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Voices: Another fake news site distorts political coverage in Montana

(Stock image)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the danger of “pink slime” news sites – corporate shells with the appearance of legitimate new sites — coming to Montana in the months leading up to the November election.

Damaging as those sites may be to the reputation of news outlets and the quality of information Montanans receive and share, we need to worry about an even more significant threat to public information: local sites that ape the appearance of news sites while presenting incredibly slanted, factually inaccurate articles as if they are straight news.

A prominent example of this kind of site is the relatively new Montana Daily Gazette, which presents itself as news without bothering to give balanced coverage or pesky facts.

Consider today’s story about Whitney Williams’s choice of Milo Mattelin as her running mate. Combining images lifted from the Independent Record and a faux news style, the piece includes claims like this: “Neighbors of Mattelin between the Eastern Montana towns of Culbertson and Brockton claim that ‘Mattelin once fancied himself a Republican.’”

No names, no sources, no evidence.

Or this piece titled “Jon Tester Votes to Let Already-Born Babies Die Without Medical Treatment,” which includes this claim: “Tester has continued his legacy of supporting each and every aspect of infanticide, both in and out of the womb.”

A profound distortion of the truth.

Or this story headlined “Socialist Running Against Sen. Steve Daines in Montana Republican Primary,” which included no evidence other than the author’s assertion that Dan Larson is or ever has been a socialist.

Just not true.

All three of these pieces (aside from some troubling factual accuracy issues) could be considered legitimate commentary on politics, but the danger is that the Montana Daily Gazette presents itself as news, from the images it lifts from legitimate news sources to its style, which mimics an old logo design and the name of the state’s largest paper, the Billings Gazette.

And readers are being fooled. Earlier this week, Rep. Theresa Manzella shared a story on Facebook about congressional candidate Tom Winter that was being peddled by the MDG. Rep. Greg DeVries shared the Tester story, and a Facebook group dedicated to electing Montana Republicans approvingly noted that the site did not seem to be peddling “fake news.”

This, of course,  is the real danger of fake news. Given the rapid dissemination of little more than headlines and striking images on Facebook, a casual reader is apt to mistake the work appearing on sites like these for real coverage, never taking the time to investigate its biases more fully, magnifying the spread of disinformation across the state.

And when leaders in the Republican Party share that news, the danger grows.

While the Montana Daily Gazette tries to hide who is behind its work, it didn’t take long to uncover who is behind the site: Pastor Jordan D. Hall of Sidney.

The Montana Daily Gazette is hosted on a server located at this IP address: 74.208.178.190. Two other sites located at that exact IP address are Pulpit and Pen, another site run by Hall that offers commentary about Pete Buttigieg’s “gay reign of terror” and the site for Sidney’s Fellowship Baptist Church, where Hall serves as a pastor.

The private Facebook page for the Montana Daily Gazette, created three weeks ago, lists Jordan Hall as its administrator.

Finally, Hall is listed in the source code for the page as well.

It’s perhaps no accident that Hall is not posting the articles on the site under his own name as he is no stranger to controversy.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Pastor Hall or anyone else doesn’t have the right to publish commentary, even commentary that isn’t accurate. Ethics demand, though, presenting the site for what it is: an advocacy site that spins the news for political purposes, not an objective journalistic outlet that presents news.

Social media is challenging the foundations of the marketplace of ideas that underlies our belief that free speech is essential to a free society. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for those peddling information to be honest about who they are, what they are, and why they are.

Their readers deserve that transparency. And those sharing this kind of news need to be far more critical.

This column first appeared on the Montana Post and was republished with permission of the author.