McGowan serves as CEO for both Acronym and Courier Newsroom, the report said.
Christina Kristofic, the managing editor at The Keystone, told Spotlight PA by phone: “I have never felt pressured to write anything, I’ve never felt pressured to do anything that I felt was propaganda. We do try to focus on issues that are progressive issues, but that doesn’t mean we will ignore issues that aren’t.”
Kristofic said she believes it’s the failure of traditional media outlets to represent more viewpoints and demographics that has given an opening to outlets like hers, adding, “I think a lot of people feel traditional media, whether their local newspaper or local TV station, doesn’t serve them and doesn’t provide the information they want, and so they go looking for outlets that do.”
But The Keystone’s robust presence on Facebook, where it has more than 11,000 followers, and its advertising there appear as little more than Democratic Party campaign ads. The Keystone alone spent more than $1.27 million on Facebook ads, largely promoting Democratic candidates and criticizing Donald Trump, during the 2020 election cycle, according to the report.
A case study on the Acronym website boasted that the group “softened the ground” for a Democratic victory in 2020 using “ads and boosted news.”
“We found that paying to promote news articles on Facebook to low-information audiences was most effective at increasing Trump disapproval,” the case study said.
The NewsGuard report was commissioned by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Institute also provides funding for Spotlight PA. Jim Friedlich, the institute’s executive director and CEO, said the report underscores the need for “communities, foundations, local advertisers and individual readers to continue to fund real, independent, fact-based journalism.”
“The forces of disinformation are well-organized, well-funded, and have no desire to stick to facts,” Friedlich said. “There are deep-pocketed forces on the other side of truth that we need to combat. Beyond the political forces — both right and left — behind it, disinformation thrives because of the social media platforms on which it spreads and because of the advertisers who help fund it.”
The NewsGuard report also examined the top sources of news, regardless of location, about Pennsylvania based on social media presence. Of the top 1,000 sites with the most engagement on their Pennsylvania-related news, only 13.7% failed NewsGuard’s basic standards for trustworthiness. But those sites accounted for 25% of the total social media engagement, meaning their false or misleading coverage performed disproportionately well on Facebook and Twitter.
The review also found that credible news organizations can do more to set themselves apart from partisan efforts, including better disclosure of ownership and financing, as well as who is in charge of editorial content, and clearly and transparently correcting factual errors.