The Rise of the Parapolitical Sites as the Leading False-Content Producers
Misinformation and disinformation are polluting the digital information ecosystem. As the World Health Organization declares an “infodemic,” much of the attention has turned to health and medicine related false content. Although YouTube/Google, Facebook, and Twitter have invested in massive cleanup efforts, this is not working. Facebook specifically has put in place policies and efforts to crack down on health misinformation and disinformation, alongside “clickbait” (content designed to increase pageviews and hence advertising revenue, especially when the link directs to suspect or questionable sites), to fact-check content reported by users, to reduce the amplification of articles deemed false, and to direct less attention to outlets that repeatedly publish them.
However, analysis by the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative (DIDI) at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, working with partners NewsGuard and Newswhip, suggests that a shift in the type of false-content publications, changing from the overtly political to new health and lifestyle sites, laid the foundation that enabled current coronavirus-related misinformation and disinformation to circulate rapidly. Not only did the number of public interactions (likes, reactions, shares, and comments) with the top ten sites that repeatedly publish false content rise from 2016 to 2019, but the top ten false-content sites also now contain fewer sites publishing explicitly political content. New “parapolitical” sites have emerged, such as health and lifestyle-focused ones. These are less overtly political in a partisan sense and operate outside the bounds of traditional left-right discourse. They do, however, communicate a distinct worldview premised on a distrust of expertise and authority, especially in the areas of public health and institutional knowledge. In the coronavirus crisis, the already existing infrastructure and thematic focus of these sites indicates that the audience for such information was already large, and these outlets have wasted no time in seizing the opportunity to expand the reach of their message.
Working with research partners, DIDI first identified sites consistently publishing false content, and then looked at their reach and popularity. NewsGuard—a media-monitoring agency that rates digital outlets based on nine journalistic criteria—was contracted to determine broad levels of reliability when it comes to the news that most frequently populates newsfeeds, timelines, and Google searches. DIDI analyzed the publications that repeatedly published false content, according to NewsGuard. These are arguably what most people refer to when they think of “fake news”: outlets that claim to be news but in fact publish demonstrably false content with no corrections. This category is a narrow one that excludes publications that fail to separate news from opinion, a strategy hyper-partisan sites often use to avoid fact-checking regimes. Breitbart, for example, which employs this “opinion” strategy, is not included in the narrow false content category examined. The overall social media interactions with these sites from 2016 through 2019 were then calculated in partnership with Newswhip, a media intelligence firm. Newswhip measures the public interactions a given article received on Facebook, and around 10 percent of their social engagement includes interactions garnered from articles shared by several hundred thousand verified accounts on Twitter.
There was an increase in interaction with these “fake news” sites during the period studied, despite Facebook’s policy changes. Of the sites repeatedly publishing demonstrably false content, the top ten by interaction in 2019 had a much greater number of interactions than the top ten in 2016. Interaction levels rose by 141 percent from 2016 to 2019, from a little over 200 million to almost 500 million. For comparison, CNN.com received over 500 million interactions in 2016, while Vox.com garnered a little over 38 million. While the trend dipped in 2018, perhaps because of Facebook’s initiative to deprioritize news outlets in users’ newsfeeds, it roared back a year later. The explanation for how interactions with sites that repeatedly publish false information have increased despite the platforms’ efforts may lie in part in the change in the composition of the outlets among the top publishers of false content.
In 2016, the sites that dominated the top ten (almost all of them run out of the United States) were publishing articles with right-wing orientations such as “Hillary Says She Lied to Benghazi Families Due to “Fog of War”… DONALD TRUMP Responds” (Gateway Pundit) and “‘Black Lives Matter’ Supporters Plan Looting Sprees As Hurricane Matthew Hits” (Infowars), but many of them have subsequently dropped lower on the list or off the list (and in a few cases off Facebook). While in 2016 eight of the top ten where right-wing sites and two were Russian state-sponsored outlets, by 2019 only two right-wing sites remained (Thegatewaypundit.com and thebl.com), with the remainder consisting of three alternative health and wellness sites, three pro-life sites, and the two Russian publications. Thegatewaypundit.com fell from third in 2016 to ninth in 2019. Redstatewatcher.com, Infowars.com, and Rightwingnews.com (second, sixth, and ninth in 2016, respectively) were no longer in the top ten last year. Infowars was de-platformed from Facebook and Twitter in 2018, which explains the precipitous drop in engagement experienced by the conspiratorial website. Rightwingnews.com no longer has an active Facebook presence.
