Backed by Big Pharma, NewsGuard Brings ‘Fact Checking’ to Tens of Millions of Kids in Schools
By Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D. | The Defender | February 28, 2022
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is partnering with NewsGuard — a for-profit “fact-checking” company with deep ties to Big Pharma — to help students in U.S. classrooms “navigate a sea of online disinformation.”
AFT is the second-largest teachers’ union in the U.S. It’s also a staunch advocate of mandatory COVID vaccination and masks for schoolchildren.
Under a deal announced last month, AFT agreed to purchase NewsGuard licenses for its entire membership of teachers — 1.7 million in total — making the NewsGuard tool available to tens of millions of public school students and their families.
Teachers will receive licensed copies of NewsGuard’s internet browser extension, providing access to its “traffic light” ratings and “nutrition label” reviews evaluating the purported reliability of news and information websites when those sites are visited.
Announced during “News Literacy Week,” AFT touted the agreement as an opportunity for its member teachers to play a bigger role in helping their students “navigate a sea of online disinformation.”
“For years, educators have fought battles against suspect sourcing, with their students often misled by dubious outlets and spam sites posing as ‘news’. NewsGuard offers a practical solution, alerting students and educators to those sites while also providing a valuable lesson in media literacy.
“Students and their teachers will be able to see how NewsGuard applies nine criteria of journalistic practice to thousands of websites and will get an immediate read on the truthfulness and rigor of the information they encounter when searching online.”
Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, added:
“We are constantly trying to help our students, particularly our middle, high school and post-secondary students, separate fact from fiction, as we help them develop their critical-thinking and analytical skills.
“NewsGuard is a great tool in this regard. It is a beacon of clarity to expose the dark depths of the internet and uplift those outlets committed to truth and honesty rather than falsehoods and fabrications. This historic deal will not only help us steer clear of increasingly fetid waters—it will provide a valuable lesson in media literacy and a discussion point for teachers in class on what can, and can’t, be trusted.
“The hallmark of good journalism is fair, richly sourced reporting that gives citizens an insight into how the world works. Sadly, the foundational role of the fourth estate is in danger of being poisoned by torrents of trash. NewsGuard reminds us of the importance of an independent press that students can rely on to form their own views and opinions so they can participate as active citizens in our democracy.”
Axios described the deal as one in which American schoolchildren are getting “an internet librarian,” adding that “[t]he hope is that students with the skills to spot disinformation will grow into more thoughtful and better-informed citizens and voters.”
Drawing on the library analogy, NewsGuard stated:
“Imagine you walked into a library, and there were a trillion pieces of paper flying around in the air, and you grabbed one, and you didn’t know anything about it, or where it came from or who’s financing it.
“That’s the internet, that’s your Facebook feed, that’s your Google search.”
Helping children become more media literate and better able to spot misinformation online appears, at face value, to be a noble goal.
However, a closer look at NewsGuard’s advisers, partners and investors reveals a web of interests closely linked to the military, intelligence, media and political establishments, as well as to the world of corporate marketing — including an advertising agency sued for illegally marketing opioids.
How does NewsGuard work?
Launched in March 2018 as an effort to “fight fake news,” NewsGuard maintains a database of news and information outlets, which are ranked for their supposed “trustworthiness.”
These rankings then become available to the public via extensions that are available for mainstream browsers such as Google Chrome, Firefox and Microsoft Edge.
Once installed, the browser extension displays green or red warning labels next to a ranked website’s address, indicating whether the site is considered to be “trustworthy” or not.
As of January 2022, NewsGuard had evaluated and ranked 7,466 domains which it claims covers 95% of online news engagement.
Algorithms alone are insufficient for identifying “fake news,” according to NewsGuard:
“Our goal isn’t necessarily to stop [fake news] but to arm people with some basic information when they’re about to read or share stuff,” Brill said. “We’re not trying to block anything.
“Our goal is to help solve this problem now by using human beings—trained, experienced journalists—who will operate under a transparent, accountable process to apply basic common sense to a growing scourge that clearly cannot be solved by algorithms.”
How does this evaluation process take place?
NewsGuard uses nine weighted criteria to rate and analyze news websites along two broad categories: credibility and transparency.
The following five criteria are incorporated into the “credibility” category, listed alongside their respective “weights”:
- Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points).
- Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points).
- Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points).
- Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points).
- Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points).
Under the “transparency” category are these four criteria:
- Discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points).
- Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points).
