on NewsGuard from this past October makes this plan even more clear. The Globe wrote at the time:

Microsoft has already agreed to make NewsGuard a built-in feature in future products, and [Newsguard co-CEO] Brill said he's in talks with other online titans. The goal is to have NewsGuard running by default on our computers and phones whenever we scan the Web for news."

This eventuality is made all the more likely given the fact that, in addition to Microsoft, NewsGuard is also closely connected to Google, as Google has been a partner of the Publicis Groupe since 2014, when the two massive companies joined Condé Nast to create a new marketing service called La Maison that is "focused on producing engaging content for marketers in the luxury space." 

Given Google's power in the digital sphere as the dominant search engine, the creator of the Android mobile operating system, and the owner of YouTube, its partnership with Publicis means that NewsGuard 's rating system will soon see itself being promoted by yet another of Silicon Valley's most powerful companies.

Furthermore, there is an effort underway to integrate NewsGuard into social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, as NewsGuard was launched, co-CEO Brill stated that he planned to sell the company's ratings of news sites to Facebook and Twitter. Last March, Brill told CNN that "We're asking them [Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google] to pay a fraction of what they pay their P.R. people and their lobbyists to talk about the problem."

On Wednesday, Gallup released a poll that will likely be used as a major selling point to social media giants. The poll -- funded by NewsGuard and the Knight Foundation, which is a top investor in NewsGuard and has recently funded a series of Gallup polls relating to online news -- seems to have been created with the intention of manufacturing consent for the integration of NewsGuard with top social media sites.

This is because the promoted findings from the study are as follows:"89% of users of social media sites and 83% overall want social media sites and search engines to integrate NewsGuard ratings and reviews into their news feeds and search results" and "69% would trust social media and search companies more if they took the simple step of including NewsGuard in their products." 

However, a disclaimer at the end of the poll states that the results, which were based on the responses of 706 people each of whom received $2 to participate, "may not be reflective of attitudes of the broader U.S adult population."

With trust at Facebook nose-diving and Facebook's censorship of independent media already well underway, the findings of this poll could well be used to justify its integration into Facebook's platform. The connections of both NewsGuard and Facebook to the Atlantic Council make this seem a given.

Financial censorship

Another NewsGuard service shows that this organization is also seeking to harm independent media financially by targeting online revenue. Through a service called "BrandGuard," which it describes as a "brand safety tool aimed at helping advertisers keep their brands off of unreliable news and information sites while giving them the assurance they need to support thousands of Green-rated [i.e., NewsGuard-approved] news and information sites, big and small."

At the time the service was announced last November, NewsGuard co-CEO Brill stated that the company was "in discussions with the ad tech firms, leading agencies, and major advertisers" eager to adopt a blacklist of news sites deemed "unreliable" by NewsGuard. 

This is unsurprising given the leading role of the Publicis Groupe, one of the world's largest advertising and PR firms, has in funding NewsGuard. As a consequence, it seems likely that many, if not all, of Publicis' client companies will choose to adopt this blacklist to help crush many of the news sites that are unafraid to hold them accountable.

It is also important to note here that Google's connection to Publicis and thus NewsGuard could spell trouble for independent news pages that rely on Google AdSense for some or all of their ad-based revenue. Google AdSense has long been targeting sites like MintPress by demonetizing articles for information or photographs it deemed controversial.

Since then, Google -- has repeatedly tried to shutter ad access to MintPress articles. One article that has been repeatedly flagged by Google details how many African-Americans have questioned whether the Women's March has aided or harmed the advancement of African-Americans in the United States. Google has repeatedly claimed that the article, which was written by African-American author and former Washington Post bureau chief Jon Jeter, contains "dangerous content."

Given Google's already established practice of targeting factual reporting it deemed controversial through AdSense, Brandguard will likely offer the tech giant just the excuse it needs to cut off sites like MintPress, and other pages equally critical of the empire, altogether.

An action plan for the genuine protection of journalism

Though it is just getting started, NewsGuard's plan to insert its app into every device and major social-media network is a threat to any news site that regularly publishes information that rubs any of NewsGuard's investors, partners or advisors the wrong way. Given its plan to rank the English-language U.S. news sites that account for 98 percent of U.S. digital news consumption, NewsGuard's agenda is of the utmost concern to every independent media page active in the United States and beyond -- given NewsGuard's promise to take its project global.

By linking up with former CIA and NSA directors, Silicon Valley Giants, and massive PR firms working for some of the most controversial governments and corporations in the world, NewsGuard has betrayed the fact that it is not actually seeking to "restore trust and accountability" in journalism, but to "restore trust and accountability" in news outlets that protect the existing power structure and help shield the corporate-led oligarchy from criticism.

Not only is it trying to tank the reputations of independent media through its biased ranking system, Newsguard is also seeking to attack these alternative voices financially and by slipping its ranking system by default onto all computers and phones sold in the U.S.

However, NewsGuard and it agenda of guarding the establishment from criticism can be stopped. By supporting independent media and unplugging from social media sites committed to censorship, like Facebook and Twitter, we can strengthen the independent media community and keep it afloat despite the unprecedented nature of these attacks on free speech and watchdog journalism.

Beyond that, a key way to keep NewsGuard and those behind it on their toes is to hold them to account by pointing out their clear conflicts of interest and hypocrisy and by derailing the narrative they are carefully crafting that NewsGuard is "non-partisan," "trustworthy," and true guardians against the scourge of "fake news."

The best way to defeat this new tool is to put them on notice and to continue to expose NewsGuard as a guardian of empire, not a guardian of journalism.

Originally published at Mint Press - reposted with permission.


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