The last two U.S. election cycles have seen not just standalone partisan news sites crop up in certain states, but entire networks, each of which operate anywhere between half a dozen to over a thousand news sites. For the most part, these partisan and “pink slime” networks span ideological divides, provide a means to launder advocacy (be it political, corporate, or around special interests), and aren’t transparent about their funding which can come from PACs and dark money groups. Yet their websites mirror the look-and-feel of independent news sites, as do their titles: Names like Chicago City Wire, Michigan Independent, and Milwaukee Metro Times make it hard for readers to discern their true nature.
As independent local news outlets continue to struggle, not only will the scale and scope of these networks rise to fill the vacuum and take advantage of the inherent trust readers have in local news, but they’re likely to embrace the “surround sound” approach. Networks with aligned interests will boost each other’s narratives in a coordinated fashion to inundate readers with the same message from different places.
In some cases, different networks will be funded by the same sources who are building out their own vision of local news. In some cases, different partisan networks will collaborate with the same advocacy groups and cite the same research — which might also be funded by the same sources as the news networks. Different spins on the same story can also be published simultaneously on different websites across the networks, all the while citing and promoting aligned sites and networks.
The rationale behind this strategy is simple: Provide more credibility to these networks and the sites within these networks, while also ensuring these efforts are more influential. After all, the odds of a message cutting through to readers — and perhaps even to the traditional press — increase if it comes from multiple places as opposed to a single story in a single relatively unknown local news site.
In the run-up to the 2024 general election, more such networks will emerge, and adopting the “surround sound” tactic will become standard practice. Independent local media — already playing second fiddle to partisan local press in some state — will face the challenging task of ensuring its readers can distinguish between political campaigning and good old-fashioned news.
Priyanjana Bengani is a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.