Beware of fake ‘newspapers’ packaged as the old-school real deal

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Newspapers packed with political messaging mailed to voters (left) and mailers from the Democratic Party of Illinois warning voters about them.

Anthony Vazquez/ Sun-Times,

Almost everyone knows that when they read a write-up in The Onion, the online stories are humorous critiques on our culture and sharp satirical takes on the news.

The copy, at times, can be so on the nose about the state of the world, it feels real. But when we nod our heads, laugh and sometimes, sigh, in agreement, we know The Onion is a parody.

There’s another kind of fake news and misinformation that has proliferated in our country these last few years, poisoning the minds of Americans who are ready to swallow lies that feed into their political views. No matter how ludicrous, these rabid consumers of deceit — unlike the fans of The Onion — absorb every word as fact without using critical thinking.  

Which is why some right-wing Americans still believe Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and that COVID-19 is a hoax. Some on the left can also be sucked in: While extremely conservative citizens share the most fake news, those who identify as extremely liberal also share fake news frequently, accounting for 17.5% of such shares on Facebook and 16.4% on Twitter, according to a 2020 University of Colorado Boulder study.

Editorial

Editorial

Fabricated news stories are damaging: 64% of Americans say that phony information only leads to confusion about current events and issues, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center.

Alarmingly, those disseminating false information have gotten wiser, learning how to relay their problematic narratives in packaging that can potentially confuse even the most discerning readers.

Take the case of right-wing “newspapers” that have been infiltrating the mailboxes of Chicago area voters as we head into next week’s mid-term elections, as the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet reports. 

The papers published by the Local Government Information Services Inc. and printed by the sprawling media company Gannett, are essentially attack ads and diatribes against J.B. Pritzker and Democrats in the guise of news.  

They look like old-school print products. They contain stories, albeit chock full of inaccurate tidbits, and their mastheads and names sound authentic: Chicago City Wire; North Cook News; West Cook News; South Cook News; DuPage Policy Journal; Kane County Reporter; Lake County Gazette and Will County Gazette.

GOP political operative Dan Proft, who hasn’t shied away from his ties to the shady publications, is known for maligning the press and he is clearly aware that mimicking standards-based news provides the appearance of reliability, said Peter Adams, the senior vice president of research and design at the News Literacy Project, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit that aims to educate how students and others can smartly consume and identify credible news.

“He [Proft] clearly knows that legacy media has a reputation as a credible source,” said Adams, who described the Chicago City Wire he’s seen in his own mailbox as “one-sided” and “intended to spark fear.”  

Most Americans are savvy enough to know that not everything they read online is true. But Proft and others behind the “newspapers” are banking on using a medium that “looks and feels” like what many Illinoisans, particularly senior citizens, have relied on for information for decades, Adams said. 

This strategy is “pernicious” and “further muddies the water of what people think they can trust,” Adams said.

“It’s undeniable that they are trying to deceive people.”

Proft, conservative activist John Tillman and mega-donor Richard Uihlein are key figures behind the push to oust Pritzker and elect more Republicans in Springfield.

But who exactly is paying for the questionable periodicals is a mystery.

Under the Illinois Campaign Disclosure Act, political committees have to reveal their names if they are financing political ads on TV, in print or online and for texts and mailers.

Those rules don’t apply to newspapers, according to Sweet, the Sun-Times’ Washington bureau chief.

This loophole, then, allows Local Government Information Services Inc. to avoid financial disclosure requirements since its missives are delivered as news — even though they are not.

How convenient.

The slogan for these “newspapers” is “Real Data. Real News.”

That’s news to us. Hopefully, the recipients and readers of these mailings have caught on that you can’t believe everything you read.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

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November 3, 2022 at 07:08PM

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