AUGUSTA – On Thursday, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, filed legislation to require “fake news” websites to publicly disclose who runs and funds the project in a clear manner on the website’s home page. The bill aims to reduce the spread of misinformation, and outright lies, in response to the increasing number of fake news websites operating in Maine.
“People shouldn’t have to work that hard to find out whether the things that look like news on the internet are accurate or not. But what we’re seeing is that political operatives and special interests are creating websites that are intentionally designed to look like newspapers in order to trick Mainers and push their own political agenda,” said President Jackson. “I wholeheartedly believe in the First Amendment and the right to say whatever you want, even if it’s just not true, but you should have to put your name on it. This bill is about transparency. Mainers deserve to know who is funding and running these websites.”
Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of “fake news” websites circulating online and in social media feeds. These websites are intentionally designed to look like a news organization. What sets these websites apart is that it’s difficult to find out who runs it, who funds and many of the articles are both unsourced and have no byline. Several investigations have found that these “fake news” websites are funded and run by political operatives or organizations to promote a particular cause, agenda or political candidate.
In Maine, an anonymous website appeared during the 2018 election cycle targeting democratic candidates up and down the ballot. The website continues to run sensational stories with provocative headlines and misleading pictures to generate controversy.
At first, the Maine Republican Party denied any affiliation to the Maine Examiner. However, following some investigative reporting and a complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission, the Executive Director of the Maine Republican Party, Jason Savage, admitted to owning the anonymous website. Following the admission, Savage added his name to the website but it is buried within the website and his connection to the Maine Republican Party appears at the bottom of his bio.
Maine is not alone in grappling with fake news and misinformation. Many states are exploring different approaches to navigate this issue. In 2016, a series of complaints about the Illinois Valley Times caused the state’s Board of Elections to order the newspaper to list a disclaimer stating that the paper was funded by political advocacy groups.
The proposal will be heard in the 130th Legislature.