; Date: Fri Jun 25 2021
An enduring feature of the last several years is the rise of fake news outlets, engaging in a war on truth designed to manufacture consent using crafted fake news. Something we must understand is how fake news is created and amplified. What we have as evidence today is a job listing on Upwork for freelance writers to write Conservative "News" pieces for a major site. The media company will provide the information to write, allowing the writers to focus on cranking out words, with each writer expected to produce 10 or more articles a day. Nowhere does the job description talk about journalistic ethics, cultivating sources, having balanced perspectives, or the other elements of real journalism.
The phrase "Fake News" describes the last few years. Propagandists are growing increasingly powerful, convincing large parts of the population to believe clearly false ideas. Organizations professing to be Reporting The Truth (but spreading lies) are growing in size and prominence. The self-proclaimed "news outlets" pushing these false ideas, the purveyors of alternative facts, range in size from small news networks like Newsmax or OANN down to blogs or online video channels.
A job posting found on June 24, 2021, on Upwork gives us a little glimpse inside the workings of one blog seeking to publish Conservative News. Upwork is a site through which Freelance Workers find work with companies seeking to hire Freelancers. There is no political leaning to Upwork that I've seen in 5 or more years offering my services through that site.
The posting (shown below) asks for "Writers" who are "Conservatives" to join their team. It expects writers to produce a flood of articles (10+ per day, 500+ words), using prepackaged information, and minimal independent research. In other words, the output from this effort cannot be called Journalism but is something else. The phrases Content Mill and Propaganda come to mind.
What is real Journalism
Journalism is supposed to be the ethical presentation of factual reporting on events. On Wikipedia the definition is: "Journalism is the production and distribution of reports on current events based on facts and supported with proof or evidence." In the ideal practice of Journalism, Journalists are expected to put aside their personal opinions, and present the facts as they are. Truth-based news reporting should result in a well educated population making good quality decisions.
Journalism is both the occupation of Journalists, and it also is the product of a news organization.
Journalists clearly do not always practice the ideal form of Journalism. Some mainstream news outlets normally practice good quality fact-based journalism, but also sometimes do troubling things like collaborating with Government to help sell the population on launching wars. Some news organizations have a looser relationship with the facts, and would print "anything" so long as it sold more newspapers. This is called Yellow Journalism or Tabloid Journalism, where the focus is on sensational claims that happen to sell newspapers. Other news outlets are purposely partisan, hoping to propel one political power over another in order to win a desired result.
When the latter also spreads lies to propel partisan goals, that's what is properly called Fake News, or the publishing of deliberately untruthful stories.
If the ideal form of journalism produces a well informed population making good decisions about society, what do you think a population that's been fed lies will do?
Conservative news outlet seeks writers through Upwork for a high volume of writing output
With that in mind let's take a look at this job posting found today (June 24, 2021) on Upwork. Upwork is a website focused on connecting freelance workers with employers looking to hire freelancers.
The end goal of this job listing is fairly clear, in that the management is operating a "content mill" focusing on "conservative" news. The traffic level, 1 million page views a month, is large. The writers are not expected to do much, or any, research. They hope to hire two writers, and it sounds like each writer will produce 10+ articles per day.
It appears the writers are expected to regurgitate talking points. Here's two points from the job description to support that conclusion:
- The volume of writing (10-20 articles per day) is so high to allow less than 1/2 hour for each article. In other words, the writers barely have time to slam out the words, and there's no time for fact checking or deep thought.
- More importantly is this: "We’ll be providing reference content for you to base each article around". In the very next phrase we're told the writers won't have to do much research.
What is the source of that "reference content"? Will the writers have access to an online encyclopedia or other source of unbiased truthful information? Or, since this is clearly a Conservative site, will the writers be working from propagandistic right wing talking points?
This is not a recipe for proper journalism.
The ideal Journalist talks to several sources to get corroborating information, carefully goes over the details, laboriously makes sure the comma's are all in the right place, and so on, all of which takes time.
That's not what this job description is about, is it?
Political Journalists are tasked with covering the political scene. In other words, political journalists focus on how politicians are maneuvering around or shaping events and policy choices. That's different than "regular" journalists who focus on descriptions of events. For example, an ocean-side apartment building collapsed the other day. Where the "regular" journalist reports on the number of deaths, and the actions taken by first responders, the political journalist looks at the political positions taken by this or that political leader, in response to the event.
The job description talks about this with the phrase "comprehend and effectively communicate American Politics."
