Private company NewsGuard on defense in GOP crackdown on Big Tech censorship
Republican lawmakers probing Big Tech censorship say one of their next targets must be NewsGuard, an operation that bills itself as an “anti-misinformation” warrior but which conservatives say is another avenue for silencing voices on the right.
NewsGuard is one of a web of private companies that purports to police the news business, delivering verdicts on which publications can be trusted and which cannot. It bills its work as “apolitical,” but critics say it consistently finds fault with reporting done by news outlets seen as conservative while excusing similar reporting by liberal outlets.
The New York-based company came under new scrutiny after witnesses told a House hearing this month that NewsGuard had collected nearly $750,000 from the Pentagon for its work.
“If we do not take a look at NewsGuard, we have failed,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican.
He was addressing colleagues at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee’s select subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government. The panel had been looking at Twitter and how government employees kept an open line to Twitter, asking that content be censored.
The witnesses at the hearing, journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, testified about their access to Twitter documents revealing the back-and-forth in what’s become known as the “Twitter Files.”
But they also urged scrutiny of the network of news raters they said have helped privatize and expand censorship.
Mr. Shellenberger cited both NewsGuard and the Global Disinformation Index as having taken government funding while “urging advertisers to boycott disfavored publications, and direct their funding to favored ones.” He called them part of a “censorship industrial complex.”
He questioned the honesty of both companies, saying they “have been caught spreading disinformation, including that the COVID lab leak theory is a debunked conspiracy theory, and seeking to discredit publications which accurately reported on Hunter Biden’s laptop.”
GDI has gotten funding from several State Department sources, including the National Endowment for Democracy. The endowment said earlier this month that it would cut ties, saying it had paid the organization for work abroad but was troubled by GDI’s work on U.S. outlets.
NewsGuard, meanwhile, took $749,387 from the Defense Department in 2021, and a $25,000 grant offered jointly by the State Department and the Defense Department in 2020.
Company co-founder Gordon Crovitz said that doesn’t mean NewsGuard should be labeled “government-funded.”
“There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about NewsGuard and our work,” Mr. Crovitz wrote in an email to Mr. Taibi after the hearing. “Unlike other entities mentioned in the hearing, we are not a non-profit funded by government grants. We are a business with many licensees paying to access our proprietary data, including government entities that pay to license our data.”
The specific tool being licensed by the Pentagon, known as Misinformation Fingerprints, is described in a 2020 white paper as a tool that combines artificial intelligence and human analysis to search the internet and flag “misinformation narratives” spreading online.
Mr. Crovitz said, for example, the tool could be used by defense analysts to track the origin and spread of misinformation related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and determine whether those narratives are linked to Russian state-backed information operations.
“It’s valuable for people in the defense community, whose job it is to understand hostile information operations, particularly from Russia and China, which are both very active,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times.
He said that tool is different than the company’s flagship business of rating news outlets.
“It is true we’re proud of our work with the Department of Defense,” he said. “It frankly surprised us that members of Congress raised questions about that contract and we think they did that out of a misunderstanding of the nature of our work. We’re sure the members of Congress don’t begrudge the Pentagon for having tools to counter Russian and Chinese disinformation. That’s why we were surprised by the characterization of the work.”
The Media Research Center, a conservative-leaning watchdog, found “clear liberal bias in NewsGuard’s misinformation scoring system.” According to MRC’s analysis, NewsGuard has scored left-leaning news outlets 27 points higher, on average, than right-leaning outlets.
Mr. Crovitz has called the MRC study “unscientific.” He said the group “cherry-picked” data to skew the results — the same barb critics have aimed at his outfit.
House Republicans previously raised questions about NewsGuard after it signed a deal with the American Federation of Teachers to put the rating tools on the devices of millions of American teachers and school children.
In letters to both organizations, Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, and Burgess Owens of Utah said both AFT and NewsGuard’s “history of demonstrating left-wing bias” raises concern that they aim to politicize the classroom.
Mr. Banks, who was then the top Republican on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies and Information Systems, also accused NewsGuard of an “extreme partisan bias” in a letter to the head of U.S. Cyber Command, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, outlining his concern over the Misinformation Fingerprints contract last May.
“The Department of Defense’s financial support for the partisan suppression of political speech is an unacceptable and un-American abuse of taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Banks wrote.
Mr. Crovitz, a former publisher for the Wall Street Journal and a contributor to books published by conservative-leaning Washington think tanks, has consistently pushed back against claims that NewsGuard is politically biased in its news ratings.
He said NewsGuard has, for example, knocked outlets for declaring Hunter Biden’s discarded laptop computer as Russian disinformation.
“We said that that was false. It was definitely not disinformation,” he said. “The Twitter Files, in a way, got started because of claims that the laptop was not his. Ironically, we’ve been consistent. We declared as false the claims that it was Russian disinformation.
Mr. Crovitz told The Times that the Twitter Files have raised “timely and valid questions.”
It is these same questions, he said, that led him to start NewsGuard.
“When we launched the company, we said that we would be transparent and apolitical and that our ratings would be an alternative to two bad outcomes,” he said. “One bad outcome would be government involvement in the news, which is a fundamental issue,” he said “The other bad outcome was continuing to rely on the digital platforms to do this work themselves, secretly.”