The Case Against NewsGuard

Nolan Higdon and Susan Maret

by Project Censored

In January 2022, The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest labor union for teachers in the U.S., announced that it “launched a national partnership with a leading anti-misinformation tool NewsGuard (AFT, 2022).” NewsGuard was created in response to the moral panic over fake news, or disinformation, which began during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and was magnified during Donald Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 global pandemic (Higdon, 2020). The fear over fake news has led teacher unions like the AFT, as well as schools and universities, to adopt NewsGuard’s tools for the purpose of training students to identify mis- and disinformation (NewsGuard, 2022).

Educators and educational organizations and institutions would be wise to refuse any endorsement of the NewsGuard browser extension. The extension, branded as the “Internet Trust Tool,” distracts from the ways in which NewsGuard’s leadership and mission operate counter to the principles of democratic education and interests of organized labor. At best, NewsGuard is a questionable tool for information seeking, research, and literacy, and is at odds with the long-term interests of students and faculty.

NewsGuard’s Advisory Board raises concerns about the organization’s commitment to education and organized labor. The Board consists of former U.S. government officials and journalists associated with agencies known for producing false news; for example, board members such as Tom Ridge served in the Department of Homeland Security and General Michael Hayden at the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency (Higdon, 2020; Maret, 2018; NewsGuard, 2021a; Phillips, 2018). In addition, the Advisory Board includes individuals who publicly defended the use of propaganda such as former U.S. State Department official Richard Stengel (Norton, 2020).

The list of advisers also includes opponents of organized educators such as the former United States Secretary of Education under Barack Obama, Arne Duncan (NewsGuard, 2021a, 2021b; Nelson, 2014). While CEO of Chicago Schools, Duncan worked to weaken teacher unions (Nelson, 2014). As the United States Secretary of Education, Duncan also implemented a series of policies that led to teacher unions, such as National Education Association (NEA), to oppose him and the Obama administration’s education policy (Nelson, 2014). Duncan’s Race to the Top program sought to weaken teacher unions through competitive grants, charter schools, and standardized tests which served (Nelson, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2015, 2016).

In addition to the clear conflicts of interest on their Advisory Board, NewsGuard’s modelruns counter to the goals and processes of democratic education. Although studies (Higdon,2020) and long term programs embedded within educational institutions (e.g., Big 6) have shownthat critical news literacy is the most effective way to mitigate the influence of false information,AFT chose to support NewsGuard (2021c, 2021d) which offers “trust ratings” that labelcontent through color coding and what is termed a “Nutrition Label.” This simplistic approachhas not only proven ineffective (Aslett, et al., 2022), but diminishes the complexity andinterconnected ways of establishing credibility and veracity of information in terms of authority,context, history, framing, nuance, and weighing perspectives. For example, a 2018 Gallup pollfound that a green rating assigned by NewsGuard (e.g., CNN,Fox News) may be perceived as untrustworthy and some sources that individuals findtrustworthy are assigned a red shield (Oremus, 2019). Further, news outlets that are traditionally accuratein their reporting can and do report false stories. For example, The New York Times  has a green rating on NewsGuard, but published false stories that led the U.S. to support an invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Higdon, 2020; Sussman 2020).  More recently, The Washington Post, which also has a green rating on NewsGuard, lost a multi-million dollar lawsuit to the 16-year-old Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann for falsely reporting that the teenager was antagonizing a Native American elder in Washington, D.C. (Kim, 2019).

These examples illustrate that NewsGuard’s approach is an intellectually vapid solution masked as literacy. Educational institutions – that include teachers and librarians – should provide students with a set of skills in which to question, frame, evaluate, investigate, and analyze content from a wide variety of sources. This approach, known as critical media literacy, empowers students to be autonomous media users, where the NewsGuard approach leaves students dependent upon shadowy tools that act as arbiters of truth and falsity. As educators, normalizing these tools in educational spaces runs counter to our mission to empower students to engage the marketplace of ideas and use critical thinking to distinguish fact from fiction.

