Something odd caught my eye on Twitter the other day. Someone had tweeted a version of an article I’d written for HuffPost — complete with the same headline and image — but the link led to a different website: Newsbuzzr. When I clicked, I couldn’t help but laugh.
The intro to my story, which describes a woman feeling an “urgent tap” on her shoulder, had been changed to say that she felt a “pressing faucet” instead. The term “sex videos” had become “intercourse movies,” and the quote “I was definitely shocked” had morphed into this nonsense: “I used to be indisputably surprised.” The entire piece had been altered, seemingly word-by-word, rendering some sentences far less coherent than others.
My byline was gone, too. It had been swapped out for “Jack,” a mononymous Newsbuzzr writer, and a busy one at that: “Jack” has churned out thousands of articles in recent months, doggedly covering everything from sports to foreign political crises to the latest celebrity gossip. An enviable portfolio — even for a bot!
While scrolling through the site, I came across three other stories that seemed vaguely familiar, as if a thesaurus had come to life, swallowed my original pieces whole, then vomited them up on the screen with Newsbuzzr’s logo. “Bad path” was now “unhealthy trail,” and so on. (At this point, I was having flashbacks to that episode of “Friends” in which Joey writes a recommendation letter for Chandler and Monica, and in trying to sound smart, he describes them as “humid, prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps,” meaning “warm, nice people with big hearts,” then signs off as “Baby Kangaroo” Tribbiani.)
It seemed clear that Newsbuzzr’s modus operandi was to rip and repost stories from legitimate media outlets after running them through some sort of automated synonym generator in a laughable attempt to sidestep outright plagiarism — a cheap scheme to leech content for ad revenue. Through basic Google searches, I found dozens of other websites doing the same thing, featuring strategically modified versions of articles from Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, Wired, Yahoo News, Tech Crunch, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, Politico, The Verge and a host of others. Many of these scam sites are littered with hidden ad redirects and pop-ups. A few subtly link back to the original pieces; the majority do not.
One such page claimed credit for a 5,000-word investigation my colleague and I spent months reporting together, tweaking the headline from “Dahvie Vanity Raped A Child. Police Gave Him A Warning. Now 21 Women Accuse Him Of Assault” to “Dahvie Vainness Raped A Youngster. Police Gave Him A Warning. Now 21 Ladies Accuse Him Of Sexual Assault.”
At a surface level, this rip-reword-repost operation is a creative little scam (and yes, it has produced some truly excellent “Florida Male” content). But it is alarming that it’s evidently profitable to scrape content for ad traffic in this way, and the scheme illustrates just how skewed the economic incentives of our click-driven media industry are. Newsbuzzr and several of the other sites I looked at have used Google AdSense to monetize their pages. However, Google told me that it has since blocked them for violating its quality guidelines. It’s unclear what other ad revenue programs these sites may be using.
It’s difficult to determine just how lucrative this scheme is, although the overhead costs are surely low enough to bring in a high return on investment. And even though each (stolen) article may not get a ton of hits — especially those that are warped beyond comprehension — the sheer volume of daily content likely brings in a decent amount of traffic. (A ripoff site called Rapida boasts that it publishes “new stories every second!”) Other media outlets have even given a boost to these sites: RT and Sputnik News have linked to Newsbuzzr articles that were lifted from HuffPost India and partially reworded. (RT and Sputnik have, for their part, been accused of spreading propaganda and disinformation.)
It’s still unclear who’s behind these ripoff sites, or if any of them are operated by the same people. Newsbuzzr’s website states that it’s located in western India, while an abandoned Twitter account under the same name claims to be based in London. When I tried to contact firstname.lastname@example.org — the only available email address — I got a bounce-back message informing me that no such account exists. (The same thing happened when I tried the emails attached to several of the other pages, too). Newsbuzzr’s Instagram profile lists a disconnected phone number from central Florida.
I’m left with many questions about this plagiarism-for-profit enterprise. And I still find it ridiculous that anyone would produce and run news outlets like this. (In other words, I still discover it ridiculous that anyone would vegetables and operate news plugs like this.)