Several journalists reacted in horror Wednesday to the announcement that The Messenger, a news website, would be partnering with Seekr, an artificial intelligence company that ranks news articles based on a computer algorithm’s opinion of their reliability and political leaning.
That’s because the website appeared to rank stories from highly politically slanted, unreliable sources like Breitbart and One America News Network above mainstream outlets like The Associated Press and Bloomberg — and in a couple of instances, said opinion pieces from a white nationalist publisher were very reliable. In at least one case, Seekr’s algorithm ranked the exact same article both “high” and “low” in reliability.
The Messenger did not return HuffPost’s request for comment about the deal. In a statement to HuffPost after this article was published, Seekr spokesperson Ed Patru said “nothing is more important to the reliability of news than adherence to fact-based journalism standards” and that the company’s technology evaluates individual news reports without regard to where they are published.
AdWeek reported, citing information from Seekr’s president, that Seekr’s assessments would be visible internally to Messenger journalists. Externally, according to the report, stories “verified” by Seekr would be featured on The Messenger’s homepage and in other venues like newsletters. In addition, as part of the partnership, The Messenger’s content would be featured on Seekr’s public-facing news aggregator tool, AdWeek said.
“We have seen brands want to align with relevant content, so the idea of a scoring element became very useful,” Seekr’s chief executive, Pat Condo, told AdWeek. “It helps media agencies place ads against content that aligns with their brands.”
Still, journalists reacting to the news — and rummaging through Seekr’s public-facing aggregator page — immediately found some concerning results from the algorithm.
“An artificial intelligence training model will not help you reduce bias in reporting,” Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild union and a former newspaper journalist, wrote on X.
Imani Gandy, editor-at-large at Rewire News Group, joked, “What a great idea. After all, AI is famously unbiased.”
How do you get the bias out of the news?
√ Give it to a robot to check.
But doesn't the robot and the robot's checking formula have a bias too?
√ Not sure what you're saying. This is revolutionary, I know that...pic.twitter.com/1UPRkQIQTS via @maxwelltani
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) October 4, 2023
Seekr’s public-facing news page ranked at least two opinion pieces from the white nationalist publisher VDare.com “very high” in reliability, Media Matters reporter Eric Hananoki noted.
One of the “very high” reliability VDare pieces opined, “Another danger for the Democrats is that their coalition of the fringes naturally competes among itself for power by being the marginalest [sic] of them all. Their ideology tends to give top honors to the most dysfunctional group, blacks, and the most crazy, transgenders.”
The other supposedly highly reliable opinion piece concluded that “Mexico’s advertising industry has not been taken over by fanatics” because, according to the author’s tally, “Most of the actors in Mexican commercials are Euro-Mexicans, and secondarily Mestizos, perhaps because that’s where most of the consumer money is.” Ads in the United States, by contrast, supposedly promote “the great replacement” — the white nationalist concept that elites are purposefully replacing white Americans with people of color — because of “the overwhelming preponderance of black actors in commercials on American television, much greater than the black proportion of the U.S. population.”
Joshua Benton, founder of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, pointed out the questionable grades Seekr had given to various outlets’ coverage of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) ouster as House speaker.
The AI firm’s algorithm had deemed a slew of right-wing sites’ coverage — including Breitbart, The Blaze, OANN and Western Journal — as “very high” in reliability, while determining that reporting from down-the-middle outlets like The Associated Press and Politico had “very low” reliability.
And Christopher Ingraham, a reporter with the independent nonprofit news website Minnesota Reformer, pointed out that Seekr had judged a column from Ross Douthat, a well-known conservative and New York Times columnist, as “liberal.”
Patru, the Seekr spokesperson, emphasized in his statement that the company’s technology doesn’t favor any outlet “based on ideological lean.”
“Notwithstanding examples cited in this report, our data shows that every news outlet, across the political spectrum, has published both highly reliable and low-quality articles. This suggests that the adherence to standards [varies] significantly from reporter to reporter in the same newsroom.”
The Messenger was launched this year by Jimmy Finkelstein, the former owner of The Hill. In Wednesday’s announcement, Messenger President Richard Beckman said the partnership was intended to help the site avoid bias in its news coverage.
“Our mandate is to deliver the news — not shape it. We’re doubling down on our commitment to fact-based journalism standards, and we believe Seekr’s responsible AI technology will help hold our newsroom accountable to our core mission,” Beckman said.
The same announcement stated that Seekr’s technology “spots instances of clickbait, title exaggeration, subjectivity, and personal attacks, among other departures from the standards.”
Still, even on Seekr’s own terms, the rankings can be confusing.
One of my own articles, for example — co-authored with HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias on the occasion of Tucker Carlson’s firing from Fox News — was judged to have both “high” and “low” reliability by Seekr at the same time.
The piece — with the admittedly aggressive title “Tucker Carlson Brought TV Racism Into The 21st Century — was judged to have “high” reliability at its original HuffPost URL. But an exact copy of the story posted on Yahoo’s website was deemed to have “low” reliability — for no discernible reason.