There is a range of truthfulness in political journalism. At one end of the spectrum are folks sticking with the facts, for example what are the legal constraints on politicians, the political impact of different policy choices, which politicians are lying corrupt scumbags, and so on. At another end of this spectrum are political journalists who flagrantly push causes, who don't care about the facts, but instead publish "news" pieces intended to support a political goal.
The job posting stresses the writer is supposed to be Conservative. It's mysterious what is precisely meant by "is also a conservative - not just someone who has a big vocabulary." But the overall job posting does not convey a search for truth or honesty. As we analyzed earlier, the workload, and the presupplied facts, are inconsistent with truth-filled political journalism. Instead it appears geared to pushing the Conservative Cause.
There's a thing called Citizen Journalism that was all the rage a few years ago. The idea is that regular Citizens could become Journalists. In a way this job posting is solicits for Citizen Journalists with a Conservative mindset.
Starting in 2009, I began working as a Citizen Journalist. That started with a stint writing for Examiner.Com, a large site open to thousands of people across the USA writing news articles. I was The Green Transportation Examiner, meaning that I focused primarily on electric cars and electric motorcycles. Later I had the same role with TorqueNews.Com, an automotive news website, and even later with PluginCars.Com, another automotive news site focusing on electric vehicles. In all three cases I had the same goal of presenting a fair and honest story about electric transportation. The bottom line is that I worked as a Citizen Journalist for 6 years or so.
That is my basis of personal experience driving this analysis of that job posting.
One difference between citizen and regular journalism is editorial oversight. The places I worked through generally had zero editorial oversight, letting the citizen journalist write anything they liked. PluginCars.Com was an exception thanks to the work of Brad Berman in maintaining a high level of integrity. At the other end of the scale, Examiner.Com grew a reputation for writers producing low quality fact-free right wing "news" pieces.
Benign blog writing jobs
Yesterday's browse through Upwork turned up another blog writing position with passing similarity to the one shown above. The YouTube channel Needlepoint TV was seeking a blogger to produce 2-3 blog posts per week related to videos published on the channel.
The similarity is that in both cases the writer is expected to stay within the confines of presupplied information. The writer for this channel is expected to write in the voice of the video presenter, and to present a well-written blog post conveying what was said in the videos. This is a fairly typical request for a professional blogger, in this case helping a video presenter to also have written content.
I've worked with several companies writing posts for their blogs. With one company, making a good quality software tool for machine learning and data science researchers, I started by producing documentation of their software, then later writing blog posts related to their unique selling points. The company would supply an article topic and left me to my own devices to research and write the articles. We produced a number of interesting and useful articles.
These examples are benign. There's no political slant involved. The articles are expected to be correctly filled with truth. There's sufficient time to make sure the article is correctly written, and backed up by good research.
Anyone writing for hire is expected to produce the content requested by the employer. That's what Needlepoint TV is requesting, that's what the company's I've written blog posts for have requested, and that's what this Conservative news site is requesting.
The difference is the truthfulness of the result, or whether a given site has the purpose of deceiving or propagandizing the readers. While the job posting doesn't definitively say they expect their writers to lie, the description leans in that direction. There are certainly many Conservative sites with such a purpose.
Content mills and partisan troll farms
The phrase Content Mill refers to a service for churning out written articles hoping to game ranking within search engine results. The technique can be used for any purpose, such as building sites focusing on targeted content niches like infrared digital photography. Most of the time articles from content mills are politically benign, while being weak on credibility and honesty.
But, the last few years has seen an upsurge of politically driven content mills. In some cases the correct phrase is Social Media Warfare, where information warfare is spread through social media websites. Most widely reported on are the Russian Troll Farms, but the knowledge to build such services is not unique to Russians.
The winner of an information war is the one who can convince the most people to adopt desired beliefs. The goal isn't truthful education of the population, but getting them to believe desired thoughts. Another goal is undermining the ability of the population to separate truth from fiction.
Earlier we asked - "what do you think a population that's been fed lies will do?"
In the last few years there's been a tremendous onslaught of fake false information. Prominent in this is the QAnon movement, which has glommed into itself a wide range of far-out fringe theories.
There are many examples of gravely concerning results. In Michigan a group of so-called Patriots were arrested over plans to kidnap and probably assassinate the Governor. Elsewhere all kinds of violence have been committed at protest rallies. In Germany, a group of neo-Nazi protesters tried to storm The Reichstag in 2020. The most flagrant example is the invasion of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, clearly for the purpose of preventing certification of the US Presidential Election. Who knows what would have happened if these agitators managed to capture one or more members of Congress.