Brennan Suen

Author ››› Brennan Suen
  • Fake News Purveyors Cheer On, Echo Trump Team's Lies About Inauguration Crowd Size

    Many Of These Sites Use Google's Advertising Network

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Following demonstrably false statements made by President Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer that Trump's inauguration ceremony had “the largest audience to witness an inauguration," numerous websites that Media Matters has identified as purveyors of fake news cheered on Spicer for his comments or attempted to verify his false claims. Nearly all of these websites are still supported, in part, by revenue from Google’s advertising service and many attempted to brand mainstream media reporting about the crowds as “fake news.”

  • Fox News Under Fire For Undercovering The Women's March

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Fox News is receiving criticism for its minimal coverage of the historic Women’s March on Washington and dozens of sister marches worldwide that brought together millions of people to stand up for human rights under the Donald Trump administration.

    The New York Times reported that the Women’s March on Washington alone had “at least 470,000” attendees. Washington Post transportation reporter Faiz Siddiqui tweeted that January 21 was the “second-busiest day in metro history” for Washington D.C.’s public transportation system, with over one million trips taken. Across the country, one compilation of march attendance estimated participation of between 3.3 and 4.2 million people in various women’s marches, making it one of the largest manifestations of political activism in U.S. history:

    Despite the historic nature of the event, however, Fox News dipped in and out of their coverage of the march while CNN and MSNBC covered it almost non-stop throughout the day. The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara reported that minimal coverage on Fox compared to MSNBC and CNN  “firmly reinstated” the “historical divide between Fox News and its compatriots.” McNamara continued that though Fox correspondent Jennifer Griffin “reported from the scene … it was a far cry from minute-by-minute analysis of a huge news event,” while also adding that Fox figures “questioned whether the crowd estimates were accurate” or whether liberals “refuse to accept reality.”

    PolitiFact compared closed captioning transcripts of the three networks for terms “women,” “march,” and “Women’s March” and found large disparities between Fox and the other two cable news networks.

    The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck pointed to CNN and MSNBC’s “daylong coverage of the protests” before stating that “the massive anti-Donald Trump demonstrations around the world may well be the start of a new political revolution, though you'd never know it if you were tuned into Fox News.” Scheck added that “Fox pretended that nothing special was going on” and that when the network did report on the march, “it was often in a smug, dismissive tone.”

    On January 22, the day following the march, Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz offered a tepid admission his network had not given enough coverage to the marches, saying on his show MediaBuzz that “perhaps” Fox News “undercovered it.” Kurtz also suggested that a CNN headline about the marches sending a “message to Trump” was “overplaying what happened”:

    HOWARD KURTZ (HOST): Yesterday CNN and MSNBC offered virtually nonstop coverage of a huge Women's March here in the nation's capital and in other major cities across the country. We're back with the panel. So while CNN and MSNBC were wall-to-wall, Fox kind of dipped in and out, perhaps undercovered it. I'd be interested to hear your view on that. CNN headline: "Women's marches across the U.S. send message to Trump." Was that overplaying what happened? Was there a clear message?

    JOE TRIPPI (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): I don't think it was overplaying it yesterday. I mean yesterday was pretty big. It was pretty big news. I think you can get into did they overcover and did Fox under, and probably both of those arguments are correct in my view. We should have probably done more.

    Other critics of Fox’s coverage took to Twitter to point out the disparities between Fox, CNN, and MSNBC:

  • Trump Team Blacklists CNN On The Sunday After Inauguration

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    President Donald Trump and his team continued their unprecedented attempts to delegitimize and blacklist CNN by refusing to have a representative appear on CNN’s Sunday political talk show, State of the Union, while booking appearances on the other major political talk shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co.

    At the top of the January 22 edition of CNN’s State of the Union, host Jake Tapper said that his show “asked the Trump White House for a member of the new administration to join us this morning, but they declined.” Members of Trump’s team including White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, however, made appearances on the other major Sunday political talk shows: This Week on ABC, Face The Nation on CBS, Meet the Press on NBC, and Fox News Sunday on Fox Broadcasting Co. Trump and his team have a long history of blacklisting reporters from events, most notably when Trump revoked The Washington Post’s press credentials during the Republican primaries.

    The Trump team’s presumed blackout of CNN comes after escalating attempts to delegitimize the network, brand it as “fake news,” and avoid questions from CNN reporters. During Trump’s first press conference as president-elect on January 11, Trump refused to take a question from CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta, calling his network “fake news” and “terrible.” Following the event, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer admitted to threatening to remove Acosta from the press conference and later demanded an apology. Trump ally and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich responded to the incident by asserting that Trump should use the altercation to “shrink and isolate” CNN and eventually “close down the elite press.” Acosta and his colleagues from across the media condemned Trump’s treatment of CNN.

