By Roman Adamczyk, EU DisinfoLab Research Coordinator
Disinformation is often perceived as a complex topic where malicious actors, mostly linked to states, use sophisticated techniques to spread misleading or false content to large audiences.
The reality is often more trivial: many sources of mis- and disinformation are simply actors using or re-using misleading information and low-quality content to attract traffic to their websites and therefore monetize them through advertising. The subject of this OSINT blog post, Marseillenews.net, belongs to this category and is the perfect illustration of how spreading low-quality content, including false information, remains an easy and profitable business online. Here are our main findings:
- MarseilleNews.net poses as a news outlet but does not disclose any contributors or editorial team information.
- The website has spread COVID-19 disinformation on several occasions. Some French public figures have amplified misleading and polarising articles from Marseille News.
- Most of the content, published at a very fast pace, by Marseille News is actually drawn from other sources. While many articles from Marseille News cover light clickbait topics (sports, cinema, celebrities…), the website also regularly copies content from known fringe disinformation actors.
- A lot of Marseille News’ articles are poor French translations of pieces produced by foreign sources, very likely with automated tools. This contributes to the overall low quality of Marseille News’ output.
- Marseille News does not have any social media accounts. Still, the website attracts a significant audience, reaching, for example, more than 1.5 million monthly visits in September and October 2021. Some of its disinformative articles managed to attract the attention of French national politicians.
- Our analysis shows that Marseille News’ success could be linked to the fact that the website is indexed by Google News service, despite publishing mostly low-quality content and disinformation. This raises important questions about Google News’ vulnerability to exploitation by malicious actors, who can use this service to amplify disinformation.
- Our investigation shows ties between Marseille News and a French SEO consultant based in Marseille. He is specialised in Google News indexation and develops optimised websites that are designed to attract as much monetizable traffic as possible.
As the EU moves forward with the Digital Services Act, the revised Code of Practice on Disinformation, and new rules on transparency and targeting of political advertising, this research clearly reiterates the need for better regulation of our digital information environment.
Marseille News: An obscure media outlet amplifying COVID-19 disinformation
Marseillenews.net asserts that the website covers “All the news in France and the world”. In addition to its motto, the presence of the word “news” in its name suggests that Marseille News is a media outlet. Still, the website lacks transparency as it does not disclose the name of any contributors or editorial team, nor does it provide any legal information.
At first sight, the content published by Marseille News does not seem particularly politicised or harmful. The website covers a wide range of topics, including sports, arts, or tech. Still, Marseille News appeared on our radar after several actors shared articles from the website to diffuse COVID-19 disinformation.
On February 27th 2021, French politician Florian Philippot, who has spread on COVID-19 disinformation on several occasions, tweeted an article from the website Marseille News, praising the anti-vaccine and anti-COVID-19 measures taken by Spanish actress Victoria Abril during a cinema festival in Madrid. Various fact-checkers flagged Victoria Abril’s speech, mentioned in the Marseille News’ article as containing multiple false claims, including French fact-checker AFP Factuel.
The tweet from the French politician generated several reactions against COVID-19 vaccines and the containment measures, despite using a Marseille News’ article – written in barely understandable French – as a source.
Following more investigations, it appeared that the Marseille News’ article about Victoria Abril, which French politician Florian Philippot shared, was an automated translation of a piece from OK Diario, a controversial Spanish media outlet. A report from El Pais classified OK Diario as among the most significant websites spreading “partisan, biased or disinformative content” in Spain.
On another occasion, French far-right MEP Gilbert Collard shared an article from MarseilleNews.net on Facebook in December 2019, claiming that side effects to the Pfizer vaccine included Bell’s palsy syndrome. Various French media outlets debunked this false claim, i.e. fact-checker Vrai ou Fake. MEP Collard’s post appeared with a fact-checking label on Facebook.
The Marseille News article shared by the French far-right MEP is also striking for its odd-sounding language, which includes some expressions and phrases that are unnatural to French speakers. We identified that this piece from Marseille News was again an automated translation of an article from the Spanish daily sports newspaper AS, which contained a misleading title suggesting a proven link between the COVID-19 vaccine and Bell’s palsy syndrome.
Another article from Marseille News, asserting falsely that the EU was about to ban the use of lavender, was shared on a Facebook group with conspiratorial narratives hostile to the EU. The article, which contained a misleading claim debunked by French fact-checker 20 minutes Fake off, was again a translation of a piece, originated this time from the UK tabloid, The Daily Express.
French politicians and social media users were not the only ones to quote Marseille News as a trustworthy source of information. Some foreign media did the same. For example, the online version of Moscow-based daily newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets quoted Marseille News as a legitimate source to support allegations suggesting that Russia might be ready to send bombers to patrol the Gulf of Mexico in response to NATO’s activities near the Russian border. In this case, the obscure French news website was used as the primary source for a story by a prominent Russian media outlet on a highly sensitive geopolitical topic.
