The company NewsGuard, which ranks news sites to counter what it deems misinformation, including stories that question COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy, received significant funding from a firm that represents some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.
NewsGuard’s leaders said there’s no conflict of interest. The group’s investors, they said, have never contacted them, nor do they have any influence whatsoever on the company’s rating system.
That rating system has steered advertisers from websites such as U.K.-based Daily Sceptic, which emerged during the pandemic to challenged lockdowns, mandates and vaccine safety and efficacy, the natural health site Mercola and the conservative-leaning Federalist, which raised questions about mask mandates, among many other news outlets.
Journalists whose sites have been downgraded by NewsGuard say the for-profit company is working to censor news outlets that produce content opposed by NewsGuard’s paying clients.
“I think it’s a really sinister organization, and it’s the enemy of good journalism everywhere,” Daily Sceptic Editor-in-Chief Toby Young told The Washington Times.
One of NewGuard’s investors is Publicis Groupe, which represents some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and health companies, including COVID-19 vaccine maker Pfizer. Publicis was among a group of investors who provided $6 million to launch NewsGuard in 2018.
“NewsGuard will be able to publish and license ‘white lists’ of news sites our clients can use to support legitimate publishers while still protecting their brand reputations,” Publicis Groupe chair Maurice Lévy said when NewsGuard launched in March of 2018.
NewsGuard has worked to steer advertisers away from news sites that have published articles related to the COVID-19 pandemic they deemed false or misleading, in particular articles listing potential side effects from the vaccine or whether they work at all to inhibit the spread of the virus.
Daily Sceptic ran afoul of NewsGuard content monitors.
The Daily Sceptic’s goal, according to Mr. Young, “is to challenge the new, powerful class of government scientists and public health officials – as well as their colleagues in universities, grant-giving trusts, large international charities, Silicon Valley and the pharmaceutical industry – that emerged as a kind of secular priesthood during the pandemic.”
The site gets 1.8 million views every month, Mr. Young said, but since it was blacklisted by NewsGuard, all of its advertising has dried up.
NewsGuard, following a series of exchanges challenging the site’s reporting related to COVID-19, downgraded Daily Sceptic’s rating to an abysmal 37.5, a mark that put it in the “red zone.”
NewsGuard, when installed on internet browsers, warns readers —and advertisers — to “proceed with maximum caution” because the website, according to them, is not reliable and violates basic journalism standards.
“We’ve got almost no advertising in the past 12 months, close to zero,” Mr. Young told The Washington Times. “And I think that’s largely as a result of NewsGuard effectively blacklisting us.”
NewsGuard has also targeted the natural health site Mercola, whose founder, osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola, has questioned the safety and efficacy of vaccines and traditional drugs. NewsGuard warned advertisers away from Mercola based in part on its report questioning whether the COVID-19 virus came from a bio lab in Wuhan, which NewsGuard called “an unfounded conspiracy theory.”
In an email exchange with the site, NewsGuard said it “has repeatedly acknowledged” the Wuhan connection was possible “but also quoted the overwhelming consensus of experts in the field concluding, unlike Dr. Mercola, that the virus had none of the characteristics of something that was deliberately made in a lab.”
NewsGuard began questioning Mr. Young about the content on his site beginning in 2022 and sent a new series of questions challenging additional reporting in 2023.
Among the many articles NewsGuard wanted removed from the Daily Sceptic site was a piece citing an August 2022 study on how COVID-19 vaccines impact heart health in teenagers.
Mr. Young’s article quoted directly from the abstract, which reported cardiovascular effects were found in 29.24% of patients, but a NewsGuard employee, in an email to Mr. Young, cited a pediatrician who was not involved in the study who called the claim “a flat out lie,” despite it appearing verbatim in the abstract.
Mr Young described as futile all of his efforts to explain, verify, and even, in some cases, amend the articles questioned by NewsGuard to improve his rating.
Because he was not willing to remove the articles from the site, NewsGuard slashed Daily Sceptic’s rating of 74.5 down to 37.5.
“Had I realized at the beginning of the process that I was being given no choice – that the only way to improve our rating was to delete the articles NewsGuard disapproved of – I wouldn’t have wasted so much time engaging with them. I stupidly thought NewsGuard wanted a genuine dialogue and didn’t just want to censor,” Mr. Young said.
NewsGuard General Manager Matt Skibinski told The Times it does not practice censorship, acts with utmost transparency, and its investors and clients play absolutely no role in the company’s rating process.
