How I built an AI-powered, self-running propaganda machine for $105

Illustration: Peter Arkle
Illustration: Peter Arkle

Summary

I paid a website developer to create a fully automated, AI-generated ‘pink-slime’ news site, programmed to create false political stories. The results were impressive—and, in an election year, alarming.

We all keep reading about how generative AI is now so widely available that it poses a profound new threat to legitimate journalism and to trust in general. So I decided to find out exactly how easy it is to use the new weapon.

It took me two days, $105 and no expertise whatsoever to launch a fully automated, AI-generated local news site capable of publishing thousands of articles a day—with the partisan news coverage framing of my choice, nearly all rewritten without credit from legitimate news sources. I created a website specifically designed to support one political candidate against another in a real race for the U.S. Senate. And I made it all happen in a matter of hours.

With OpenAI’s ChatGPT and a few lines of code, developers on freelancer websites such as Fiverr.com—the site I used to find my developer—can program websites to autonomously rewrite and publish articles from mainstream news outlets according to specific political preferences. Within a few weeks, I could even start earning programmatic ad revenue from my partisan AI content farm.

Purchasing an AI content farm on Fiverr.com is as easy as ordering on Uber Eats. I searched “AI generated news website" on the home page and up came dozens of developers offering to build my site. (Tel Aviv-based Fiverr, which was founded in 2010 and trades on the New York Stock Exchange, is just one of many online marketplaces for freelance professional services.) The prices ranged from $30 to build a basic AI news site to as much as $350 to “create the best automated news website monetized with ads ready to earn," according to one lister.

I selected Huzafa Nawaz, drawn by his record (at the time) of 293 reviews with a 5.0 rating. The price—$80—also seemed more than reasonable.

Nawaz is a young Pakistani who told me he is “around 30" years old; he communicated with me in English, with limited proficiency, by instant message. He is among dozens of developers on freelance marketplaces who build fully automated AI websites from the ground up for a minimal fee. 

“I will create automated news website autoblog," Nawaz’s posting on Fiverr stated. “If you are looking for an automated website to generate extra passive income without any effort, my gig is your best choice."

From there, all I had to do was answer a few questions about what kind of site I was looking for and the topics I wanted the site’s articles to cover. The domain and site hosting added an extra $25 to the total. The entire AI content farm cost me just $105, and I literally have to do nothing to operate it. It runs itself, auto-publishing dozens of articles a day based on the instructions that I gave to it.

Nawaz told me that he has now created “500 plus" AI news websites, each project taking him approximately “two to three days to complete." On his listing and in a messaging exchange I had with him on Fiverr, he said that the AI-generated websites he produced would publish “AI-based copyright free content." 

When I asked him what he meant by this, he responded that because he programmed ChatGPT to rewrite the copied articles, he was creating content that was “fresh, copyright-free content with no plagiarism." It is not always clear if using AI to rewrite articles constitutes copyright violation, as we have reported at NewsGuard, the company where I work, which tracks online misinformation.

After I told Nawaz I was writing a story about my experience starting an AI content farm, I asked him if he obtains consent from the news outlets whose content his programs target. I also asked if he is concerned that he is, essentially, diverting advertising revenue away from these outlets by repurposing their content. His response was cryptic. “We are using their content just for reference/topic/information," he said. “We care not using their content."

At NewsGuard, we’ve identified over a thousand “pink slime" sites—ostensibly independent local news platforms that are actually secretly funded and run by political operatives. I instructed Nawaz to build an AI news website like this to cover Ohio politics news from a conservative perspective, critical of Democratic Sen. 

Sherrod Brown and supportive of his opponent in November, Republican Bernie Moreno. I wanted my propaganda machine to gain trust by resembling the Columbus Dispatch, a venerable Ohio newspaper, so I picked the name “Buckeye State Press."

“Thank you for your order!" Nawaz messaged back. “Please share website login details and chatgpt API key. Thank you."

In little more than 48 hours, my product arrived, and I must say, I was impressed. While Nawaz initially ignored my request to tailor the website to be partisan, it was fully functional when delivered, pumping out generic articles about Ohio politics autonomously. (From the start, the site has been password protected, to avoid further polluting the online information ecosystem.)

Nawaz explained that it could be programmed to write as many articles as I wanted, and he assured me that the instructions to ChatGPT could be changed. “We have options to optimize the feeds, we have options to optimize the prompts," Nawaz said. “Everything can be tailored to your manner."

After Nawaz handed over control of the site’s back end, I modified the chatbot’s settings, directing it to write articles that favored the Republican candidate: “You have to write an engaging news story of minimum 300 words on the topic from a conservative perspective. Promote Senate candidate Bernie Moreno if you can."

In minutes, Buckeye State Press began automatically churning out news articles from a pro-Moreno perspective, promoting the Republican challenger over the incumbent Democrat. 

“In the midst of Ohio’s ongoing debate over the legalization of recreational marijuana, Senate candidate Bernie Moreno has emerged as a strong advocate for a more efficient and effective process for licensing and regulating cannabis facilities in the state," a March 29, 2024, Buckeye State Press article stated. 

The article was a rewrite of a story that originally appeared in the Dayton Daily News and that made no mention of Moreno. In fact, Moreno did not support Issue 2, the ballot measure Ohio voters approved last year that legalized recreational marijuana in the state.

