(TNS) — In an election season where Michiganders are being subjected to a range of efforts to sway their votes, there's a new tool: dozens of partisan local news websites masquerading as traditional local news outlets.

These outlets have been proliferating since the 2016 election. All but one are part of a convoluted network of sites with ties to conservative political groups, according to an investigation conducted by Priyanjana Bengani, a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

Bengani found that the number of websites in this network has nearly tripled in 2020. Michigan is home to the third-highest number of conservative local news sites part of this network whose existence was first reported by the Lansing State Journal.

A similar effort by the political left to persuade voters through local media recently launched in Michigan. The ‘Gander, a progressive news website owned by a liberal dark money group, is one of several local outlets launched in battleground states ahead of the 2020 general election. "The view that news can be an influence campaign is one that’s been spreading in the United States," said Josh Pasek, a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan.

"That’s dangerous. It allows low-quality or partial information to spread more widely and it makes it harder to distinguish between information that is well-vetted and evaluated and information that’s only half-baked."

These partisan news outlets appear to exploit the unique vulnerability and faith in local media.

“The demise of local journalism in many areas creates an information vacuum, and raises the chance of success for these influence campaigns,” writes Bengani.

Since 2004, 2,100 local newspapers — one in four — have disappeared.

There’s another advantage to trying to persuade voters through local media: “People trust local news a lot more,” Bengani said.

These partisan local outlets have ties to political organizations and are spending big on Facebook advertisements to target voters ahead of the election.

Partisan Sites Depend on Social Media and Trust in Local News

Targeting news content over traditional digital advertisements is a more effective way to influence voters, according to Tara McGowan, the CEO of the liberal dark money group that owns The 'Gander.

But those who click on an ad from The ‘Gander or one of the conservative network websites might not know they are consuming partisan content.

"It’s important that people know when they’re reading an ideologically aligned news outlet and it’s also important that they know if they’re reading one that is funded by a political campaign or political organization," says Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State.

But there’s nothing to alert readers that what they’re seeing is not from a traditional local news publication.“Facebook lets people self-identify as a news media organization. There’s no vetting process on Facebook’s site,” Bengani said.

Both the conservative network of local sites and The ‘Gander rely on Facebook advertising to target voters with their content. In fact, The ‘Gander, which has so far spent roughly $449,900 on Facebook ads, is one of the top spenders in Michigan.

It is unclear whether these partisan local news sites  coordinate with campaigns and PACs. But while these outlets leverage Americans’ trust in local media as a key part of their strategy, they pose a potential challenge to public confidence in local news.

According to the Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative study with Gallup, 45 percent of Americans trust reporting by local news organizations compared with 31 percent who trust reporting by national news organizations. But the study found that the trust advantage local outlets enjoy evaporates when local outlets are perceived as producing politically biased reporting.

The growth of these partisan outlets also makes it difficult for ordinary people to evaluate the quality of the information they're coming across.

"If you take the same news story and you give it a local flair and put it out in lots of different local outlets, now all of the sudden, that information appears to be relatively broadly believed," Pasek said.

"You end up in a situation where a lot of the mental shortcuts people use to evaluate the news leads them exactly down the wrong path when local news is biased," he said.

Who Owns These Sites?

Metric Media, established in August 2019, is the largest owner of conservative outlets in Michigan. Its websites are named in a way that makes them sound like a traditional local newspaper such as the UP Gazette, Holland Reporter and Livingston Today.

The “about” page on Metric Media’s sites reads, “Our approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” But many of their articles highlight the legislative efforts of Michigan’s Republican lawmakers and Republican talking points such as one article that summarized a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation on voter fraud. President Donald Trump has repeatedly and falsely claimed the existence of massive voter fraud.

In addition to Metric Media, LocalLabs and Franklin Archer Local News Network also operate conservative local news websites across the state. LocalLabs is owned by Chicago-based conservative businessman Brian Timpone who received national attention when one of his journalism ventures was caught plagiarizing, falsifying quotes and hiring cheap labor to write stories under fake bylines.

Franklin Archer’s Michigan websites — the Ontonagon Guide and Munising Guide — are listed as products of LocalLabs. Franklin Archer was created in 2018 and Michael Timpone, Brian Timpone’s brother, is the CEO.

In 2016, another one of Brian Timpone's ventures was paid more than $300,000 by Liberty Principles, a conservative super PAC run by Dan Proft, to mail weekly newspapers to voters created by the PAC. This led to a Federal Election Commission lawsuit that named LocalLabs for its contract with Local Government Information Services, a company partially owned by Proft, to prepare content for publication.

The FEC lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed, charged that the entities involved violated campaign finance law by “re-publishing campaign materials in a format designed to look like local community papers."

It is unclear whether Metric Media is formally linked to the Timpones’ ventures but Metric Media’s websites share the same privacy policy, terms of service, bylines, servers, layouts and templates as LocalLabs.

Most of the content on these websites come from automated services or news releases with few stories written by human reporters filling local information needs in their communities and their websites feature stories that have a conservative political bent.

For example, a recent piece published by the UP Gazette reports on a Republican lawmaker's opposition to proposed legislation that would ban police in Michigan from using tear gas without including alternative viewpoints. Another, published by North Michigan News, regurgitates comments made by Michigan Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R- Levering, regarding his opposition to requiring student athletes to wear masks in Michigan.

“If you can sandwich conservative content between data-driven content, then it does give you a boost in credibility,” Bengani said.

The 'Gander takes a different approach. “They do explicitly state they’re funded by a Super PAC. They also seem to be doing genuine reporting,” Bengani said.

The ‘Gander has a small staff of local reporters and the editor-in-chief of Courier Newsroom, The ‘Gander’s owner, says “Courier Newsroom is not controlled by any candidate, political party, or political organization.” The 'Gander has published a number of pieces promoting Biden's campaign, including headlines such as "Why 2 Metro Detroit Moms Believe Biden Will Put Families First as President" and "Biden Proposes $2 Trillion Plan to Fight Climate Change and Create Millions of Jobs."

The ‘Gander is one of many local news sites set up in battleground states of the 2020 election to persuade and mobilize voters, according to a memo written by McGowan, the CEO of the dark money group ACRONYM, which owns Courier Newsroom. PACRONYM, a Super PAC affiliated with ACRONYM, has spent millions to support Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

A request for comment through the email addresses listed for LocalLabs, Metric Media and The 'Gander was not returned.

The coronavirus-induced recession has led to a steep and sudden decline in advertising revenue for local newsrooms, compounding the existing economic challenges that confronted local newsrooms before the pandemic. As a result, many local newsrooms have shuttered and laid off reporters.

While the number of traditional local news outlets contracts across the country, the number of politically backed local news websites continues to grow.

©2020 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.