This past Monday NewsGuard, a journalism rating platform that also analyzes and identifies AI-driven misinformation, announced it had identified hundreds of junk news sites powered by generative AI. The focus of NewsGuard’s release was how major brands were funding these spam sites through the indifference of programmatic advertising, but what I found interesting was how low that number was – 250 or so sites. I’d have guessed they’d find tens of thousands of these bottom feeders – but maybe I’m just too cynical about the state of news on the open web. I have a hunch my cynicism will be rewarded in due time, once the costs of AI decline and the inevitable economic incentives that have always driven hucksters kick in.
Given 250 is a manageable number for a mere mortal, I decided to ask the good folks at NewsGuard, where I’m an advisor, for a copy of their listings. Nothing like a tour through the post-apocalyptic hellscape of our AI future, right?
What I found was…disappointing. Most of the sites were beyond shoddy – barely literate, obviously automated, full of errors and content warnings, and utterly devoid of any sense of organizational structure. The most common message, upon clicking on a story link, was some variation of an OpenAI violation:
Not exactly a compelling headline. The next most common experience was this:
This of course is evidence that the scammers are rotating URLs to avoid blacklisting, unburdened of any concern about building audience loyalty. Beyond OpenAPI warnings and 404s, there’s the browser warnings that the site you’re about to visit is, well, seedy:
When you do get an actual news experiences, it becomes clear that these publishers have little interest in passing as “real news sites,” IE publications a sane person might intend to visit. They are instead built as SEO chum in the hopes that Google’s indexes might favor them with some low quality traffic, or worse, as destinations for bot traffic destined for arbitrage inside the darker regions of the programmatic ad universe. The editorial decisions on the various home pages I visited were, well, hilariously inchoate:
Perhaps that’s what we should expect with the first phase of this particular genre, but I found their general awfulness depressing: Most reporters will look at these sites and dismiss them. But they shouldn’t.
Traditional “made for advertising” sites already control 21 percent of all programmatic advertising revenues, and these sites tend to dominate Google search results, enshittifying the open web with low-calorie crap that, one would hope, actually good AI might help us avoid. But the relatively low volume of AI sites indicates, at least anecdotally, that so far the economics of replacing human-built content with AI-driven drivel have yet to kick it. Put simply, it’s still too expensive to replace sites like Geeky Post or Explore Reference with AI. For now.
But when costs come down, I expect made for advertising sites will pivot to AI almost overnight. And I wonder if that’s a bad thing. Once the web’s worst sites all shift to AI-driven output, perhaps they’ll find themselves in a positive spiral of competition for actual human attention. If these sites start to create reasonably high quality content, and search and social start to reward them with real traffic that converts to revenue, perhaps we can simply automate away the shitshow that the open web has become.
One can dream.