- Reveals who’s in charge, including possible conflicts of interest (5 points).
- Provides the names of content creators, along with either contact or biographical information (5 points).
It is unclear how the respective “weights” were determined and set, or how they are measured.
Connected to these nine criteria, NewsGuard implemented a “Nutrition Label” system, which it uses to rate news sites according to one of four categories: “Green,” “Red,” “Satire” or “Platform.” The corresponding icon then appears in browsers when a rated website is visited.
These categories are connected to the previously mentioned point system, such that sites with a “score” of 60 points or higher earn a “Green” label, while those below 60 points are given a “Red” label.
- A “Green” label indicates the website “generally adheres to basic standards of credibility and transparency.”
- A “Red” label indicates the website “generally fails to meet basic standards of credibility and transparency.”
- Α “Satire” (yellow) label indicates the website is “not a real news website.”
- A “Platform” (gray) label indicates the website “primarily hosts user-generated content that it does not vet” and the information on this site “may or may not be reliable.”
The “Nutrition Labels,” aside from the color-coded system indicated above, also include a more detailed analysis about each news site. As explained by NewsGuard:
“The labels will explain the history of the site, what it attempts to cover, who owns it, who edits it, and make transparent other relevant factors, such as financing, notable awards or missteps, whether the publisher participates in programs such as the Trust Project, which holds publishers to transparency standards, or has repeatedly been found at fault by one of the established programs that check individual articles.”
In other words, there is a direct connection between NewsGuard’s website-level rating system and the various “fact-checking” entities that evaluate the content of individual news stories.
Each website is initially “independently reviewed” by a NewsGuard analyst against the nine criteria. The analyst prepares the “Nutrition Label,” the website is contacted for comment, and then “at least one senior editor and NewsGuard’s co-CEOs review every Nutrition Label prior to publication to ensure that the rating is as fair and accurate as possible.”
In addition to its formal ratings process, a separate NewsGuard “SWAT Team” is “on call on a 24/7 basis to receive and act on alerts about sites that are suddenly trending, but that have not yet been rated — including because the site was just launched to promote a fictitious, sensational story.”
The “SWAT Team” then rates these websites in real time.
NewsGuard also works on social media platforms — specifically, on links to news articles on other websites that are posted on social media.
Additionally, NewsGuard maintains what it calls “advertiser inclusion lists.” As of January, these lists contained 4,247 so-called “quality news sites.” The lists are used to help online advertisers direct their advertising expenditures toward websites NewsGuard deems reliable.
NewsGuard, which received $6 million in seed funding from various investors and venture capitalists, is subscription-based.
A NewsGuard subscription costs $2.95 per month, which includes the browser extension and a mobile app for Android and iOS devices. (The browser extension is available for free on the Microsoft Edge browser, thanks to a licensing agreement with Microsoft).
AFT deal not first time NewsGuard has ventured into education arena
For some, fighting “fake news” on websites and social media isn’t enough — they believe the “battle” needs to reach educational institutions.
As stated in 2019 by Jonathan Anzalone, assistant director and lecturer at Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy:
“Our problems are much larger than identifying a bogus website or a piece of propaganda. It’s like we just invented fire, and we’re trying to learn how to deal with it. It will take more than a few tools, as valuable as they may be.”
As a solution, Anzalone recommended “large-scale educational intervention” and “constant reinforcement in class and at home that we have to be critical of the news.”
These calls for “educational intervention” in 2019 perhaps foreshadowed NewsGuard’s later turn toward educational institutions.
NewsGuard’s past educational collaborations may also provide more than a few hints as to the types of learning materials it will provide as part of its new agreement with AFT.
Prior to NewsGuard’s new agreement with AFT, it had maintained a collaboration with Turnitin, a tool commonly used in secondary and higher education to evaluate students’ written assignments and identify possible cases of plagiarism.
NewsGuard’s partnership with TurnItIn, announced May 4, 2020, was touted as an initiative “that will help many million students and teachers spot and avoid misinformation, improve their research abilities and develop critical media literacy skills.”
On its end, Turnitin promoted its collaboration with NewsGuard as a marriage between “academic integrity” and “digital literacy” that would enable students to “navigate 21st-century news with 21st-century skills” and to “imbue [their] work with integrity right from the source.”
Offering NewsGuard through the Turnitin service would allow “students and instructors, writers and researchers [to] confidently discern the legitimacy of digital news and information, using only the sources best suited for their needs.”
