The Sad Truth About ‘Pink Slime’

Photo by Tyson on Unsplash

There have been about 8,000 layoffs in the media industry since January. That’s 8,000 folks who will no longer make a phone call, send an email, or write down a quote. That’s 8,000 folks who won’t be able to tell truth to power or, barring that, tell us what mattress to buy because they, a real, living human, tested it.

In short, when we fire journalists we lose something important.

What we gain, however, is even worse. As we learned recently, local news organizations are being slowly subsumed by content mills that produce the informational equivalent of a chicken nugget: they’re made of pink slime but look, smell, and taste like real chicken. Worse, these content mills are spreading disinformation to an audience poorly equipped to understand the difference between real content and junk.

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From NewsGuard:

The odds are now better than 50-50 that if you see a news website purporting to cover local news, it’s fake. 

What happened: Last week, NewsGuard published a report uncovering a network of 167 Russian disinformation sites fronted by John Mark Dougan, a former Florida deputy sheriff who fled to Moscow after being investigated for computer hacking and extortion.

This new Russian disinformation network boosted the number of “pink slime” outlets — sites that present themselves as independent local news outlets but are instead funded by partisan groups — to 1,265.  

That’s four percent more than the websites of 1,213 daily newspapers left operating in the U.S., according to Northwestern’s Local News Initiative.

Pink slime websites are sites that present themselves as independent local news outlets but are instead funded by partisan groups, which is not disclosed. The nickname is a reference to the meat-based filler that was supposedly added without a label to ground beef products. 

The biggest problem is that these pink slime outlets aren’t hiring humans anymore. Instead, they are depending on AI to produce content that is full of hallucinations and lies.

For example, the New York Times did a piece on BNN Breaking, a news organization that, in the end, turned out to be a pink slime machine:

During the two years that BNN was active, it had the veneer of a legitimate news service, claiming a worldwide roster of “seasoned” journalists and 10 million monthly visitors, surpassing the The Chicago Tribune’s self-reported audience. Prominent news organizations like The Washington Post, Politico and The Guardian linked to BNN’s stories. Google News often surfaced them, too.

A closer look, however, would have revealed that individual journalists at BNN published lengthy stories as often as multiple times a minute, writing in generic prose familiar to anyone who has tinkered with the A.I. chatbot ChatGPT. BNN’s “About Us” page featured an image of four children looking at a computer, some bearing the gnarled fingers that are a telltale sign of an A.I.-generated image.

How easily the site and its mistakes entered the ecosystem for legitimate news highlights a growing concern: A.I.-generated content is upending, and often poisoning, the online information supply.

This poison will soon seep into nearly every news organization. The answer, in short, is human in the loop. But, like most things in the media business, that’s not the answer anyone wants to hear.

There are two possible takeaways from this brief jeremiad. The first one is that we need to fund news organizations, be it pledging to NPR or paying for the Guardian. Without cash, we can’t hire humans.

The other takeaway, the cynical one, is that we’re hosed. Straight up.

AI isn’t just stealing our jobs. It’s also going to steal the truth. While 8,000 people are out of work right now because of media industry contractions, another billion are about to be hit with a wave of AI-generated garbage dedicated to swaying us to vote a certain way or act in a certain manner. While human-led AI is a boon, non-human-led AI is an existential threat. We all need to be ready to fight it.

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