On the surface, the services NewsGuard offers seem like an excellent solution to the crush of disinformation found in online news. The for-profit company started in 2018 with the goal of offering consumers a rating to help identify news sources that are not credible. As the company has grown and profits have soared, questions have begun to arise about the efficacy of the company’s products. Elon Musk is the latest to call out the company, posting on X this week that NewsGuard is a scam.
— One America News (@OANN) October 20, 2023
“Disband NewsGuard!,” Musk posted on October 19. “Anything with a name that sounds like it came out of an Orwell novel should never be trusted.”
The controversy comes as a result of natural economic forces. As profits increase, NewsGuard is motivated to “approve” those who pay the highest amounts, even if the company claims its processes are transparent and not intended to be manipulated with money. According to the company, the only way sites can improve ratings is by controlling content to provide factual and accurate information.
The idea that a for-profit company determines what the facts are -or are not- naturally leads to conspiracy theories. In true Orwellian fashion, it is certainly plausible that NewsGuard is manipulating ratings to provide a favored status for websites that pay while reducing the presence of websites that do not pay.
Many of the largest tech companies have rejected NewsGuard, including Twitter and Meta, the parent company of Facebook. Microsoft -whose former CEO Bill Gates has a running feud with Musk- was the first of the major companies to get on board with the censorship engine.
NewsGuard CEOs Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz said the company uses “human intelligence” to screen websites for disinformation. Brill and Crovitz said they have seen the largest number of disinformation websites in the healthcare field.
“To the degree that we can empower people with more information about which sources are trustworthy and to the degree that we can help advertisers stop subsidizing misinformation on the internet, we think we can make a real contribution to the news environment and to increasing trust in sources that deserve trust,” Crovitz said in an interview in January 2022.
Consumer confidence in websites that provide news services has seen marked declines in recent years, particularly since the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign, in which many organizations on both the left and right were accused of manipulating stories to drive voter behaviors. Whistleblowers at Facebook and Twitter both exposed how the tech giants used their considerable power to manipulate questionably accurate news stories and spread disinformation.
Massive public disagreement over protocols put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic further fueled discussions on identifying fake news. Governments around the world are searching for new and innovative ways to control the information consumers are exposed to online while pursuing legal avenues to break up some of the world’s largest and most profitable companies.