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‘Wildfire of disinformation’: how Chevron exploits a news desert

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‘Wildfire of disinformation’: how Chevron exploits a news desert

Image: Chevron’s Texan offering has echoes of other dubious ‘local news’ sites that have emerged in recent years. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

As the closures of newspapers leave Americans struggling for information, Chevron has swooped in to serve up a mixture of local news and propaganda

The dire state of local journalism in the US has been well documented in recent years, as the closure of hundreds of local newspapers has created American “news deserts” where people struggle for information on local politics and happenings.

It has also created openings for companies and political groups to swoop in, serving up a mixture of local news and propaganda, with the latest being Chevron, in Texas’ news starved – and oil-rich – Permian Basin.

The launch of Chevron’s “Permian Proud” site, in August, was first reported by Gizmodo.

The banner at the top of Permian Proud does state that the site is “sponsored by Chevron”. But at first glance, the sponsorship seems like a benevolent grant. On Wednesday Permian Proud’s front page included stories about an upcoming air show and a storytelling workshop – typical local newspaper fare.

But interspersed with news of livestock sales and processions is a series of stories lauding Chevron’s achievements in the Permian Basin, a sprawling area covering parts of west Texas and east New Mexico, where the company operates numerous oil fields.

“New solar energy field in Permian Basin to lower Chevron’s carbon intensity” is one. Another headline reads: “Independent analysis gives Chevron highest environmental rating in Permian Basin.”

Gizmodo reported that content on the site has been written by Mike Aldax, who works for a San Francisco-based PR firm. Since 2014, according to Gizmodo, Aldax “has also written for a Chevron-funded newspaper in California called the Richmond Standard”.

Chevron’s Texas offering has echoes of other dubious “local news” sites that have emerged in recent years.

Locality Labs and Metric Media, both operated by the same ex-journalist, have opened hundreds of “news” sites, which purport to represent local communities, since 2019. The sites, which include the Great Lakes Wire and the Illinois Valley Times, masquerade as local news outlets, but in reality are funded by Republican and conservative groups.

Last November an investigation by Popular Information found that rightwing operatives had used the sprawling network of fake news sites to target crucial state elections, including the Virginia governor’s race in 2021. As the Virginia election loomed, 28 sites, all run by Metric Media, published almost 5,000 articles about critical race theory in schools, a frequently misrepresented issue that has become a call to arms, and to the ballot box, among the right wing.

The rise in fake sites coincides with a crisis for local journalism. Since 2005 the US has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers, according to Northwestern University’s Medill School, and is on track to lose more than a third by 2025.

The closures have created “news deserts” – where people have either limited access, or no access at all, to reliable local reporting.

“The local news desert situation is an absolute crisis, and it’s getting worse. It’s a crisis for communities and it’s a crisis for our democracy, I think, ultimately,” said Tim Franklin, the John M Mutz chair in local news at the Medill School.

“And so, what’s happening now is you’re seeing opportunists, whether they be political parties or companies, in some cases, coming in to try to fill that void with their own messaging.”

In an email Chevron told Gizmodo that Permian Proud is “aimed at providing regional communities with information that is important to them, specifically focused on highlighting the good work so many people are doing and showcasing why the Permian communities are a great place to live and work”.

It is unclear, however, how many people reading the site will be able to tell the difference between local information and Chevron’s PR fluff.

A message on Permian Proud reads: “Our focus will be on news and information that makes us all proud to live here. Permian Proud will highlight and uplift such efforts, not just for its community partners, but for anyone wanting to get the word out to the public on local events, fundraisers, initiatives and more.”

It’s a message that overlooks the fact that some of Permian Proud’s news content has been pasted, unchanged, from Chevron press releases.

“We’re already in a misinformation, disinformation wildfire in this country. What this is doing is fanning the flames of that wildfire of disinformation that is already infecting our civic debate,” Franklin said. He believes that as newspapers continue to close, more companies, or political groups, will move into the local news industry.

“In a self-governed democracy, accurate news and information is the oxygen for citizens to be able to make good decisions at the ballot box, or good decisions about how to live their daily lives.

“So I think the implications of this are very serious for our democracy and for the country.”

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Source: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2022/sep/12/chevron-newspaper-local-news-permian-proud-site

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