How a small Iowa newspaper's website became an AI-generated clickbait factory


In his spare time, Tony Eastin likes to dabble in the stock market. One day last year, he discovered a pharmaceutical company on Google that seemed like a promising investment. One of the first search results presented by Google on its News tab was listed as coming from clayton county register, a newspaper in northeastern Iowa. He clicked, and read. The story was distorted and devoid of useful information – and so were all the other finance-based posts on the site that had nothing to do with Northeast Iowa. “I knew right away something was wrong,” he says. There's a lot of junk on the Internet, but Eastin found this to be odd: Why would a small Midwestern newspaper publish crappy blog posts about retail investing?

Eastin was a master at finding online secrets irresistible. He joined META after working for years in the U.S. Air Force on psychological warfare operations, where he investigated nefarious incidents ranging from child exploitation to political influence operations. Now he was between jobs, and welcomed a new mission. So Eastin reached out to his friend and former Meta colleague Sandeep Abraham, who previously worked for military intelligence and the National Security Agency, and suggested he start digging.

What the pair revealed provides a snapshot of how generative AI is enabling confusing new online business models. Networks of websites filled with AI-generated clickbait are being capitalized on the reputation of established media outlets and brands. These outlets prosper by confusing and misleading audiences and advertisers alike, by “domain grabbing” URLs that once belonged to more reputable organizations. The scuzzy site Eastin referred to no longer belonged to the newspaper under whose name it still traded.

Although Eastin and Abraham suspect that the network registerWhile the old site was now built with the goal of directly making money, they fear that more malicious actors could use the same tactics to promote misinformation and propaganda in search results. “This is massively threatening,” says Abraham. “We want to sound some alarm bells.” Ultimately, the pair have released a report on their findings and plan to release more reports delving deeper into the world of AI clickbait, in the hopes that their free-time efforts will raise awareness among the public or lawmakers. This may help in bringing awareness to this issue.

fake news

clayton county register It was established in 1926 and consisted of the small town of Akander, Iowa, and the broader Clayton County, located along the Mississippi River in the northeast corner of the state. “It was a popular newspaper,” says former co-editor Bryce Durbin, who now describes himself as “disgusted” by what's published at its former Web address, (Real clayton county register merged in 2020 The North Iowa Times to become Times-Register, which is published on a separate website. It is unclear how the newspaper lost control of its web domain; Times-Register Did not return requests for comment.)

As Eastin discovered while attempting to research his pharma stock, the site still brands itself as the Clayton County Register but no longer provides local news and instead has a financial news content mill. It publishes AI-generated articles about stock prices of public utility companies and Web3 startups, illustrated by images that are clearly AI-generated.

“Not only were the articles we looked at generated by AI, but the images included in each article were generated using diffusion models,” says Ben Coleman, CEO of deepfake detection startup Reality Defender, which ran the analysis on several articles at WIRED's request. were made.” , In addition to that confirmation, Abraham and Eastin observed that some of the writings contained text acknowledging their artificial origin. “It is important to note that this information was generated automatically by Automated Insights,” some articles said, omitting the name of the company that provides the language-generation technology.