Top Ten False-Content Digital Outlets, 2016 and 2019.
|2016||Interactions (million)||2019||Interactions (million)|
Other sites, likely less known to a general audience, have vanished from the top ten as well. 100percentfedup.com (fifth in 2016), Thefreethoughtproject.com (seventh in 2016), Thepoliticalinsider.com (eighth in 2016), and Conservativedailypost.com (tenth in 2016) have all seen a drop in interactions, and some have cratered. Thepoliticalinsider.com dropped to thirteenth, but continues to boast over 2.5 million followers on its Facebook page, while Thefreethoughtproject.com and 100percentfedup remain in the top fifty, with the latter retaining a Facebook page with over 1.5 million followers. Conservativedailypost.com, on the other hand, was ranked 145th based on 2019 interactions, with a moribund Facebook page with fewer than 2,000 followers. It was also, in 2017, the subject of a lawsuit brought by a former model and actress whose likeness had been used as the public face of the outlet, unbeknownst to her.
Only two sites have maintained their relative standings on the top ten list. The Russian state-sponsored RT.com dominated interaction ratings in 2016 among outlets that repeatedly shared false content, experiencing interaction double of that the next-highest website, Redstatewatcher.com, received. RT.com has placed first every year since. Likewise, the Russian-state sponsored Sputniknews.com ranked fourth in 2016, and it has remained in the top five (fourth in 2017, third in 2018, and fifth in 2019). Provisional data for 2020 suggests both RT.com and Sputniknews.com will continue to enjoy their positions among the top five. The fact that both websites have been required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act does not seem to have reduced their popularity or reach.
However, the subject matters of new outlets in the top ten of false-content publishers in 2019 differs substantially from the partisan political and news heavy focus seen just three years prior. Three sites among the top ten in 2019 focus on health and wellness and three are dedicated to publicizing dispatches from the pro-life movement. TheBL.com, a site associated with the Epoch Times (itself funded and operated by the Falun Gong movement) and that was removed from Facebook at the end of 2019, rounded out the list.
In 2019, Healthyfoodhouse.com (a fitness and health site), Themindunleashed.com (a clickbait site featuring general news and health headlines), and Returntonow.net (an alt-environmental and natural health site) were ranked third, seventh, and tenth, respectively. Collectively, they received over 110 million interactions on Facebook and Twitter, more than half of the total interactions the top ten websites of 2016 experienced. Meanwhile, a website exclusively focused on anti-abortion, Lifenews.com, had moved into second place, while two other anti-abortion outlets, Lifesitenews.com and Liveaction.org, ranked sixth and eighth.
Rather than confront partisan politics directly, the three sites focused on health and lifestyle—Healthyfoodhouse.com, Themindunleashed.com, and Returntonow.net—exist instead as “parapolitical” entities, undermining authority and expertise, calling into question medical knowledge and public health practices, and dismissing government authorities. They spread false remedies for real ills, dispute the accuracy and validity of advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, and reject the classic tropes of left-right partisanship. These sites spread news stories that cloud the information environment by mixing slanted or suspect content in with saccharine stories about local heroes, acts of generosity, and human-animal relationships.
Healthyfoodhouse.com, while pushing anti-vaccine and other content that combines anti-expertise, anti-government, and anti-corporate messages, promotes pseudoscience content under headings such as “health tips,” “natural remedies,” and “animals.” A majority of the posted links are seemingly harmless (a recent article boasted the headline “Ants Bring Flower Petals To Cover Dead Bumblebee And Give Bee a ‘Funeral’”), but the website, which is operated from Macedonia according to mediabiasfactcheck.com, consistently publishes anti-vaccine content, outlandish cancer-treatment advice, and articles critical of Monsanto and genetically modified organisms.
Themindunleashed.com produces a broader array of content, pulling from reputable and unreputable sites (such as Zero Hedge, a controversial libertarian financial blog), but it is also involved in pushing anti-vaccine information, posting articles such as “New Study: Infant Mortality More than Doubles After DTP-Vaccine” and “Cardiologist Says “Don’t Vaccinate” Amid Recent Vaccine Hysteria,” railing against big pharma, and promoting conspiratorial thinking. It also incorporates posts on the coronavirus, which, while not outright false, are often alarmist. Befitting its name,” a considerable amount of content is devoted to how readers can become a “mentally sovereign human” or “escape the matrix using self-enquiry,” and to exploring the outer limits of consciousness and reality, while also denigrating the efficacy of traditional psychiatry and depression medication. While not explicitly partisan, the general thrust of its content presents an alternative sociopolitical ecosystem in perpetual contestation with recognized authorities.