Similarly, Croatian daily newspaper Vecernji also mentioned an article from Marseille News in a piece about an official visit of President Emmanuel Macron to Croatia. The Croatian outlet included comments from Marseille News, which was described as a “local media”, in its article summarising the coverage of the French President’s visit to Croatia by several French mainstream media. In reality, the article from Marseille News quoted by the Croatian news organisation was not the opinion of a French journalist but, once again, the automated translation in French of the beginning of a piece from UK tabloid Daily Express.
Marseille News: What is the business model behind this website?
Benefitting from its apparent media status, Marseille News has been quoted as a reliable source by different actors to spread (dis)information. It has also been presented by some major foreign media outlets as a local French media. The reality is quite different.
1. Rapid re-publishing of third-party content
We identified that most content published by the French website is taken from other sources, including disinformative ones. We also noticed an abnormal rhythm of publication. As shown by the timestamps displayed in a previous version of Marseille News, the website releases a new piece almost every minute. The extremely close time lapses between publication is also confirmed by an analysis of Marseille News’ blog feed.
This pace of republication of content on an extensive range of topics is very unusual for media outlets, which tend to select the information and sources to be published more carefully. This kind of behaviour is common among clickbait websites, which usually release vast amounts of content to maximise their opportunities to attract monetizable traffic on the website.
The massive republication strategy can lead to regular amplification of disinformation if no safeguard is put in place to ensure that a website reproduces only articles and messages from reliable sources. We have identified that Marseille News does not rely on this good practice and draws content from some fringe foreign disinformation websites. For instance, we identified multiple French translations of articles from the American conspiracy website Natural News on Marseille News, e.g. two anti-vaccine pieces titled respectively “All people vaccinated against COVID-19 will die, warned a French virologist” and “The COVID-19 vaccines have now killed more people than the atomic bomb dropped above Hiroshima”.
Furthermore, we also discovered some articles on Marseille News (see for example here or here), initially published in English on the website of the anti-vax organisation “Children Health Defence”. As shown in the previous section, the website also reproduced at least one article from OKDiario, a controversial Spanish outlet known for spreading disinformation in Spain.
2. Automated translation
Going deeper, we found that Marseille News overwhelmingly reproduces content from foreign sources, using automated translation to rapidly republish content. This explains why most Marseille News articles are written in very poor French, as seen in the examples of pieces containing COVID-19 disinformation. For example, in the title of an article about Boris Johnson, Marseille News mentioned the expression “Flaturer un cheval mort”, which does not mean anything in French. In reality, it is a literal translation of the English idiom “flogging a dead horse”, which was present in the title of the Daily Express’s article, a UK tabloid.
Despite the almost systematic use of automated translation, which can distort the initial meaning of the content due to inaccurate word choices or the literal translation of idiomatic expressions and lead to disinformation, many actors share the website on social media as a reliable source of information.
The poor quality of the content produced by Marseille News and its apparent lack of political or ideological agenda suggests that the website could have been designed for more lucrative purposes. In this hypothesis, the website’s heavy use of content republication is less a strategy to appear as a legitimate active media outlet than a way to obtain a constant production of articles that can potentially attract more monetizable traffic and clicks.
A look at Marseille News’ source code shows that the website is connected to “ads.themoneytizer.com”, a service designed to help web managers to optimise the advertising revenue from their websites.
Any user opening a Marseille News article would also be confronted with many ads mentioning “sponsored links by Tabolaa”, an advertising platform.
4. Exploiting Google News to increase the outreach of Marseille News
Unlike many other media outlets, Marseille News does not have its own social media accounts to promote its content, which is somewhat surprising considering the remarkable audience it manages to reach. According to SimilarWeb, in both August and September 2021, the website collected more than 1.5 million visits. As a point of comparison, “resauinternational.net”, a major French conspiracy website, did not exceed 1 million visits per month between May and October 2021.
One is left to wonder, how can such a website be so successful and reach the Twitter accounts of French national politics while producing low-quality content and without being present on social media? Part of the explanation seems to lie in the fact that Marseille News publishes numerous articles on a wide range of topics, which allows the website to appear regularly and rank highly on search engines’ results for many keywords. Accordingly, SimilarWeb data shows that 86,32% of the traffic for Marseille News in October 2021 came from web search browsers (e.g., Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.).
More surprisingly, Marseille News is referenced as a “news website” by Google News despite its low-quality output, lack of transparency regarding its internal structure, and amplification of disinformation. Being indexed by Google News means that Marseille News articles appear in the query results of Google users on many news topics. The website will also be included on Google News Alerts for people monitoring specific newsworthy issues; or on websites that use Google News to display some news feed sections.