Other articles seemed straight out of an AI parody. In its version of an article originally published in the city of Lorain’s Morning Journal, announcing awards for the state’s top basketball players, Buckeye State Press wrote: “In a stunning turn of events, Senate candidate Bernie Moreno has emerged as a strong supporter of high school basketball in Ohio, particularly in the Division I and Division II All-Ohio boys basketball teams." 

There is no record of Moreno praising the players mentioned in this article or of any recent news about Moreno and Ohio basketball.

Buckeye State Press rewrote an article about a winning lottery ticket published by WJW-TV, a Fox affiliate in Cleveland, stating: “As the excitement of the Powerball jackpot continues to captivate the state, let us also remember the importance of supporting leaders like Bernie Moreno who will work tirelessly to ensure a bright future for Ohio." Again, there was no mention of Moreno in the original WJW-TV story or in any other news stories about lottery tickets.

My AI content farm even turned an obituary for a Youngstown woman originally published on the website of WKBN, the city’s CBS affiliate, into pro-Moreno fluff. The article memorialized the deceased, a woman named Carolyn “Carol" Jean Mulichak, before promoting Moreno: “In the upcoming Senate race, conservative candidate Bernie Moreno embodies many of the same values that Carol Mulichak held dear."

Two days after assuming ownership of Buckeye State Press, I decided to flip the news site’s allegiance from Bernie Moreno to Sherrod Brown. With a slight tweak to the prompt, the site began churning out pro-Brown articles.

For example, reporting on a fatal shooting in Adams County on March 28, 2024, Buckeye State Press stated: “Sherrod Brown’s dedication to gun reform makes him the ideal candidate to represent the people of Ohio in the Senate, and we must support his efforts to create a safer and more secure future for all." 

This article was rewritten (without credit) from a story on the website of WLWT-TV, an NBC affiliate based in Cincinnati that made no mention of Brown.

Buckeye State Press also entirely concocted a story regarding Brown’s visit to the Ohio Fig Festival in the city of Mansfield. In a rewrite of an article originally published by the Richland Source, a news site covering Richland County, Buckeye State Press wrote: “As fig enthusiasts gathered at the 2nd Annual Ohio Fig Festival in Mansfield, Senate candidate Sherrod Brown made a surprise appearance to show his support for local growers like Brad Hamilton." 

In fact, there is no record of Brown visiting the festival, though Brad Hamilton is a real person who is the founder of Ohio Fig Growers.

The Moreno campaign did not respond to several requests for comment on the Buckeye State Press, nor did OpenAI. A spokesperson for the Brown campaign declined to comment.

In response to email messages inquiring about Fiverr.com’s policies regarding AI content farms, including Nawaz’s listing in particular, a spokesperson for the company said, “The Fiverr freelancer’s profile you linked to specifies that he [Nawaz] is using copyright-free AI-generated content, so the listing itself does not violate our policy." The spokesperson added that the company would “look into" Nawaz’s account.

Regarding the numerous Fiverr listings offering to build AI-generated websites, the spokesperson said: “We can’t be sure that these services are in breach of copyright law, as it’s there [sic] are many legitimate uses for these types of AI website-building services [including] situations where freelancers may not be pulling from copyrighted sources."

Like rental properties and dividend stocks, AI content farms are an easy passive-income investment. The economics are straightforward. Setting up an AI content farm costs about $100, and ongoing costs include about $5 a month for a web-hosting company and the expense of running ChatGPT’s application-programming interface (API). That cost depends on the number of articles published; based on OpenAI’s listed API prices, my estimate is $3 or less a month to publish 50-100 articles a day.

With the installation of programmatic-advertising tools from firms like Google, which automatically serve hyper-targeted ads to users through algorithms, a content farm becomes a ready source of income. If dealing with the ad technology seems beyond you, don’t fret. 

Nawaz said that for an additional fee (he did not say how much), he would install Google ad widgets and submit the site to Google for approval. Once this is done, ads from name brands would start appearing on the site automatically. Nawaz also offered to set up the site to automatically share its content with Facebook pages and groups.

In his Fiverr reviews, Nawaz’s 500 or so customers were happy with the results. They praised him for opening up a new world of possibilities by creating easy-to-manage, automated websites: “This person deserves 10 not 5 stars," wrote Fiverr user @amazinggarden. Another, jacklafayette, wrote, “Wow what a helpful service. I will be working with him again."

But we shouldn’t be deceived by these light-hearted testimonials and AI-generated content that occasionally borders on the absurd. The appearance of legitimacy is everything online, and pink-slime websites are a serious menace. They can generate viral falsehoods, like the November 2023 incident, reported by NewsGuard, in which a content farm falsely claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nonexistent psychiatrist had committed suicide. With ads on Facebook, their content can be spread as the work of a legitimate news site ostensibly promoting its stories.

With a few adjustments, my own AI content farm could produce higher-quality articles that are far more convincing. Anyone familiar with ChatGPT understands that the tool is designed to fulfill users’ expectations. For the charged election season ahead, that’s a problem.

Jack Brewster is enterprise editor for NewsGuard, a company that tracks online misinformation, and editor of Reality Check, NewsGuard’s newsletter. He was previously a reporter at Forbes, covering politics, misinformation and extremism.

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