NewsBreak app slammed for using AI to write FAKE NEWS
06/14/2024 // Ava Grace // Views

The NewsBreak app has come under fire for using artificial intelligence (AI) to write fake news stories.

Reuters cited how the app published a story on Dec. 24, 2023 about an alleged shooting in the city of Bridgeton in New Jersey. However, the Bridgeton Police Department (BPD) took to Facebook on Dec. 27 to debunk the story, writing that no such shooting took place and that the article written using AI was "entirely false."

"Nothing even similar to this story occurred on or around Christmas, or even in recent memory for the area [NewsBreak] described," the BPD wrote. "It seems this 'news' outlet's AI writes fiction they have no problem publishing to readers."

The company behind the app later told Reuters that it removed the fictional article on Dec. 28, four days after it was published. According to the company, "the inaccurate information originated from the content source" scraped by its AI. It also provided a link to the website where the content was obtained.

"When NewsBreak identifies any inaccurate content or any violation of our community standards, we take prompt action to remove that content," said the tech firm, which is headquartered in Mountain View, California and has offices in Beijing and Shanghai in China.

According to Reuters, Newsbreak has filled the void of local news outlets shuttering across the U.S. in recent years. The app, which bills itself as "the go-to source for all things local," has over 50 million monthly users and is only available in the United States. Reuters added: "It publishes licensed content from major media outlets … as well as [from] some information obtained by scraping the internet for local news or press releases, which it rewrites with the help of AI."

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Newsbreak's use of AI to write stories causing more harm than good

But in at least 40 instances since 2021, the app's use of AI tools affected the communities it strives to serve. Such negative impacts include erroneous stories being published, 10 stories from local news sites with fictitious bylines being created and content being lifted from competitor publications.

Reuters found these instances through a review of previously unreported court documents related to copyright infringement, cease-and-desist emails and a 2022 company memo registering concerns about "AI-generated stories." The news outlet also spoke to seven former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing confidentiality agreements with their erstwhile workplace.

Newsbreak was originally launched in the U.S. in 2015 as a subsidiary of the Chinese news aggregation app Yidian. Both Newsbreak and Yidian were founded by Jeff Zheng, who serves as the CEO of the American app. (Related: China using AI technology to IMPERSONATE U.S. voters, Microsoft confirms.)

The May 2022 company memo reviewed by Reuters was penned by Norm Pearlstine, a former executive editor at the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. At the time, he had been working as a consultant for NewsBreak, advising the company about U.S. editorial businesses.

"I cannot think of a faster way to destroy the NewsBreak brand," Pearlstine wrote in the memo to Zheng. "I question the legality of creating fake accounts using content publishers put behind their paywalls. If I had learned about the practice while at the LA Times, I would have instructed our lawyer to seek a restraining order and sue for damages."

The consultant raised concerns about the app's use of AI tools to re-publish stories from local news sites under five fictitious bylines in his memo. Pearlstine later shared in an interview, after his former company cleared him to speak with Reuters, that he learned of the practice from a colleague. He also confirmed the memo's authenticity and attributed the lapse it referenced to a lack of journalistic experience.

"A fair number of people on the staff were either new to journalism or new to the U.S. market. That was part of the reason I felt I had to be very direct and very explicit in explaining why I thought this was important."

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