Right-wing operatives deploy massive network of fake local news sites to weaponize CRT

Last Tuesday night, Glenn Youngkin (R) was elected the next governor of Virginia. At 9:15 PM, Garrit Lansing, president of WinRed, the main online fundraising vehicle for Republican candidates, sent this tweet:

What is West Nova News? And what does it have to do with Ian Prior, the former spokesperson for Attorney General Jeff Sessions? This is where things get interesting. 

West Nova News appears to be a standard local news website. It is not. Rather it is part of a massive network of websites linked to "conservative businessman Brian Timpone." There are more than 1300 sites currently in the network, including at least 28 that operate in Virginia. 

The sites in Virginia look identical and feature much of the same content. Most of the articles do not have a byline and are automatically generated. 

Timpone has a long history of leveraging "low-cost automated story generation." A previous company run by Timpone, Journatic, "attracted national attention and outrage for faking bylines and quotes, and for plagiarism." 

Journatic was rebranded Locality Labs and is now part of the Metric Media network, which operates the 1300+ local news sites. Metric Media boasts that it produces "over 5 million news articles every month." It has claimed to be "the largest producer of local news in the United States."

West Nova News and the other news sites in the network have little advertising and no subscription fees. The Columbia Journalism Review linked funding for sites in the network to “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement" and "a Catholic political advocacy group that launched a $9.7 million campaign in swing states against the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden."

But donations aren't the only way that the Metric Media network funds its work. And this is where Ian Prior enters the story. 

An investigation last year by the New York Times found that Metric Media sites operate on a "pay-to-play" system. In 2020, a freelance journalist was paid $22 to write an "article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite." After the story was published in the Maine Business Daily, which is part of the Metric Media network, the freelancer received an email saying the "client" who ordered the article had requested she add "more detail." 

The client was Ian Prior, who also ordered articles promoting Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO). Prior, a longtime Republican operative, previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican PAC which spent millions on ads to defeat Gideon. 

In this way, Prior and other clients can use the network to launder partisan attacks as "news." Quotes from sites in the Metric Media network can then be used in political mailers or in television ads with the authority of a neutral source. In some cases, the publications themselves are delivered "unsolicited, to doorsteps." The clients pay Metric Media thousands to produce "news" that meets their specifications.

Prior is not listed as the author of the story in West Nova News. (The byline is listed as "Staff Reports.") Nor is he quoted in the article itself. Lansing, however, links Prior to the article he claims "started it all." 

The piece that Lansing references, published in September 2020, is one of the first to claim that Critical Race Theory is infiltrating Virginia schools. It claims that "Loudoun County Public Schools has spent $422,500 in taxpayer funds 'training' staff on critical race theory." This is false. The money was allocated to create an equity plan and provide related services to help implement the plan. The initiative was created in response to a Loudoun County School that played an "Underground Railroad" game in which "an African-American child in the class was designated as a slave for the activity."

Neither the contract for the plan nor the plan itself mentions Critical Race Theory. It does talk about strategies to "ensure student growth and success for every child." This includes the "[r]ecruitment and retention of a high performing, diverse workforce." The West Nova News story describes this as "hiring fewer white teachers." 

A few weeks later, in October 2020, an article written by Prior that cited all of the same underlying documents, accompanied by even harsher political rhetoric, was published on The Federalist, a far-right website

According to Vice, those documents were obtained by Prior through a Freedom of Information Act request. Prior lives in Loudoun County. Asked by Vice to provide an example as to how Critical Race Theory is reflected in Loudoun County instruction, Prior said "his second-grade daughter was taught about Christopher Columbus’ genocidal history." 

This year Prior founded Fight for Schools, a group pushing parents to fight Critical Race Theory and organizing recalls of school board members that oppose its agenda. Prior and Fight for Schools are also a member of the American Schools Coalition, which operates the CRT Central website. CRT Central aggregates anti-CRT stories from across the Metric Media network. The American Schools Coalition also includes other figures and organizations that are closely linked to Metric Media.

A Popular Information investigation reveals that, in 2021, Metric Media published thousands of articles promoting the notion that Critical Race Theory is taught in Virginia schools. Many, but not all, of these articles are automated. 

Nationwide, tens of thousands of articles about Critical Race Theory have been published across the Metric Media network. That number is growing every day. The network is positioned to be a powerful tool in injecting Critical Race Theory into the 2022 campaign under the guise of "local news."

Metric Media and Prior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fake “local news” sites push anti-CRT content in Virginia

A Popular Information analysis found that between January and November 2021, the 28 “local news” sites in Virginia published 4,657 articles about Critical Race Theory in schools. 