    On January 12, Trump doubled down on his attacks against the network, claiming on Twitter that CNN “is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS” and that its “credibility will soon be gone.” Trump also pre-emptively attacked a CNN report on his daughter Ivanka, tweeting that CNN “of all places, is doing a Special Report on my daughter, Ivanka. Considering it is CNN, can’t imagine it will be great!”

    The Trump team’s refusal to appear on CNN came one day after it declined to air the live feed of Spicer’s first press conference after the inauguration, where Spicer blatantly lied about the size of inauguration crowds. According to Variety’s Brian Steinberg, “CNN’s refusal to take the live feed suggests executives there are reluctant to put false statements on air, and, what’s more, do not think the new White House press representative is entirely credible.” From the January 21 report:

    “CNN’s decision to not air the press conference live illustrates a recognition that the role of the press must be different under Trump. When the White House holds press briefings to promote demonstrably false information and refuses to take questions, then press ‘access’ becomes meaningless at best and complicit at worst,” said Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware who studies politics and the media. “Democracy works best when journalists have access to the executive branch, of course. But that holds true if and only if that access leads to verifiable, accurate information. The decision on behalf of CNN to wait and verify before airing it live suggests that the media are adapting quickly to this new era.”

    To be certain, news outlets routinely make decisions about whether to air press events live, usually based on projections about news value. But this press conference, held just a day after the President’s inauguration, would have been a hot prospect for a cable-news outlet, and could have sparked hours of debate and follow-up on CNN’s schedule.  In an unusual and aggressive maneuver, CNN aired its regular weekday lineup this Saturday, underscoring heavy interest in breaking news of a series of massive protests by women across the nation in response to Trump’s presidency as well as the new President’s first few days in office.

    For more on Trump’s attacks on the press, check out Media Matters’ First Amendment Watch.

  • How Media Outlets Helped Trump Push A Fake News Story About Bikers And His Inauguration

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Media outlets uncritically quoted President-elect Donald Trump’s claim that he saw a “scene” of “thousands” of the group Bikers for Trump traveling to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration, even though BuzzFeed had reported hours before that the photos being shared online were recycled, having been taken years ago. As is well-established, media run the risk of accidentally enabling lies if they repeat Trump's unsubstantiated or false claims without including context or a rebuttal.

  • Meet The Mysterious, Facebook-Verified Page Pushing Fake News To Nearly 5 Million Followers

    American News Is Perhaps The Largest Facebook Page Regularly Pushing Fake News

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & PAM VOGEL

    The verified Facebook page for American News (also known as The Patriot Review), with its more than 4.7 million followers, is perhaps the largest page regularly pushing fake news on the social media platform and is emblematic of the problem Facebook must address immediately. It shares dozens of posts each day, often topped with false, clickbait headlines that confirm biases and stoke fear in readers.

    American News also has no publicly listed writers, editors, or owners, nor a business address or phone number. That lack of disclosure helps hyperpartisan websites like American News to publish patently false information without accountability. The page’s opacity and role as a fake news purveyor also demonstrate the murkiness of Facebook’s “verification” guidelines, which require that pages have a publicly listed phone number or business documents showing an official name and address that “matches public records.” 

    Fake News Purveyors Like American News Share Both Hyperpartisan And Fake Content, Often Designed To Stoke Fear

    The American News Facebook page exclusively shares content from the AmericanNews.com website, which pushes a combination of fake news stories -- information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news -- and other hyperpartisan, right-wing content. Stories from American News have been repeatedly debunked as totally “false,” most notably the “100% made up” lie that Denzel Washington had switched from supporting Hillary Clinton to backing Donald Trump in the 2016 election, which was shared hundreds of thousands of times. American News also pushed a fake news story in April claiming that President Barack Obama had issued an executive order to have his likeness added to Mount Rushmore and a 2014 story alleging Congress had approved a bill offering free cars to welfare recipients. The Facebook page for Proud To Be Conservative, with more than 1.5 million followers, also exclusively shares content from the AmericanNews.com website.

    American News posts -- whether sharing fake news or pushing highly partisan and heavily spun content -- have several traits that are common to the content pushed by fake news purveyors: They use classic clickbait headlines, actively seek to confirm far-right ideology, and exploit bigotry and biases. Social media analytics site BuzzSumo, which tracks social media engagement levels for websites, shows that half of American News' 10 most shared stories -- which collectively boasted more than 4 million Facebook engagements -- featured fearmongering about Muslims. Among these was an anti-Muslim fake news story claiming that a Texas man was forced to remove the U.S. flag from his house because it was a "threat to Muslims."

