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 Googled a pharmaceutical company that seemed like a promising investment. One of the first search results Google served up on its news tab was listed as coming from the Clayton County Register, a newspaper in northeastern Iowa. He clicked, and read. The story was garbled and devoid of useful information—and so were all the other finance-themed posts filling the site, which had absolutely nothing to do with northeastern Iowa. “I knew right away there was something off,” he says. There’s plenty of junk on the internet, but this struck Eastin as strange: Why would a small midwestern paper churn out crappy blog posts about retail investing?

Eastin was primed to find online mysteries irresistible. After years in the US Air Force working on psychological warfare campaigns he had joined Meta where he investigated nastiness ranging from child abuse to political influence operations. Now he was between jobs, and welcomed a new mission. So Eastin reached out to Sandeep Abraham, a friend and former Meta colleague who previously worked in Army intelligence and for the NSA, and suggested they start digging.

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

Although Eastin and Abraham suspect that the network the Register’s old site is now part of was created with straightforward money-making goals, they fear that more malicious actors could use the same sort of tactics to push misinformation and propaganda into search results. “This is massively threatening,” Abraham says. “We want to raise some alarm bells.” To that end, the pair have released a report on their findings and plan to release more as they dig deeper into the world of AI clickbait, hoping their spare-time efforts can help draw awareness to the issue from the public or lawmakers.

Faked News

The Clayton County Register was founded in 1926 and covered the small town of Ekader, Iowa, and wider Clayton County, which nestle against the Mississippi River in the state’s northeast corner. “It was a popular paper,” says former coeditor Bryce Durbin, who describes himself as “disgusted” by what’s now published at its former web address, (The real Clayton County Register merged in 2020 with The North Iowa Times to become the Times-Register which publishes at a different website. It’s not clear how the paper lost control of its web domain; the Times-Register did not return requests for comment.)

As Eastin discovered when trying to research his pharma stock, the site still brands itself as the Clayton County Register but no longer offers local news and is instead a financial news content mill. It publishes what appear to be AI-generated articles about the stock prices of public utility companies and Web3 startups, illustrated by images that are also apparently AI-generated.

“Not only are the articles we looked at generated by AI, but the images included in each article were all created using diffusion models,” says Ben Colman, CEO of deepfake detection startup Reality Defender, which ran an analysis on several articles at WIRED’s request. In addition to that confirmation, Abraham and Eastin noticed that some of the articles included text admitting their artificial origins. “It’s important to note that this information was auto-generated by Automated Insights,” some of the articles stated, name-dropping a company that offers language-generation technology.

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