On November 1 2022, an Imgur account shared photographs of a “fake newspaper,” designed to conceal political talking points as news:
Six images were included in the post, but the name of the “newspaper” did not appear in any of them. In the first image, a tagline (“Real data. Real value. Real news.”) appeared, as did a partial 2022 date and the following headline referencing Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzer:
No more boys and girls? Pritzker family leads push to replace ‘myth’ of biology
The submitter also added their own commentary, which read in part:
I think my favorite is number 3 “Are you racist? And Why?”
If you have to ask…
Also when did Republicans suddenly start carrying about the emotions of teachers?
Though there are no obvious markings on the “newspaper,” this was bought and paid for by the “People who play by the rules PAC.”
There was another section of the paper full of mugshots warning that these people were soon to be released under the new cashless bail system. Guess how many were white?
If you are an American and can vote, please, please do.
If you’re watching from elsewhere in the world, please send help. Things are not going well here.
Part of the comment noted that a “newspaper” matching the description of the one in the Imgur post was referenced in the October 30 2022 episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (“Bail Reform.”) That also had a link to the episode on YouTube, explaining that references to the newspaper appeared around twelve minutes into the video; Oliver attributed the newspaper to a Political Action Committee (PAC) known as the “People Who Play By The Rules PAC.”
On October 7 2022, we reported on connections between the publishing company behind USA Today and and right-wing political mailers misidentified as news:
On October 31 2022, NPR covered a number of Chicago-area fake newspapers, in a piece titled “Right-wing ‘zombie’ papers attack Illinois Democrats ahead of elections.” NPR explained the newspapers bore different labels — the Sangamon Sun, Chicago City Wire, Dupage Policy Journal, and the West Cook News among them — and they all shared the “Real Data …” tagline:
This fall [of 2022], readers encountering the Sangamon Sun or Chicago City Wire or the Dupage Policy Journal or their sister publications will find coverage uniformly beating up on the policies and persona of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat who happens to be up for reelection.
The West Cook News splashed an incendiary quote across the top of its front page recently: “It’s going to be literally the end of days.”
A two-page spread inside presented a vivid display of photographs of 36 men who were charged with violent crimes — but had not been convicted. They would all be released to Cook County’s neighborhoods, the accompanying headline said, under legislation signed into law by Pritzker last year that eliminates cash bail. (Actually, judges will retain discretion to determine whether people facing serious charges pose a threat, according to reporting by WBEZ and other news outlets.)
All but four of the 36 men in the photos were people of color.
“This is Republican propaganda and, in some instances, just outright lies,” said Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein. “The information being presented is intentionally being set up to mislead people. It looks like it’s independent, local news. But in reality, when you read the content, it’s playing on people’s emotions and fear.”
NPR noted that all of the fake newspapers lacked any disclosures or other information about their nature or intended purpose:
Yet nowhere in the publications themselves is there any disclosure of the papers’ pro-Republican agenda, its source of funding, or even its point of view — except, of course, in the relentless punching of hot-button issues for the right, including trans rights, COVID restrictions and taxes.
A brief September 12 2022 Axios.com item referenced the fake newspapers in Chicago specifically, adding:
The publications — designed to trick readers into thinking they are reading a vetted, objective news source — feature stories the governor says are racist … Though these “newspapers” are political ads in disguise, they aren’t illegal. The state attorney general’s office tells Axios it hasn’t received any complaints and is not pursuing legal action.
Context: The mailers are distributed by conservative radio host Dan Proft, who also is behind the People Who Play By the Rules PAC.
- Headlines from papers include “‘Lightfoot’s ‘Summer of Joy’ one of murder, mayhem,” and, “The coming end of cash bail in Illinois: What it means for you and your family,” the latter paired with mugshots of a Black man.
- Proft’s PAC was also behind the ads that Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused of “darkening her skin.”
- He also teamed up with then-governor Bruce Rauner in 2016 to deliver fake newspapers.
On September 9 2022, the Chicago Tribune published an article about the mailers, reporting on political and media figures connected to them:
A series of political mailings that resemble newspapers and excoriate Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker over crime issues has prompted the governor to claim they’re the work of “racist political consultant” and right-wing radio show host Dan Proft, who also is financially supporting Republican governor candidate Darren Bailey.