Furthermore, educators and institutions who normalize NewsGuard must consider the ways in which they are exploiting students in the classroom. As Shoshana Zuboff (2019) notes, surveillance capitalism seeks to commodify human behavior through artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies that collect and analyze data for the purpose of producing customized content and experiences that nudge and direct human behavior. Corporations have long viewed the classroom as a lucrative space, and in the age of surveillance capitalism, Big Tech sees the classroom as a vast untapped resource of student data (Higdon & Butler, 2021). Supporting NewsGuard is complicity in this trajectory of exploitation. It is a trajectory where educators dogmatically list truths and falsehoods for students, while normalizing their surveillance and exploitation.

Based on existing scholarship and available evidence, educators and educational organizations and institutions would be wise to avoid association with NewsGuard.

References

AFT. (2022). AFT partners with NewsGuard to combat misinformation online. https://www.aft.org/press-release/aft-partners-NewsGuard-combat-misinformation-online

American College of Research Libraries. (2015). Framework for information literacy for higher education. https://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/issues/infolit/framework1.pdf

Aslett, K., Guess, A. M., Bonneau, R., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. A. (2022). News credibility labels have limited average effects on news diet quality and fail to reduce misperceptions. Science Advances, 8(18). https://www.science.org/doi/pdf/10.1126/sciadv.abl3844

Gallup, Inc. (2018). NewsGuard’s online source rating tool: User experience. https://www.NewsGuardtech.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Gallup-NewsGuards-Online-Source-Rating-Tool-User-Experience-1.pdf

Higdon, N. (2020). The anatomy of fake news: A critical news literacy Education. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Higdon, N., & Butler, A. (2021). Time to put your marketing cap on: Mapping digital corporate media curriculum in the age of surveillance capitalism. Review of Education,  Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 1-21.

Kim, E.K. (2019). Nick Sandmann on encounter with Nathan Phillips: “I wish I would’ve walked away.” NBC Today, January 23. https://www.today.com/news/nick-sandmanninterview-today-show-s-savannah-guthrie-encounter-native-t147242

Maret, S. (2018). The public and its problems: “Fake news” and the battle for hearts and minds. In M. Huff & A. Roth, Censored 2019: Fighting the fake news invasion (pp. 243-266). New York: Seven Stories Press.

Nelson, L. (2014). How the Democrats alienated teachers’ unions. Vox, July 8. https://www.vox.com/2014/5/16/5683260/how-the-democrats-alienated-teachers-unions

NewsGuard. (2021a). Advisory board. https://www.NewsGuardtech.com/our-advisory-board/

NewsGuard. (2021b). Introducing: NewsGuard. https://www.NewsGuardtech.com/how-it-works/

NewsGuard. (2021c). NewsGuard FAQ. https://www.NewsGuardtech.com/NewsGuard-faq/

NewsGuard. (2021d). Rating process and criteria. https://www.NewsGuardtech.com/ratings/rating-process-criteria/

NewsGuard. (2022). “A powerful news literacy tool for schools and libraries.” https://www.newsguardtech.com/industries/schools-and-libraries/

Norton, B. (2020). Biden appointee advocated using propaganda against Americans. Consortium News. November 18. https://consortiumnews.com/2020/11/18/election-2020-biden-appointee-advocated-using-propaganda-against-americans/

Oremus, W. (2019). Just trust us. Slate, January 25. https://slate.com/technology/2019/01/newsguard-nuzzelrank-media-ratings-fake-news.html

Phillips, P. (2018). Giants: The global power elite. New York, New York: Seven Stories Press.

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, New York: Vintage.

Ravitich, D.(2015). Arne Duncan’s Race to the Bottom: Our national test fixation isn’t just bad for kids — it doesn’t even work. Salon, October 28. https://www.salon.com/2015/10/28/arne_duncans_race_to_the_bottom_our_national_test_fixation_isnt_just_bad_for_kids_it_doesnt_even_work/

Ravitch, D. (2016). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, New York: Basic Books.

Reuters. (2022, March 4). British ad group WPP to leave Russia following Ukraine invasion. Yahoo! https://sports.yahoo.com/british-ad-group-wpp-says-161317839.html

Stump, S. (2014, December 10). Ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden on torture report: “I didn’t lie and I didn’t mislead Congress.” Today. https://www.today.com/news/ex-cia-director-michaelhayden-torture-report-i-didnt-lie-1d80349126

Sussman, G. (2020). Making enemies: the mainstream media spectacle and US foreign policy. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, 19(1-2), 138-156.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for the future at the new frontier of power. New York: Profile Books.

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