Google News is boosting sites that rip-off other outlets by using AI to rapidly churn out content, 404 Media has found. Google told 404 Media that although it tries to address spam on Google News, the company ultimately does not focus on whether a news article was written by an AI or a human, opening the way for more AI-generated content making its way onto Google News.
The presence of AI-generated content on Google News signals two things: first, the black box nature of Google News, with entry into Google News’ rankings in the first place an opaque, but apparently gameable, system. Second, is how Google may not be ready for moderating its News service in the age of consumer-access AI, where essentially anyone is able to churn out a mass of content with little to no regard for its quality or originality.
“I want to read the original stories written by journalists who actually researched them and spoke to primary sources. Any news junkie would,” Brian Penny, a ghostwriter who first flagged some of the seemingly AI-generated articles to 404 Media, said.
One example was a news site called Worldtimetodays.com, which is littered with full page and other ads. On Wednesday it published an article about Star Wars fandom. The article was very similar to one published a day earlier on the website Distractify, with even the same author photo. One major difference, though, was that Worldtimetodays.com wrote “Let’s be honest, war of stars fans,” rather than Star Wars fans. Another article is a clear rip-off of a piece from Heavy.com, with Worldtimetodays.com not even bothering to replace the Heavy.com watermarked artwork. Gary Graves, the listed author on Worldtimetodays.com, has published more than 40 articles in a 24 hour period.
Both of these rip-off articles appear in Google News search results. The first appears when searching for “Star Wars theory” and setting the results to the past 24 hours. The second appears when searching for the subject of the article with a similar 24 hour setting.
Aaron Nobel, editor-in-chief of Heavy.com, told 404 Media in an email that “I was not aware of this particular ripoff or this particular website. But over the years we've encountered many other sites that rip and republish content at scale.” Neither Distractify or Worldtimetodays.com responded to a request for comment.
There are a few different ways to use Google News. One is to simply open the main Google News homepage, where Google surfaces what it thinks are the most important stories of the day. Another is to search for a particular outlet, where you’ll then see recent stories from just that site. A third is to search by “topic,” such as “artificial intelligence,” “Taylor Swift,” or whatever it is you’re interested in. Appearing in topic searches is especially important for outlets looking to garner more attention for their writings on particular beats. 404 Media, at the time of writing does not appear in topic searches (except people, funnily enough, writing about 404 Media, like this Fast Company article about us and other worker-owned media outlets). As in, if you searched “CivitAI,” an artificial intelligence company we’ve investigated extensively, our investigations would not appear in Google News, only people aggregating our work or producing their own would.
In another example of AI-generated rip-off content, Penny sent screenshots of search results for news related to the AI tool “midjourney.” At one point, those included articles from sites such as “WatchdogWire” and “Examiner.com.” These articles appear to use the same images, very similar or identical headlines, and pockets of similar text.
The Examiner.com domain was once used by a legitimate news service and went through various owners and iterations. The site adopted its current branding in around 2022, according to archived versions of the site on the Wayback Machine. With that in mind, it’s worth remembering that some of these sites that more recently pivoted to AI-generated content may have been accepted into Google News long ago, even before the advent of consumer-level AI.
Looking at WatchdogWire and Examiner.com more broadly, both sites regularly publish content with the same art and identical or very similar headlines in quick succession every day. Ahmed Baig, one of the listed authors on WatchdogWire, has published more than 500 articles in the past 30 days, according to his author page. Baig did not respond to a request for comment sent over LinkedIn asking whether he was taking work from other outlets and using AI to reword them. Baig lists himself as the editor-in-chief of WatchdogWire, as well as the head of SEO for a company called Sproutica. A contact email for Examiner.com uses the Sproutica domain.
Someone who replied to a request for comment to that address, and who signed off as “Nabeel,” confirmed Examiner.com is using AI to copy other peoples’ articles. “Sometimes it doesn’t perform well by answering out of context text, therefore, my writer proofread the content,” they wrote. “It's an experiment for now which isn't responding as expected in terms of Google Search. Despite publishing 400+ stories it attracted less than 1000 visits.”
The articles on WatchdogWire and Examiner.com are almost always very similar to those published on Watcher.Guru, another news site which also has a popular Twitter account with 2.1 million followers and which regularly goes viral on the platform. When asked if Watcher.Guru has any connection to WatchdogWire or Examiner.com, a person in control of the Watcher.Guru Twitter account told 404 Media in a direct message that “we are not affiliated with these sites. These sites are using AI to steal our content and featured images.”
In another case, Penny sent a screenshot of a Google News result that showed articles from CBC and another outlet called “PiPa News.” The PiPa News piece appears to be a rewrite of the CBC one, with a very similar headline and body of text. PiPa News did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Kerry Kelly from CBC’s public affairs department, said in an email that “We are aware of an increase in outlets and individuals using CBC News articles without proper licensing or attribution, and are working to curb this trend through media monitoring, takedown requests for individual sites, and connecting with social media platforms when appropriate.”
A Google spokesperson said the company focuses on the quality of the content, and not how it was created. Their statement read: “Our focus when ranking content is on the quality of the content, rather than how it was produced. Automatically-generated content produced primarily for ranking purposes is considered spam, and we take action as appropriate under our policies.” Google reiterated that websites are automatically considered for Google News, and that it can take time for the system to identify new websites. The company added that its Google News ranking systems aim to reward original content that demonstrates things such as expertise and trustworthiness.
With that in mind, after 404 Media approached Google for comment, Penny found that the WatchdogWire and Examiner.com results had apparently been removed from search results for the “midjourney” query and another for and “stable diffusion.” Google did not respond when asked multiple times to confirm if it took any action.
404 Media remains outside of news topics results for the beats we cover.