    Here are a few posts the page has shared just in the first days of January:

    This January 5 post pushes a fake story on the American News website claiming that a “Government-backed study” found that teachers were choosing not to teach students about the Holocaust in order to avoid offending Muslims. This story is fabricated; it originated with a 2007 email chain letter spinning false information from a report on schools in the U.K.

    This post, from January 2, shared an American News story alleging that a school had demanded “all must wear hijabs.” This story was also false; a student group at the Wisconsin college in question hosted one event in which students were invited to voluntarily wear hijabs for one day.

    This January 8 post pushed a fake news story that Michelle Obama "accidentally expos[ed] that her husband was born in Kenya." The video attached to the story came from a 2010 post on Alex Jones' Infowars.com and showed Michelle Obama calling Kenya her husband's "home country." Barack Obama was born in the United States.

    American News’ content has also been shared on Twitter by a number of right-wing figures, including Trump-supporting Great America Super PAC spokesman Carl Higbie, who shared a “mostly false” story that Muslims demanded the “army change its dress code to include turbans and beards.” Higbie rose to national attention in November when he suggested that the Japanese internment camps of World War II provide “precedent” for a Muslim registry. American News stories have also been shared by Fox News correspondent Mike Tobin and right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party Deputy Chair Suzanne Evans.

    Fake News Purveyors Such As American News Are Often Totally Anonymous, Leaving Them Unaccountable For What They Post

    Right-wing figures have repeatedly attempted to distort and rebrand the term “fake news” to attack credible news they don’t agree with, but the distinct problem of fake news has several unique symptoms, including a startling level of opacity, which is exemplified by American News. Legitimate news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and conservative outlets ranging from Fox News to hyperpartisan websites like The Blaze and The Daily Caller -- and even "alt-right" site Breitbart.com -- have accessible public information about their owners and staff. Hyperpartisan pages that push fake news stories, though, like American News, often make it nearly impossible to find any information about the people contributing to their pages or the entities operating them -- even as they rake in tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue. This secrecy allows them to remain unaccountable for the content they share, which often includes copied or plagiarized content from other such sites, shared to further spread patently false information.

    On December 15, Facebook announced steps it was taking to combat the epidemic of fake news enabled by its platform, but it did not include any guidelines about verified pages that push fake news stories. Its own verification steps for local businesses, companies, and organizations require that they use either a “publicly listed phone number for your business” or a “business document” that shows “your business’s name and address,” which is then reviewed “to confirm that it matches public records.” There is no publicly available and easily accessible business address or phone number for American News, nor are there any listed staff members for the website.

    A detailed search of articles on AmericanNews.com revealed no posts with a byline other than “by American News” or first names such as "Hank" or "Jeff." The "author" pages linked to these names reveal no details about the alleged writers, including last name, and the URLs for these pages do not match the author names (the URL for Hank's page indicates it is for a writer named "Kyle," and the URL for Jeff's page indicates it is for a writer named "Spencer"). Futhermore, there is no listing of the site's staff or reporters. A search of the online identity database WhoIs shows that whoever registered American News’ domain used a service to mask its street address, owner, and phone number. The only contact information on the website is on its privacy policy page, which says visitors can report violations of the policy to americannewscontact@gmail.com, as well as an inquiries form. American News did not respond to inquiries made through either method. Media Matters additionally consulted a representative from an accredited nationwide business record search engine who was unable to find any additional information about American News or its operations and said it would be nearly impossible given the lack of publicly available information on its website or Facebook page, which do not mention the state where the business is located or a business name other than the domain name.

    Either Facebook has information about American News that is not available for the average user who may encounter the page or Facebook has deviated from its current, perhaps inadequate verification procedure. Whatever the case, the social media giant clearly has more work to do in addressing its fake news problem; without action, it remains complicit in American News’ deceptive fake news tactics.

  • Google Quietly Removes “Fake News” Language From Its Advertising Policy

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & TYLER CHERRY

    UPDATE: See below for Google’s response.

    Google has removed language referencing fake news from its “prohibited content” policy for websites that use its advertising network. The policy previously stated that these sites cannot engage in “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real.”

    As of January 10, at least 20 of the 24 fake news-purveying websites flagged by Media Matters in December were still using Google’s advertising network, Google AdSense, despite Google’s November 14 announcement that it would restrict websites from using the network if they feature misrepresentative content. That announcement drew a wave of positive press saying Google was combating fake news, but it appears not to have led to the promised changes. 