Proft heads the People Who Play By the Rules political action committee, an independent expenditure fund supporting Bailey that is primarily funded by millions of dollars from wealthy conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein, who founded the Uline office packaging and supply business.
Another September 2022 article from the (legitimate) Evanston Roundtable described the mailers, their content, and their lack of transparency:
The inside flap of each edition includes a message from LGIS that the publisher “will provide contextual and consequential information to give you the whole story,” and LGIS also invites feedback from readers by phone or email.
But no email address or phone number is listed in the paper, and the online contact form on the LGIS website goes to an error page whenever anyone tries to submit a comment. Yamshon tried sending multiple emails to LGIS asking for more information about who was publishing the papers and why they were being sent to her but she never received any response.
An October 31 2022 WIFR item about the mailers reiterated that a lack of transparency was apparent to some readers, but not all:
Ultimately, NIU Professor Bill Cassidy believes it’s important to know the details behind any publication on either side, so you know if it seeks to send a specific message.
“That’s got to enter into your evaluation of it,” said Cassidy. “Who’s the source?” He adds it’s always better to raise questions about what you’re reading, watching or listening than to just accept it at face value.
And on November 2 2022, the site Green Valley News indicated that a newspaper with the same tagline had emerged in the state of Arizona (as Arizona Catholic Tribune), prompting the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix to disavow them in a statement:
… despite the name, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix confirmed Tuesday [November 1 2022] that the Catholic Church is in no way affiliated with or supportive of the “Arizona Catholic Tribune.”
“In light of the upcoming election on Nov. 8 , the Bishops of the Arizona Catholic Conference are aware of different organizations and publications calling themselves ‘catholic,’ but that do not represent the Catholic Church,” a statement from the Bishops of Arizona Catholic Conference to the Green Valley News read.
“These organizations cover various ends of the political spectrum and often engage in partisan political endeavors,” the statement continued, adding that “[t]he Catholic organization and ministries in the Diocese of Phoenix do not engage in partisan politics and do not endorse candidates or parties during any election.”
In news initially unrelated to fake newspapers, a falsehood about the attack on Nancy Pelosi and her husband Paul Pelosi received massive engagement and attention when it was amplified by Elon Musk in a since-deleted tweet. In that tweet, Musk referenced the Santa Monica Observer, leading to a later Los Angeles Times piece headlined, “The dubious history of the Santa Monica Observer, the outlet behind that false Paul Pelosi story.”
That story referenced a 2021 editorial about the Santa Monica Observer, and described specific claims made by the paper Musk referenced:
Last year , a Times editorial said the Observer was “notorious for publishing false news,” including claims in 2016 that Hillary Clinton was actually dead and that a body double debated Donald Trump. Months after the Clinton claim, the news site also incorrectly reported that Trump had appointed Kanye West to a high-level position in the Interior Department. More recently, the Observer falsely reported that Bill Gates was responsible for a polio epidemic, according to the editorial.
With an official-sounding name and a professional-looking website, the Observer is one of a number of outlets masking themselves as legitimate news sources. The phenomenon has been growing and indicates how bad actors are increasingly trying to fool the public into seeing them as purveyors of accurate information.
“They also tend to be places that predictably amplify and argue for conspiracy theories that people already want to believe,” said Mike Ananny, an associate professor of communication and journalism at USC. “It’s not really about disinformation or fake news. It’s really about appearing to be legitimate, appearing to be trustworthy, appearing to be sources that have done the things that we’ve expected good journalism to do. It’s about the people making it having disingenuous aims or goals.”
The Santa Monica Observer did not appear to be connected to the many fake newspapers in Illinois, but it embodied many of the same problems with political advertisements disguised as local newspapers.