Commenting on this partnership in 2020, Crovitz described it as a “perfect match,” and stated:
“From the start, our mission has been to help people tell the difference between trustworthy sources and the many online sources that have hidden agendas, publish misinformation, or exist to promote hoaxes.
“We have heard from many teachers how valuable NewsGuard has been to help students in their research and writing find sources that publish with accuracy and integrity and to stay away from the others. To be able to provide that information to Turnitin’s millions of students and teachers is a tremendously important milestone in advancing that mission.”
Free access to NewsGuard via Turnitin appears to have ended with the conclusion of the 2020-2021 academic year. However, a series of NewsGuard learning materials developed as part of the partnership with Turnitin remain online, and provide a likely indication as to the nature and content of the resources NewsGuard will now make available to schools and teachers as part of its new collaboration with AFT.
These resources, which offer an eye-opening look at how students are instructed to identify so-called “misinformation,” include:
The lesson materials for the so-called COVID-19 “Infodemic,” which are targeted primarily to high school students, but also, middle school and university students, include the following statement:
“As misinformation about COVID-19 proliferates online, and as remote learning and social distancing cause students to spend even more of their time on social media and other platforms, media literacy skills have taken on greater importance.
“To address this need, NewsGuard has created a suite of plug-and-play resources for educators to teach a media literacy lesson through the lens of COVID-19 misinformation.”
A set of PowerPoint slides on “Coronavirus Conspiracies & Other Health Hoaxes,” includes a quiz wherein one of the questions asks students to identify which sources they would trust, out of the following list: Medicine-Today.net, MedicineNet.com, Vaccination.co.uk, Patient.info, HealthyChildren.org, and ChildrensHealthDefense.org (the ‘correct’ answers, we are told, are MedicineNet.com, Patient.Info, and HealthyChildren.org).
An accompanying “tip sheet” unironically advises students, educators, and parents to “be suspicious of requests for secrecy or pressure to take action quickly,” and to “teach yourself and your kids to ask the tough questions.”
In turn, the “best practices” recommended by NewsGuard and Turnitin include a suggestion that “students should reference NewsGuard throughout the semester/year,” whenever “they need to do research for a project or paper or any time they need to consult current events.”
As part of this, educators are advised to “have students annotate their bibliographies with explanations for why they selected each source, drawing from NewsGuard’s Nutrition Label reviews to provide evidence for why they deemed certain sources reliable.”
NewsGuard partnerships extend to businesses, ad agencies and the WHO
NewsGuard’s line of products extends beyond its browser extension, “Nutrition Labels,” and educational materials.
For example, it offers a product called “Misinformation Fingerprints,” a “catalog of all the top current hoaxes on the internet.”
According to NewsGuard, the product is “purpose-built for use by both human analysts and AI tools” which “provide a continuously updated view of the digital information environment — and a powerful way to track narratives that are emerging and spreading online,” specifically, the “top misinformation narratives spreading online.”
The users of “Misinformation FIngerprints” include the Pentagon’s Cyber Command and the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
For businesses, an “Insights Dashboard” helps clients access NewsGuard’s news reliability ratings and misinformation fingerprints “through a powerful, searchable web interface purpose-built for use by businesses seeking to identify and mitigate risks from misinformation and disinformation.”
“BrandGuard” targets advertisers and advertising agencies. It is touted as “the only humanly generated, constantly updated solution” to help such companies “avoid advertising on misinformation sites while finding valuable new inventory on trustworthy news sites.”
Similarly, NewsGuard’s “HealthGuard” product targets the healthcare industry and global public health authorities.
Described as “a vaccine against medical information,” HealthGuard, we are told, “helps patients, healthcare workers and anyone involved in the medical field identify trustworthy sources of health information — and avoid dangerous misinformation.”
How does HealthGuard purport to accomplish this?
It maintains a set of ratings for more than 3,000 online health information sources, as well as a catalog of “false health narratives — from bogus cancer cures to COVID vaccine myths,” through which it “provides a solution to the “infodemic” of rampant online health misinformation.”
The WHO said it relies on NewsGuard “to fight health hoaxes. Andy Pattison, head of the WHO’s Digital Channels Team, said:
“Though health misinformation circulates online, it causes real life consequences. We must put tools in the hands of people everywhere so they can better assess the credibility of health information online in order to make informed health choices in their life.
“NewsGuard has been instrumental in helping WHO and partners keep people safe by identifying and combating online COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.”