Google News indexation allows Marseille News to significantly increase its potential reach, without having to develop a presence on any social media platform. It also offers some legitimacy to the obscure news website. A user is likely to think that if Google News indexes a website like Marseille News, then it probably means that the outlet is a reputable media.
To further corroborate the shortcomings of Google News indexation, we would like to highlight that Marseille News is far from the only controversial actor taking advantage of this service to enhance its visibility and audience. An actor like “Reseau International”, one of the leading French conspiracy websites, still appeared on Google News results on November 14th. “Global Research” is another example, along with many other fringe websites.
Although answering these questions lies beyond the scope of our investigation, we are left to wonder: how much does the lack of oversight around Google News contribute to the amplification of disinformation? How easy is it for malicious actors to game the Google News rule for reaching their goals? These questions definitely deserve more scrutiny.
MarseilleNews.net: A website connected to a digital marketing consultant
We dug into who could be behind the website and found links to an independent digital marketing and SEO consultant. This is in line with some of our observations in the previous section, which suggest that Marseille News might have been created for monetization purposes.
A previous version of Marseille News website, online until October 4th, 2021, included links to three other websites in its introductory section, namely “www.tribuneoccitanie.com”, “www.futbolpuro.fr”, and “www.eurolandconsulting.com”.
Interestingly, all the Terms & Conditions sections of these three websites (“Euroland Consulting”, “Futbol Puro”, and “Tribune Occitanie”) mention the same individual as their “publications’ director ” and “editor”, namely Clément. P., a digital marketing and SEO consultant based in Marseille.
Using the Semrush platform, we discovered that Marseille News regularly displays links in its articles redirecting to these three websites, which Clément P. openly manages:
- futbolpuro.fr (269k links)
- eurolandconsulting.com (157k links)
- tribuneoccitanie.com (135k links)
The fact that one of the people behind Marseille News included in multiple articles thousands of links to the three other websites managed by Clément P., suggests that the consultant could be behind the French news website, using it to boost the online visibility of his other websites.
Going further, we also noticed that “tribuneoccitanie.com” has the same web design as the previous version of Marseille News and that some links to “marseillenews.net” redirect directly to articles from “tribuneoccitanie.com”.
Using DNSlytics tools, we found that Marseille News was initially hosted on an IP address that also used to host Clément P.’s personal website.
To go deeper and confirm all our findings, we investigated a Google Adsense code (pub-9012362869640018), which was previously used by Marseille News to monetise content: only 67 other websites have used the same Google Adsense. Several of them, such as “ravage.fr”, “mon-livret.fr”, and “hernenews.com”, openly mention Clément P. as their “head of publications” and “editor”. It bears noting that Marseille News’ articles often display links referring to the “mon-livret.fr” domain name (167k links), as it does with the three other websites connected to Clément P., suggesting an even stronger connection between mon-livret.fr and the obscure news media outlet.
Clément P. also offered websites for sale on several occasions on Twitter. One of the websites he advertised on Twitter in August 2016 was “plombiermarseille.fr”, which used to have the same Google Adsense as “marseillenews.net”.
Clément P. presents himself as a Google News expert, offering advice on Twitter on how to improve the visibility of websites indexed by the service. It could explain why someone managed to have the Marseille News’ website indexed in Google News despite its deceitful features
Contacted by EU DisinfoLab, Clement P. did not reply to a request for comments.
Marseille News is a perfect reminder that the spread of false and misleading information is not limited to sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Our investigation highlights how digital marketing actors, who use controversial strategies to generate online traffic for profit, are often significant contributors to the pollution of our informational ecosystem, amplifying low-quality content and disinformation.
This research clearly attests to the need for better regulation of our digital information environment. As the EU moves forward with the Digital Services Act, a revised Code of Practice on Disinformation, and regulation on transparency and political advertising, among others, we wish to highlight four key recommendations for lawmakers:
- Media and news websites can recycle low quality content at speed and scale, and serve as powerful propagators of disinformation. Clickbait thrives in our digital media environment. Any effort to exclude media from the Digital Services Act ignores the role of media in disseminating false and extremist content.
- Readers across society struggle to distinguish high and low quality content. While this does show the importance of developing media literacy, it also raises the question of whether a source like Marseille News should appear so prominently in the first place. Lawmakers should carefully consider the potential of standards and of appropriate ranking and indexation tools.
- The design and functioning of digital services that aggregate media content (in this case Google News) are vulnerable to serious error as well as further exploitation by malicious or profit-seeking actors. Risk Assessments, as proposed by the Digital Services Act, must be able effectively identify these sorts of subtle yet frequent manipulations, which vary based on the service.
- Beyond malicious or politically motivated actors, digital marketers can create news websites to profit from online advertising. These websites, lacking transparency about their objectives, their authors, and their sources, can become highways for disinformation and extremist content. The Digital Services Act and the upcoming rules on transparency and targeting of political advertising need to account for the variety of actors, incentives, and effects that make up the online advertising market.