June 27, 2024 , in technology


Who’s Reading Pink Slime?

Partisan propaganda masquerading as local and hyperlocal news is a growing presence online. Who's spreading this material and how much influence does it have?

Eidosmedia Pink Slime

Pink Slime | Eidosmedia

As unpleasant as it sounds, 'pink slime' is a rather whimsical name for an insidious new phenomenon. Low-grade synthetic “news” content is spreading online in the run-up to the U.S. election, often exploiting the gaps left by local news outlets. While its purpose is political, it’s unclear how much influence it actually has.

Are people reading pink slime, and if so, who? Who is financing this poor-quality content, and how can media organizations and audiences fight back? We take a look at the rise of pink slime and its implications.

Understanding pink slime: origins and terminology

You may be wondering, “What’s with the name?” In food industry parlance, pink slime refers to a type of processed meat made to appear more appetizing than it really is. According to the Poynter Institute, “‘Pink slime’ journalism is named after a meat byproduct and describes outlets that publish poor quality reports that appear to be local news.”

The analogy is meant to highlight the low quality, deceptive nature, and lack of authenticity in such journalism. So, how do you know 'pink slime' when you see it? The Poynter Institute lists a few tell-tale signs:

  • These low-quality outlets generally claim to cover local and hyperlocal news.
  • Pink slime sites do not employ highly trained journalists but instead use automation and templates. Generic text and a lack of context are often giveaways.
  • They are almost always funded by outside organizations with a partisan source of financing, though that may not be disclosed.

Pink slime’s financial backers and their motives

Sensational headlines and content that barely passes the journalism smell test may seem par for the course in some media circles, but pink slime is unique in its own way. Unlike ordinary partisan news, which generally declares its biases, pink slime journalism disguises itself as impartial, local news. Furthermore, even partisan news organizations rely on ad revenue and other traditional forms of monetization to keep going. Not so for pink slime.

Rather than relying on subscription or ad revenue, Ars Technica reports, Pink Slime is funded “by a shadowy network of political operatives, action committees, and donors….”

Early examples

A report from Tow Center dives deep into pink slime’s history and funding. Back in 2012, the report says, Mother Jones and the Center for Public Integrity reported on “American Tradition Partnership (ATP), a ‘secretive nonprofit’ based in Montana, [which] had developed the Montana Statesman, a physical newspaper delivered to residents with an accompanying website, as part of an effort said to define a new era of ‘funny money with no legal constraints.’”

The founding donor was Jacob Jabs, “an anti-union owner of Colorado’s largest furniture chain and a donor to Republican candidates and causes, and traced affiliations with national Tea Party groups funded by the Koch brothers.” ATP set its sights on Attorney General Steve Bullock, vowing to keep him out of the governor’s office. This is just one early example of low-quality news funded by shady sources with a clear agenda.

Today's sprawling web

Today, Ars Technica reports, “NewsGuard, which rates the quality and trustworthiness of news sites, has identified 1,197 pink slime sites operating in the US as of April 1—about as many as the estimated 1,200 real news sites operated by daily local newspapers.” The Tow Center report, however, found “the vast majority of pink slime sites are part of a single entity: the extended Metric Media network, which encompasses more than 1,100 sites.” It’s a sprawling web that even the researchers had trouble untangling.

A political program

As the Ars Technica report reveals, the network of news sites has ties “to founders of the Tea Party movement, to a nonprofit described by Mother Jones as ‘the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement,’ and to a Catholic political advocacy group that launched a $9.7 million campaign in swing states against the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden six weeks before the 2020 election.”

This illustrates another common feature of pink slime: it often picks up its political partisanship during important election cycles. The question that may be harder to answer than who is behind this content is whether or not readers are paying attention to the subpar content.

Measuring the reach: how much is pink slime actually read by online consumers?

Pink slime sites, and even some newspapers, may be proliferating in the void left by faltering local news, but with dark money powering them and no real profit motive, it can be hard to tell whether they are truly successful. Stanford University researchers set out to find out whether pink slime is actually finding readers and altering habits.

As Local News Initiative reports, “Analyzing web-browsing data collected from American adults in the months surrounding the 2020 election, the Stanford researchers found that ‘just 3.7% of Americans were exposed to pink slime…and exposure among those exposed was limited.’ Those figures lie in stark contrast to the 39.1% of people exposed to known misinformation websites and 36.4% exposed to local news websites.”

A question of quality?

Poor quality content tends not to find an audience. “Local news” is largely created by bots or outsourced to non-local writers — including as far away as the Philippines — so it is not hard to understand why this content fails to attract many readers. Still, that is not stopping backers from pouring money into growing pink slime’s influence. Ars Technica reported that some of these outlets are “becoming more sophisticated and investing more into advertising to legitimize their brands, experts say. NewsGuard found nearly $4 million in advertising spending on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram in the 2022 midterms cycle by four of the largest players.”

Not a big issue - for now

Still, for now, pink slime seems to fail to find an audience or create influence. Even if the goal is simply to poison the public discourse with false ideas, few of these stories seem to go viral enough to achieve that goal. Whether or not investors will continue to pour money into these failing outlets remains to be seen. In the meantime, a renewed focus on enhancing media literacy, promoting transparency in news funding, and encouraging the support of genuine local journalism can help stave off future impacts of pink slime.


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