NewsGuard has established itself as a major force in the mass-censorship of online dissent, working with the U.S. Government, pharmaceutical companies and others to discredit and demonetise websites that question official information. Lee Fang at RealClear Investigations has taken a closer look at the shadowy outfit.
In May 2021, L. Gordon Crovitz, a media executive turned start-up investor, pitched Twitter executives on a powerful censorship tool.
In an exchange that came to light in the Twitter Files revelations about media censorship, Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, touted his product, NewsGuard, as a “Vaccine Against Misinformation”. His written pitch highlighted a “separate product” – beyond an extension already on the Microsoft Edge browser – “for internal use by content-moderation teams”. Crovitz promised an out-of-the-box tool that would use artificial intelligence powered by NewsGuard algorithms to rapidly screen content based on hashtags and search terms the company associated with dangerous content.
How would the company determine the truth? For issues such as COVID-19, NewsGuard would steer readers to official government sources only, like the federal Centres for Disease Control. Other content-moderation allies, Crovitz’s pitch noted, include “intelligence and national security officials”, “reputation management providers” and “Government agencies”, which contract with the firm to identify misinformation trends. Instead of only fact-checking individual forms of incorrect information, NewsGuard, in its proposal, touted the ability to rate the “overall reliability of websites” and “’prebunk’ COVID-19 misinformation from hundreds of popular websites”.
NewsGuard’s ultimately unsuccessful pitch sheds light on one aspect of a growing effort by governments around the world to police speech ranging from genuine disinformation to dissent from officially sanctioned narratives. In the United States, as the Twitter Files revealed, the effort often takes the form of direct Government appeals to social media platforms and news outlets. More commonly the Government works through seemingly benign non-governmental organisations – such as the Stanford Internet Observatory – to quell speech it disapproves of.
Or it pays to coerce speech through Government contracts with outfits such as NewsGuard, a for-profit company of especially wide influence. Founded in 2018 by Crovitz and his co-CEO Steven Brill, a lawyer, journalist and entrepreneur, NewsGuard seeks to monetise the work of reshaping the internet. The potential market for such speech policing, NewsGuard’s pitch to Twitter noted, was $1.74 billion, an industry it hoped to capture.
Instead of merely suggesting rebuttals to untrustworthy information, as many other existing anti-misinformation groups provide, NewsGuard has built a business model out of broad labels that classify entire news sites as safe or untrustworthy, using an individual grading system producing what it calls “nutrition labels”. The ratings – which appear next to a website’s name on the Microsoft Edge browser and other systems that deploy the plug-in – use a scale of zero to 100 based on what NewsGuard calls “nine apolitical criteria”, including “gathers and presents information responsibly” (worth 18 points), “avoids deceptive headlines” (10 points) and “does not repeatedly publish false or egregiously misleading content” (22 points).
Critics note that such ratings are entirely subjective – the New York Times, for example, which repeatedly carried false and partisan information from anonymous sources during the Russiagate hoax, gets a 100% rating. RealClear Investigations, which took heat in 2019 for unmasking the “whistleblower” of the first Trump impeachment (while many outlets including the Times still have not done so), has an 80% rating. (Verbatim: the NewsGuard-RCI exchange over the whistleblower.) Independent news outlets with an anti-establishment bent receive particularly low ratings from NewsGuard, such as the libertarian news site Antiwar.com, with a 49.5% rating, and conservative site the Federalist, with a 12.5% rating.