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'What a scam!' Elon Musk calls for self-described 'media watchdog' NewsGuard to be disbanded

Elon Musk wants the for-profit anti-disinformation company disbanded after reports resurface of ratings bias and censorship. The company has boasted of its collaboration with government agencies.

Published: October 20, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: October 21, 2023 5:13pm

On Thursday, Twitter CEO and entrepreneur Elon Musk called for NewsGuard—a for-profit entity dedicated to countering what it calls misinformation—to be “disbanded.”

His statements came after former State Department official Mike Benz, executive director of the Foundation for Freedom Online, pointed out that NewsGuard partnered with the European Union to develop its new disinformation codes and helps the body combat mis- and disinformation in a post to Musk’s X, formerly Twitter. The recently amended EU guidelines can fine companies up to 6% of global annual revenue or even ban them in EU countries. 

According to its website, NewsGuard “provides transparent tools to counter misinformation for readers, brands, and democracies.” Its team of “trained journalists” collects and updates data points on “35,000 news and information sources” and catalogues “top false narratives” spreading online. With this data, the company gives out “trust ratings” to these websites and flags what it characterizes as mis- and disinformation in the process.

NewsGuard has partnered with the U.S. State Department, the Defense Department, and the World Health Organization to combat what it claims is COVID-19 misinformation. According to Benz, NewsGuard has put news sites out of operability by placing them on a Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center blacklist. An archived page from its website highlights some of the most prominent purported COVID-19 myths propagated by these sites.

Interestingly, it did not address any of the “myths” propagated by mainstream outlets about COVID-19 or the vaccines, such as when the media downplayed or tried to discredit the lab-leak theory as a conspiracy theory, which NewsGuard described as “unsubstantiated.” In fact, the Department of Energy and FBI have said the "lab leak" theory was the "most likely" origin of the virus, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In 2020, NewsGuard began a partnership with the National Security Innovation Network, which is a joint State and Defense Department program dedicated to finding solutions for the agencies to track disinformation narratives. NewsGuard boasted of its collaboration with the government in a press release saying that its “human intelligence approach proved a unique and valuable offering.”

NewsGuard offered the government access to its database of journalists' ratings of news sites across the U.S. and Europe. It also provided its "Misinformation Fingerprints" database, which is a catalogue of “known hoaxes, falsehoods and misinformation narratives that are spreading online.” The press release describes part of NewsGuard’s process. “We ‘prebunk’ many of the leading hoaxes by having already signaled that the source is suspect,” NewsGuard general manager Matt Skibinski says in the press release.

This process has led to specific concerns from news media groups or figures who have been investigated or found suspect in the past on an apparently arbitrary basis. Musk’s tweets spurred comments from some of these media figures and conservative organizations claiming that NewsGuard has treated them unfairly in the past or singled them out for investigation because of previous comments they made about the organization or for questioning prominent narratives.

After Musk’s posts on Thursday, PragerU—a conservative education organization—posted a link to its petition “to expose NewsGuard and its cronies for suppressing free speech.” PragerU argues that NewsGuard's poor rating of its site—which it highlights is not even a news site—contributes to damaging its reputation and costs it “hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars,” as the summary of its petition reads. “NewsGuard censors media companies that refuse to comply with the approved narrative,” PragerU asserts in its petition.

PragerU is far from alone. Conservative talk-show host Dave Rubin also chimed in. “Fun Fact: I mentioned Newsguard once on my show on a Friday a few months ago when they were going after @prageru. That Monday morning I had an email from them saying they are looking into my show,” Rubin posted to X.

Wayne Dupree, a conservative-leaning podcast host, also posted about his interactions with NewsGuard. “Since 2020, Newsguard has purposely and maliciously provided negative feedback for my website (which called out mainstream media for lying to American public and even quoted them) which was disseminated to various advertiser cutting revenue next to nothing and got away with it,” DuPree posted to X.

The online news site California Globe, the Tennessee Star, and podcaster Tim Pool all posted to X about their own experiences with NewsGuard, none of them positive. The Globe said that "NewsGuard is the most disingenuous and creepy organization we've had the displeasure of encountering. The instant California Globe began asking questions about Covid-response, we were bombarded with demands to answer their lengthy, obnoxious accusations."

The conservative Media Research Center (MRC) found that NewsGuard has for years rated liberal news sites consistently higher than conservative news sites, according to a January update to their study of NewsGuard.

“The average NewsGuard score for the 'left' and 'lean left' outlets…was a 'green shield' rating of 91/100,” MRC wrote. “While the average rating for 'right' and 'lean right' outlets — which included Fox News, The Daily Wire and New York Post — was a low 66/100,” it continued. MRC noted that even after Hunter Biden’s laptop emails were verified, NewsGuard kept high scores for Politico, The Washington Post and USA Today, which each posted stories linking Hunter Biden’s emails to Russian disinformation.

Interestingly, one of NewsGuard's most high-profile advisors, former CIA director and retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, signed the original letter warning about Hunter Biden's laptop being a Russian information operation shortly before the 2020 election. The contents of the laptop were eventually verified by the news media and the FBI. The Wall Street Journal later said that the letter signed by Hayden "itself was disinformation."

Just The News has been unable to locate any apology or retraction from Hayden regarding his assertion that the Hunter Biden laptop "has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation."

In the months after 9/11, Hayden set up an operation called Stellar Wind, under which the NSA eavesdropped—without a warrant—on Americans suspected of communicating with terrorists overseas. In 2004, the Office of Legal Counsel concluded the program was not legal, and then-Acting Attorney General James Comey refused to reauthorize it.

MRC’s report detailed several other instances of NewsGuard failing to adjust ratings when liberal-leaning publications failed to correct disproven stories, such as BuzzFeed, which still presents a key story on the since-disproven Steele Dossier with no added context. Yet, BuzzFeed retains a perfect NewsGuard score, according to MRC. Other "media watchdogs" such as "Media Bias/Fact Check" have declared BuzzFeed to be of only "medium" credibility.

NewsGuard disputed the general claims of MRC and the conservative-aligned organizations and media figures in a statement to Just the News.

“NewsGuard was created as an alternative to the black-box algorithms that decide which news content is promoted and which is not on big tech platforms--and as an alternative to any government censorship of content. We rate publishers using publicly disclosed, apolitical journalistic criteria, and we publish the evidence and rationale behind our assessment of each publisher we rate, along with any comments from the publisher, so that each reader can see and decide for themselves,” NewsGuard’s General Manager Matt Skibinski told Just the News on Friday.

“As a result of our apolitical rating system, many right-wing sources get high trust scores and many left-wing news sources get low trust scores and vice versa. For example, the conservative Daily Caller has a higher trust score than the liberal Daily Beast, the conservative Daily Wire has a higher trust score than the liberal Daily Kos, and the conservative Fox News website has a higher trust score than the liberal MSNBC website,” he continued.