NewsGuard on Aug. 24, 2020, announced a partnership agreement, “to provide the WHO and the technology platforms that WHO advises on healthcare-related online safety with a variety of reports and data aimed at fighting online COVID-19 misinformation online.”
Dr. Sylvie Brand, director of the WHO’s infectious hazards management department, described the partnership with NewsGuard:
“WHO has been fighting an infodemic of misinformation on multiple fronts, working hand in hand with governments, the private sector and civil society.
“It is vital that people everywhere get the right information at the right time to protect themselves and their loved ones. That’s why we are looking forward to working with NewsGuard and other platforms to fight misinformation and disinformation.”
In turn, NewsGuard claims that, through the provisions of this agreement where it will provide information about health “hoaxes” to social media and search platforms, “digital platforms will finally be able to act before these new myths — whether it’s about a vaccine or another supposed source of the virus—spread on their platforms.”
As it turns out, NewsGuard since 2020 has filed at least 29 such reports with the WHO As described by NewsGuard, these reports have highlighted:
“… trending health hoaxes and conspiracies across Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, which the WHO has been able to share with digital platforms to alert them to misinformation and hoaxes on their platforms.
“These reports identify large social media pages, accounts, and public and private groups that encourage the spread of false and often dangerous narratives about the virus and vaccines.”
One such report, dated Oct. 28, 2021, is titled “Despite NewsGuard’s prior warnings in reports to the WHO, Facebook and Instagram have allowed known anti-vaccine misinformation superspreaders to flourish on their platforms.
A June 22, 2021 report, “COVID-19 and Vaccine Misinformation Groups and Pages on Facebook” prominently features Children’s Health Defense (CHD), among other pages and groups.
NewsGuard included CHD on its list of websites that spread “vaccine myths,” lamenting that “[s]ome of the websites NewsGuard identified have become more popular online than trustworthy sources of information about COVID-19,” while specifically stating that CHD’s website “has received more engagement … than the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.”
A February 2021 NewsGuard interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was “annotated in italics in footnote form with fact checks debunking the dozens of arguments Kennedy employed to bolster his false claim that Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous.”
NewsGuard’s involvement in health-related matters also extends to the creation of a “COVID-19 Misinformation Tracking Center,” which “reports on fake news, rumors and bad actors related to the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
What constitutes a “bad actor” does not appear to be defined.
Via this “tracking center,” NewsGuard compiled a list of 53 supposed COVID myths. The list appears in a September 2021 NewsGuard “special report” on “Top COVID-19 vaccine myths.”
In addition to partnering with the WHO, NewsGuard’s HealthGuard partners with the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).
Described by Mercola as “a progressive cancel-culture leader,” CCDH has “extensive ties to government and global think tanks that has labeled questioning the COVID-19 injection as ‘threats to national security.’”
Who are the people behind NewsGuard?
NewsGuard was founded by two veterans of mainstream journalism: Steven Brill (who previously founded Court TV, the Yale Journalism Initiative and The American Lawyer), and Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal.
When it launched, NewsGuard had a team of 25 professional journalists, purportedly to evaluate the reliability of news sources.
Two other key founding members of NewsGuard, who are still with the company, include James Warren and Eric Effron.
Brill and Crovitz are members of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a highly influential U.S. foreign policy establishment think tank.
This stance is further reflected in the makeup of NewsGuard’s advisory board, which includes a who’s who of individuals from the political, intelligence, Big Tech and media establishments, including:
- Don Baer, who served as White House communications director during the administration of Bill Clinton
- Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education during the administration of Barack Obama.
- (Ret.) General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, former director of the NSA, and former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence.
- Leo Hindery, Jr., the former chairman of the National Cable Television Association.
- Elise Jordan, a political analyst for NBC News and a former speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, under the administration of George W. Bus.
- Kate O’Sullivan, general manager for digital diplomacy of Microsoft.
- Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former general secretary of NATO, former prime minister of Denmark, and founder of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation.
- Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, under the administration of George W. Bush.
- Richard Stengel, former editor of Time Magazine and former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy under the administration of Barack Obama. He is the author of “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It.”
- Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia.
NewsGuard says members of the advisory board play “no role in the determination of ratings or the Nutrition Label[s] … unless otherwise noted” and “have no role in the governance or management of the organization.”
However, members’ association with the military and intelligence community and their connections to major technology companies and media outlets that support COVID measures and mandatory vaccination cannot be overlooked.
Looking at NewsGuard’s team members, similar connections can be made to the media, political and intelligence establishments.