Finally, an October 6 2022 Columbia Journalism Review analysis of the newspapers included comment from a woman named Karin Sullivan, executive director of communications and community, about how false reports in phony newspapers lead to real life harassment:
An online story from West Cook News, an LGIS news outlet, was saying [Oak Park and River Forest High School] had begun implementing “race-based grading,” where white kids would supposedly be downgraded in the interests of racial fairness. “Complete fabrication,” Sullivan told me. West Cook News latched onto the last presentation slide from a May 26  board meeting, which said the high school would use “evidence-backed research and the racial equity analysis tool” to examine grading practices, blowing it up into the lie that the school would be grading by race. The school, which has a diverse cohort and is part of a progressive community, had been the target of West Cook News attacks before. (Sullivan had even requested two corrections back in September 2021, according to emails seen by the Tow Center, but received no reply from West Cook News.) Yet Sullivan had seen nothing on the scale of this story.
The false narrative zipped around the right-wing media ecosystem. Within hours, a host of right-wing outlets ran similar versions of the story. Conservative news outlets built on the original story. Newsmax ran a segment on the allegation. The conservative National Review, without reaching out to the school, decried the plan as “bigotry.” Breitbart ran a similar story. The Lion, the outlet of the conservative Herzog Foundation, uploaded an article despite the school’s insistence, over email, that the allegation was untrue. The Daily Signal also reached out to Sullivan for comment. In the most brazen example, PJ Media contacted Sullivan only after publishing its version. “Is the allegation of race-based grading true [or] false, or a complex combination of facts? I wrote an article about this yesterday and I want to be accurate,” a PJ Media columnist wrote to Sullivan, emails seen by Tow show. Sullivan, saying the allegation was false, replied: “I’m a little unclear—you’ve already posted the article and now you’re fact-checking it after the fact? That does not sound like responsible journalism.”
According to CJR, the false claims continued gaining traction and social media engagements. Several fact checks followed, none achieving a fraction of the engagement of the falsehood:
Sullivan watched as the false narrative multiplied, shared by over seven thousand Facebook users in the first week, and was then amplified by right-wing influencers on social media. Accounts including those of Ann Coulter, a conservative media pundit with two million Twitter followers, Tom Fitton, a conservative activist with 1.5 million, and Steve Cortes, a former Trump campaign manager with over 340,000, generated thousands of engagements. The account @libsoftiktok, with 1.4 million Twitter followers and 880,000 on the Trump-backed network Truth Social, amplified the narrative further. The story garnered over fifteen thousand engagements (retweets, likes, and comments) on Twitter alone, according to Tow Center analysis. This spread fit a similar pattern identified by Stanford University’s Election Integrity Project throughout the 2020 election—that misinformation can spread both bottom-up, from concerned citizens, and top-down, from online trendsetters with a platform.
Fact checks from Reuters, AP, Factcheck.org, WGN Radio, the Daily Beast, USA Today, and Josh Kraushaar, senior political correspondent at Axios, and a Substack belonging to Donald Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Public Policy, attempted to set the record straight. (Kraushaar even admitted being duped at first.) But their posts labeling the allegation false drew far less engagement. The danger with all misinformation, says Adams of the News Literacy Project, is that its constant repetition across timelines, TV screens, and printed papers means even if it’s debunked it can leave a lasting impression. “Misinformation is so pernicious because it’s sticky,” he said. “There’s a danger the disinformation becomes unmoored from its source and comes to feel like conventional wisdom.”
CJR added that fact checks had no impact on the spread of the story, that Facebook allowed the falsehood to spread further via sponsored posts, and that Proft’s LGIS spent nearly $200,000 on Facebook ads:
Later in June  the false story was promoted via paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram, according to parent company Meta’s ad library, with LGIS spending up to $100 on a four-day ad that garnered over three thousand impressions … This is small potatoes; West Cook News has spent just $2,897 on seventy-four ads since 2018, Meta data shows. But the LGIS papers in Illinois have plowed at least $183,000 into Facebook advertising for over thirty-five hundred ads in total.
A November 2022 Imgur post depicted a political mailer in the form of a fake newspaper, one of several Chicago-area iterations from the People Who Play By The Rules PAC; a similar “newspaper” was spotted in Arizona. News coverage of the phony newspapers began appearing in early September 2022, and CJR profiled a school administrator’s experience as the subject of false claims amplified by the mailers. In that analysis, CJR determined that Facebook ad spending advanced the message of the papers.