“NewsGuard does not censor any content —nothing we do blocks users’ access to any publisher’s website,” Mr. Skibinski said. “Instead, we provide users with information about our assessments of different media sources, including all of the criteria we used and our rationale for the rating, and let each user decide for themselves how much to trust the source. Similarly, clients that use our data make their own decisions about how to incorporate it into their businesses — though, to our knowledge, none of them uses our data to block users’ access to content.”
In May 2023, NewGuard funder Publicis Groupe signed a major deal with Pfizer, which made tens of billions of dollars off its production of the COVID-19 vaccine and associated treatments. The drugmaker and vaccine giant hired Publicis to oversee its “integrated global engine” work, which includes data and tech, media and creative production.
In August, NewsGuard reached out to Mr. Young with a new round of questions and objections to content on his site. One article under scrutiny by NewsGuard quoted a study that briefly appeared in the Lancet, one of the oldest peer-reviewed general medical journals.
In a review of autopsies, the study’s researchers found “a total of 240 deaths (73.9%) were independently adjudicated as directly due to or significantly contributed to by COVID-19 vaccination.” The Lancet removed the study, and Daily Sceptic reported why: Its conclusions, Lancet editors said, “are not supported by the study methodology.” NewsGuard nonetheless flagged it.
A second Daily Sceptic article NewsGuard criticized cited a Cleveland Clinic study that found those with up-to-date COVID-19 vaccines had a higher infection rate. NewsGuard said the article failed to include a verbatim line from the study’s authors warning that a causal relationship was not proven.
A third criticism cited a Daily Sceptic article about the thousands of adverse events reported by those who took the Moderna vaccine and a fourth criticism centered on a 2022 article about a Canadian doctor raising alarm over high death rates, many of them sudden, among physicians who were triple-vaccinated.
Some on the list, NewsGuard argued, “lacked any plausible connection to COVID-19 vaccines,” and included a doctor who died in a fall while attempting to climb K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain.
Mr. Young said he’s given up on working with NewsGuard because his detailed defense of the articles on his website has not raised the rating but, in fact, has lowered it because he has refused to delete his reporting.
It’s not clear how much of NewsGuard has been funded by Publicis. They are listed third among other investors who pumped the initial $6 million into the company.
Other investors include the Knight Foundation, Huffington Post co-founder Nick Penniman and Tom Ridge, who served as Homeland Security Secretary under George W. Bush.
When asked, Mr. Skibinski would only reveal that the contribution from Publicis is less than 1% of News Guard’s revenue and less than 1% of company expenses.
“NewsGuard got this funding, and then goes after so-called COVID disinformation,” constitutional law expert Bruce Afran told The Times. “NewsGuard’s got an inherent conflict of interest built in.”
Mr. Afran is representing Consortium News, a site that is suing NewsGuard, arguing the company has unlawfully censored it as NewsGuard operates under a $750,000 contract from the Defense Department.
The lawsuit calls NewsGuard “functionally an intelligence proxy for the United States” that claims to be an independent news company.
NewsGuard tagged all 20,000-plus Consortium News articles and videos published since 1995 with warnings to “proceed with caution.” NewsGuard ruled that Consortium News produces “disinformation,” “false content” and is an “anti-U.S.” media organization.
NewsGuard downgraded Consortium News after entering into a contract with the Defense Department to employ its “misinformation fingerprints” to track “state-sponsored misinformation.”
The company took issue with the news site’s reporting on claims of Neo-Nazism in Ukraine, labeling the 2014 government takeover in Kyiv as “a coup” and calling mass deaths in the Donbas region a “genocide.”
According to Consortium News executives, NewsGuard based their stark red-label warning on just six articles and none of the outlet’s videos and appeared to disregard the company’s thorough defense of their content.
NewsGuard argues it is one of many companies that rates the reliability of news and among them all, operates with the greatest transparency and accountability.
The Pentagon contract and other data licenses for government entities make up a single-digit portion of NewsGuard’s revenue, Mr. Skibinski said.
“These government licenses have nothing to do with our ratings of news websites,” he said. “Instead, the government licenses relate to a different database, our Misinformation Fingerprints catalog of the most significant false claims spreading online, where the focus is on disinformation targeting the U.S. and our allies from hostile information operations from Moscow, Beijing and Teheran. We are proud of this work defending democracies from disinformation.”