Two team members, Alex Cadier and Amy Westfeldt, have previous “fact-checking” experience. Cadier worked with Agence France-Presse’s AFP Fact Check Service since 2020, with a focus on “COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, 5G conspiracy theories and other myths.”
Westfeldt produced The Associated Press’ first fact checks, soon after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in conjunction with Facebook. She also founded the “Not Real News” fixture.
Two other team members, Nerissa Beekharry and Cynthia Brill, were previously associated with Verified Identity Pass, operator of the Clear Pass for airport security checkpoints.
And at least two team members, Sam Howard and Sruthi Palaniappan, were involved in presidential campaigns: Howard with the Obama 2012 campaign and Palaniappan with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, the same year he was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention .
NewsGuard’s partnerships also reflect an affinity for entities associated with Big Tech, the military and intelligence establishments and government more broadly — even as a private initiative.
For example, NewsGuard partners include:
- Microsoft (including Microsoft Bing, Microsoft Edge, Microsoft Education and MSN).
- The WHO.
- The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department.
- The U.S. National Security Innovation Network.
- The UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
- The News Media Alliance (a U.S.-Canada newspaper trade association).
- The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
- GumGum (a “contextual intelligence” company).
- Dartmouth University, Northeastern University and the University of Michigan.
- Advertising and marketing firms such as IPG, Peer39, TripleLift and the Publicis Groupe.
Backed by Big Pharma?
As mentioned above, NewsGuard received approximately $6 million in venture funds for its launch.
One of its major early investors was the Publicis Groupe, a multinational advertising agency and communications conglomerate.
Publicis, the third largest communications group in the world, divides its businesses into four “solutions hubs”: Publicis Communications, Publicis Media, Publicis Sapient and Publicis Health.
It is Publicis’ health division that has generated significant controversy. The company names “40 clients in the life sciences industry,” including “being a preferred partner with 13 of the top 20 global pharmaceutical companies.”
These clients include Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Merck, Bayer, Abbot, Allergan, Biogen, Eli Lilly, Genentech, Gilead, Sanofi and Purdue Pharma.
In October 2018, GlaxoSmithKline sent its $1.5 billion media account to the Publicis Group, then added an additional $400 million account — for its new portfolio of Pfizer Consumer Healthcare brands such as Advil, Caltrate, and Centrum, as part of a joint venture with Pfizer.
In August 2019, Publicis secured the account of another pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, worth $600 million.
However, it was its partnership with Purdue Pharma that directly generated controversy and legal trouble for the Publicis Groupe.
In May 2021, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit against Publicis Health, accusing it of helping Purdue Pharma develop deceptive marketing materials and advertising campaigns, used to mislead doctors into prescribing OxyContin, a widely-abused opioid.
According to the lawsuit:
“From 2010 until 2019, Publicis worked with opioid companies, particularly Purdue Pharma, to increase sales of dangerous opioids like OxyContin, including in Massachusetts, in ways that increased the risk to patients and the public of opioid use disorder, overdose, and death.
“Publicis devised and deployed unfair and deceptive marketing campaigns designed to push doctors to prescribe opioids to more patients, in higher doses, and for longer periods of time.”
So while NewsGuard purports to be fighting against online misinformation and deception pertaining to public health — it has no problem taking money from a major advertising and communications conglomerate that has itself been accused of deceptive practices relating to health care.
Maurice Lévy, chairman of the Publicis Group, made the following remarks on the occasion of NewsGuard’s launch:
“Advertisers are increasingly concerned about their brand safety and do not want to help finance and appear alongside fake news.
“NewsGuard will be able to publish and license ‘white lists’ of news sites our clients can use to support legitimate publishers while still protecting their brand reputations.”
As noted by Dr. Joseph Mercola:
“Seeing how Publicis represents most of the major pharmaceutical companies in the world and funded the creation of NewsGuard, it’s not far-fetched to assume Publicis might influence NewsGuard’s ratings of drug industry competitors, such as alternative health sites.
“Being a Google partner, Publicis also has the ability to bury undesirable views that might hurt its clientele.”
Publicis is a partner of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and, indeed, appears as a partner of the WEF’s “Great Reset” (as are pharmaceutical companies and COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer).
What appears to be a common thread connecting NewsGuard employees, investors and partners is connections to organizations that have a vested interest in promoting COVID vaccination and pandemic countermeasures;
And now NewsGuard is coming to children’s schools.
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