    In December, Media Matters shared its findings directly with Google and asked the company to enforce its new policy. A Google spokesperson initially took issue with the characterization that it has a policy on “fake news,” stating that the company had “no policy specific to fake news.” Media Matters responded with a screenshot of Google’s policy page that explicitly cited “fake news” as an example of unacceptable content and offered additional evidence demonstrating that the flagged sites were in violation of Google’s policy.

    Google proceeded to leave the ads on the misrepresentative sites, instead quietly removing the reference to “fake news” from its much-lauded "fake news" policy.

    On December 14, Media Matters flagged 24 fake news-purveying websites -- websites that share or aggregate demonstrably fabricated stories packaged to appear as legitimate news -- using Google’s advertising service exactly one month after Google announced its ban. A January 10 review of these websites found that at least 20 of those pages are still running ads supported by Google AdSense (at least one of the websites, Observatorial, is now essentially defunct). The hyperlinked list of images at the bottom of this post shows screenshots of the sites that were still running ads that utilized Google's advertising service, which are marked with a blue triangle icon that reveals the words “AdChoices” when scrolled over and redirect to a Google ads page when clicked.

    At the time that Media Matters flagged the fake news-purveying websites for hosting Google ads, Google AdSense’s official policy on “prohibited content” included language explicitly noting that websites “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real” were prohibited from hosting Google ads. That language has since been removed from the policy page without explanation (click image to enlarge):

    Both Google and these websites benefit financially when the sites use the advertising network, which no doubt incentivizes the sites' creation of popular fake news content.

    With Google’s original announcement saying it would ban misrepresentative content from using its advertising services and the explicit reference to “fake news” in its prohibited-content policies, the company seemed to be taking concrete steps to combat the epidemic of fake news. Its public announcement drew positive press from major news outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal, all of which hailed the restriction as applying to websites that put out fake news. But Google’s refusal to take action against websites in violation of its announced decision about misrepresentative content -- and its removal of explicit “fake news” language from its policy -- indicates that the promise to ban these problematic operators might have just been a public relations move.

    Websites Still Running Google Ads

    UPDATE:

    After publication of this post, a Google Spokesperson reached out to offer reassurance and reassert that Google remains committed to enforcing its policy against misrepresentative and deceptive content, stating:

    "We have not changed our misrepresentative content policy in any way. The policy language remains the same and we are continuing to enforce it vigilantly, just as when we launched it a few months ago. We've removed a large number of misleading and deceptive sites from our network as a result."

    Media Matters president Angelo Carusone issued the following statement in response to Google:

    While it’s reassuring to hear the revision we highlighted does not signal any wavering of Google's public commitment to addressing misrepresentative and deceptive content, we won’t be satisfied until Google enforces its policy against chronic violators, including the ones that Media Matters identified.

    Make no mistake, Media Matters is concerned with the growing ambiguity around the “fake news” terminology, which is why we published a glossary last month to clarify much of the conflation we saw in the media as the issue got more attention. Regardless of the terminology Google wants to use, the fact remains that more than a month ago Media Matters flagged 24 well-documented violators of Google’s policy for their attention and review — and 20 of them are still part of Google’s ad network, despite continuing to violate the policy.

  • New Pew Report: Majority Of Americans Across Party Lines Say Fake News Caused "A Great Deal" Of Confusion

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    According to a new Pew Research report, 64 percent of Americans -- including a majority in both political parties -- said that fake news has caused “a great deal” of confusion about the basic facts of current events.

    According to the study, the fake news problem is a bipartisan one: “Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say that these stories leave Americans deeply confused about current events”:

    While fake news became an issue during the highly charged 2016 presidential election campaign, Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say that these stories leave Americans deeply confused about current events. About six-in-ten Republicans say completely made-up news causes a great deal of confusion (57%), and about the same portion of Democrats say the same (64%). And although independents outpace Republicans (69% say fake news causes a great deal of confusion), they are on par with Democrats. This perception is also mostly consistent across education, race, gender and age, though there is some difference by income.

    These findings draw a sharp contrast between Americans’ perception of fake news and an active campaign by right-wing media and figures, including Donald Trump and his transition team, to downplay the existence of these false stories and attack credible news sources by blurring the lines between fake news (fabricated information presented as a legitimate news story) and real reporting. Fox host Sean Hannity called concerns about fake news “nonsense,” and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, attempting to make fake news a partisan issue, called it “satire and parody that liberals don’t understand.” Similarly, The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill McMorris described fake news as “whatever people living in the liberal bubble determined to be believed by the right.” Trump himself tried to undermine CNN’s reporting on his executive producer credit on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice by calling it “FAKE NEWS!” And Trump transition senior advisor and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway asserted that “the most fake piece of news” during the election was that Trump couldn’t win.