Many of these articles are automated stories that reference an obscure online pledge to teach Critical Race Theory from the Zinn Education Project, which promotes education based on the work of historian Howard Zinn. The Media Metric sites post these articles weekly, or sometimes daily, with similar headlines such as, “No new teachers in Harrisonburg sign pledge on Oct. 9 to teach Critical Race Theory.” 

There does not appear to be any verification that the signers of the pledge are actually teachers. Nor does the pledge mention Critical Race Theory. Rather, the petition opposes legislative measures the group believes "prohibit teachers from teaching the truth about this country." These bills are often described as efforts to ban "Critical Race Theory" but prohibit instruction of a broad array of topics. 

Other articles do not appear to be automatically generated and include bylines. At the end of October, Old Dominion News, a Metric Media site based in Virginia, posted an article that highlighted Ian Prior and the work of Fight for Schools. This article is featured on the homepage of the CRT Central website.

The article discussed Prior’s involvement in the ongoing conflict with school boards in Loudoun County, Virginia due to parents’ concerns with “the influence of so-called Critical Race Theory (CRT), non-traditional gender education, explicit sexual curriculum and strict COVID-19 protocols.” The article addressed Prior’s initiative to “scrub the Loudoun [school] board” of members who joined parents and teachers in a Facebook group called “Anti-racist parents of Loudoun County.” 

According to Prior, the school board members who were a part of the Facebook group should be removed from the school board for being part of a “private, view-point restricted Facebook group” and trying “to silence and intimidate those in the community that object to their politicizing our schools.” The piece is effectively a press release for Fight for Schools and another organization called the Convention of States.

Volunteers for Convention of States (COS), a grassroots organization, is no exception. Beginning this summer it joined in criticizing board policies that is says discuss Marxism and CRT.

Prior has rallied support from COS volunteers in the effort to recall the school board members.

"I knew that they have an amazing grassroots team...," Prior said...

According to its website, Fight for Schools focuses on "electing common sense candidates that commit to policies that support equal opportunity, tolerance, meritocracy and achievement." To learn more, visit www.fightforschools.com.

Convention of States is a client of SMG, a political consulting firm. Bradley Cameron is the CEO of SMG and the General Manager of Metric Media. The Metric Media network frequently provides positive coverage of SMG clients, including Ashford, Inc., a hospitality firm run by Monty Bennett, a major Republican donor. Bennett also owns a media site, Dallas Express, which uses the same technology stack and writers as Metric Media.

Fake “local news” sites push anti-CRT content around the country

Popular Information also found hundreds of fake local news sites pushing false claims about Critical Race Theory in other states.  

In Texas, at least 39 local news sites affiliated with Metric Media published 11,988 articles containing the phrase “Critical Race Theory” in 2021. As is the case with Virginia, a vast majority of these articles reference the online pledge to not teach Critical Race Theory.

There are also several other stories that focus on initiatives by the Convention of States. Houston Daily, an outlet in the Metric Media network, published a piece on October 29 titled “Convention of States survey helps constituents 'decide for themselves' in upcoming school board election, COS president says.” 

The piece focuses on a Convention of States survey that asks school board candidates in Houston their opinions on “allowing students to use bathrooms/locker rooms based on their identified gender rather than at-birth gender; requiring teachers to use a student's preferred pronouns; supporting Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculums including CRT; supporting The 1619 Project; and supporting district-wide COVID vaccine and mask mandates.”

The article quotes Convention of States President Mark Meckler, who is the co-chair of American Schools Coalition alongside Prior. Meckler is also the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots and was the former interim CEO of Parler, a right-wing social media network. 

None of these stories disclose the relationships between Convention of States, Metric Media, and SMG.

Another Metric Media outlet, the Granite State Times, published a story in October with the headline “New Hampshire legislator: 'Classic Marxist trick at the root of critical race theory.” The article focuses on New Hampshire State Representative Keith Ammon (R-Hillsborough) who introduced a bill that prohibits educators from discussing “divisive concepts” related to systemic racism and sexism. 

“At the root of [critical race theory] is a Marxist doctrine that separates society into oppressors and oppressed,” Ammon said in a quote published by the Granite State Times. He noted that the bill was modeled after Trump’s executive order on banning diversity training. 

Popular Information found at least 2,162 articles containing “Critical Race Theory” across six Metric Media local news sites in New Hampshire.

In Ohio, Popular Information found that there were at least 6,262 articles containing the phrase “Critical Race Theory” across 40 news outlets affiliated with Metric Media. In Florida, there were at least 10,096 articles containing the phrase  “Critical Race Theory” across 47 Metric Media-related news sites. 

Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Texas all have gubernatorial races coming up in 2022. After Youngkin’s win last week, Republican candidates in these states are expected to make opposition to Critical Race Theory a central issue.