Returntonow.net describes itself as a “new kind of ‘news’ website, whose contributors are not as concerned with current events as [they] are with the whole of the human experience.” With this mandate firmly in hand, its content ranges from environmentalism and natural living to anti-technologism and alternative health. It publishes a wide collection of anti-vaccine and anti-pharmaceutical content, from the disturbing (“BREAKING: Baby Foreskins Secretly Sold to Vaccine Companies For Decades, Foreskin Cells Now Injected Back into Babies”) to the outlandish (“Frankincense Oil Kills Chemo-Resistant Cancer Cells Without Damaging Healthy Cells, Studies Show”).
Checking the top ten sites in 2020 to date (which differed from those in 2019 by three outlets, including the re-appearance of Redstatewatcher.com), shows eight of them promoting misinformation or disinformation about the coronavirus, with headlines such as “STUDY: 26 Chinese Herbs Have a ‘High Probability’ of Preventing Coronavirus Infection” and “Why coronavirus is a punishment from God that should lead to repentance.’”
In addition, these three alternative-health sites harvest clicks and serve an enormous number of ads relative to the screen space. Banner ads run the length of each webpage, and the actual text of the site is often broken up repeatedly with in-content ads, sometimes comprising more than 50 percent of the page itself. Some of these advertisements are run by recognizable companies like Amazon, Waldorf-Astoria, and Weebly. Some of the popups that are served after clicking on a link would themselves be categorized as false content, and in one instance mimicked the layout, color scheme, and editorial style of Business Insider but calling itself Insider Business, and which attempted to sell users alternative health products.
Future research and discussions by DIDI will explore how these sites evade the platforms’ fact-checking filters. It may be that these sites are less provocative to users who report content for fact-checking or that fact checkers and/or Facebook do not consider the content false or worthy of demotion. DIDI will also examine interaction over time with different subsets of the sites that NewsGuard rates.
It appears that Facebook’s efforts have succeeded in reducing interaction with sites like Infowars.com and Redstatewatcher.com. But it has allowed a new, more ambiguous group of false content producers to continue to garner large numbers of interactions. And the new parapolitical sites, though as likely to discuss the dangers of Benadryl as they are to run screeds about Benghazi, continue to harvest clicks for advertising dollars, polluting the information environment and taking advantage of the clickbait-style writing format to push alternative visions of society, public and individual health, and scientific progress.
 “Parapolitics” is an orphan term. It has been used differently to describe various phenomena in the social and political sciences, from sociology to security studies and continental philosophy. Nonetheless, “parapolitics” and the “parapolitical” are generally ascribed to institutions, functions, agglomerations, or affinities that exist outside of, but parallel to, the accepted sphere of “politics.” The use of the term here fits firmly within established discourse, deployed in new ways to describe new conjunctures thrown up by the technological present.
 NewsGuard’s criteria for judging outlets are divided into two categories. First, five credibility criteria: does not repeatedly publish false content; gathers and presents information responsibly; regularly corrects or clarifies errors; handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly; and avoids deceptive headlines. Second, transparency criteria: discloses ownership and financing; clearly labels advertising; reveals who is in charge, including possible conflicts of interest; and provides the names of content creators, along with either contact or biographical information.
 NewsGuard’s scores outlets on a 0-100 spectrum. The overwhelming majority of the outlets reviewed scored between 0 and 20, indicating highly unreliable publications with almost no informational value. Out of the 702 outlets examined, only 61 scored above a 20, and the highest scored 42.5.
 Aside from RT.com and Sputniknews.com, only Conservativedailypost.com and Redstatewatcher.com had unknown countries of operation. This does not demonstrate that they are foreign-run entities, but that they operate in a nontransparent manner that obscures or conceals vital publishing information.
 Redstatewatcher.com continues to have a sizeable following on Facebook. Over 4 million people like and follow the page associated with it, perhaps due to a sleight of hand; whereas most outlets create Facebook pages with the same name as their publication, Redstatewatcher is instead the associated website for the page “Donald Trump for President,” which posts short videos and links to articles written by Redstatewatcher.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.