    The report also found that Americans “collectively assign a fairly high and roughly equal amount of responsibility” for the spread of fake news to three groups: social networking sites and search engines, government and politicians, and members of the public. The survey reported that 42 percent of U.S. adults believe that social networking sites like Facebook and search engines like Google have “a great deal of responsibility” in “preventing completely made-up news from gaining attention.”

    Though Google and Facebook have announced steps to combat the spread fake news, including the policy Google adopted in November barring fake news publishers from using its advertising system, a Media Matters analysis found that Google AdSense-linked advertisements were still running on countless hyperpartisan websites peddling fake news nearly a month later. Ad revenue is a driving cause of the fake news explosion and incentivizes its spread. On Facebook, large, hyperpartisan pages that regularly peddle fake news content still remain verified.

    According to the report, nearly a quarter of Americans admitted to sharing a fake news story that they either knew at the time was made up or later found out was fake. Nearly one-third of U.S. adults reported seeing fake political news online “often,” and 71 percent reported seeing fake political news at least sometimes.

    Pew’s report comes just two days after PolitiFact named fake news the “2016 lie of the year” and about a month after the election, which saw engagement on Facebook with top fake news stories surpass engagement with top news stories from 19 major news outlets.

    Image created by Sarah Wasko.

  • Google Officials Promised To Stop Making Fake News Profitable, But One Month Later, They've Failed

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    A Media Matters analysis found that Google AdSense-linked advertisements were still running on countless hyperpartisan websites peddling fake news nearly a month after Google announced it would ban these types of sites from using its online advertising service. Ads linked to Google AdSense create key revenue streams that make fake news content profitable and enable purveyors of fake news to thrive.

    On November 14, Google announced that it would “ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service” in order to target fake news purveyors’ revenue sources. Online publishers can earn money through Google’s AdSense program by hosting advertisements on their websites while Google serves as a middleman between publishers and advertisers. Google’s new policy expanded its existing ban on misleading advertisements, “including promotions for counterfeit goods and weight-loss scams, … to the websites its advertisements run on.” Google spokesperson Andrea Faville released the following statement on the new policy:

    Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content or the primary purpose of the web property.

    In a report on the decision, The New York Times acknowledged that “it remains to be seen how effective Google’s new policy on fake news will be in practice.”

    Despite Google’s announcement nearly a month ago, a Media Matters search of more than 40 fake-news-peddling websites found that a majority were still displaying ads linked to Google AdSense.

    Ad revenue is a driving cause of the recent fake news explosion, in which engagement with top fake news stories posted on Facebook surpassed engagement with top news stories from reputable outlets on Facebook in the last three months of the 2016 election. As TechCrunch explained, while mainstream outlets “may be held accountable for exaggeration,” fake news purveyors “can focus on short-term traffic and ad revenue,” which “incentivize(s) misinformation.” Google turns billions in profits by allowing advertisers to use its advertising service on third-party websites.

    In November, BuzzFeed broke a story on young Macedonians running more than 100 pro-Donald Trump websites pushing fake news content. The websites’ owners told BuzzFeed that “they don’t care about Donald Trump” -- then the Republican presidential nominee -- and were “responding to straightforward economic incentives.” Detailing their strategy, they acknowledged that “the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.” The teens then earn money from ads on their websites as a result of increased traffic via Facebook clicks. Anecdotally, BuzzFeed reported that unnamed owners earned up to $3,000 per day or $5,000 per month.

    The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser detailed how fake news writers make money, with one interviewee telling her he makes “$10,000 a month from AdSense.” That same fake news writer said that if Google and Facebook “are successful in stopping fake-news sites from profiting … the effect would be devastating for his revenue.” David Carroll, an expert in advertising technology and professor at the New School, estimated that one fake-news share from a person within the Trump campaign “could earn the lucky hoaxer as much as $10,000 in extra revenue” and called it a “‘huge economic incentive to create stories that they want to distribute.’”

    In practice, Google’s announced ban can be effective in stopping websites from peddling fake news. RedFlag News, which frequently publishes fake news stories, announced on December 2 that Google had disabled its advertising service on the platform. According to the website, RedFlag News saw a “50% drop in traffic” and a sharp decline in its Facebook audience engagement in recent weeks. The site is now accepting donations to its “Facebook, Google AdSense & Twitter Emergency Fund” to stay afloat.

    Evidence suggests, however, that plenty of websites that push fake news stories have yet to feel the effects of Google’s ban, instead remaining incentivized to publish fabricated, sensationalist content without regard for the truth.

    Image created by Sarah Wasko.