My Robotic Doppelganger Is The Grim Face of Journalism's Future!

As journalism endures catastrophic financial collapse, I watch software seize my long-lost archives, erase my name—or attribute my work to a fake person. PLUS: Evan and I sign on Friday! 

My Robotic Doppelganger Is The Grim Face of Journalism's Future!
Spencer's replacement, the Ackertron 5000

Edited by Sam Thielman

A FEW WEEKS AGO I wrote about the Washington Independent, a liberal nonprofit experiment in substantive reporting online about politics, and the doomed media environment it represented. I worked there from 2008 to 2010. It ceased to exist not long afterwards. When it fell apart, I lost the archive of those years of my work. Or at least I did for a long time. 

At some point, long after I had ceased paying attention, the Washington Independent reappeared on the internet. I discovered it by accident in 2022. I needed to reference a piece I had written there and I wondered if some syndicated version of it occupied a neglected corner of the internet. Even if I failed, I figured I might be able to scrounge up a dead URL to feed the Wayback Machine. But to my surprise, I found what I was looking for. 

Only the piece told me that I hadn’t written it. On the zombie edition of the Washington Independent I discovered, the piece I had published more than ten years before was attributed to someone else. Someone unlikely to have ever existed, and whose byline graced an article it had absolutely never written. 

And there was more than just one such "person" credited with my stuff for the Washington Independent. 

Something today owns It is graphically arraying itself to resemble journalism—specifically, to resemble the Washington Independent., which I’m using to distinguish it from its namesake, offers recently published, article-like content that does not appear to me to have been produced by human beings. But, if you dig through its news archive, you can find work human beings definitely did produce. I know this because I was one of them. Now I have to worry that I have inadvertently trained my robotic replacement. 

Perhaps it's more precise to say that an era of my work is now part of a gestalt digital being that is approaching self-direction. In any event, I couldn't have known I was signing away the right to not give my digital self to a gestalt intelligence when I sold my labor to the Washington Independent. 

It seems like every conversation I've had during the past several weeks with a friend or colleague involved in publishing—longtime journalists, novelists, comics people—has felt like dinosaurs describing the meteor we can see descending. My entire career has occurred after the internet giants began consolidating control over the advertising market that used to make large-scale news production possible, so it's been clear for as long as I've been doing this that journalism is fundamentally unstable as a business proposition. Some periods have been more stable than others. But for as long as I’ve been doing this work, the structural frailty of the entire enterprise has been on display, especially to those who labor within it. 

This is not one of those stabler times. This current moment is characterized by more layoffs and outlet closures than I can ever remember taking place in so short a time, combined with the abrupt end of social news—to the point where algorithms are now punishing news distribution. It feels like the end of what had passed for stability. No one knows what news looks like on the other side of this, either in terms of production or in terms of content delivery. The flailing over the end of social-media distribution is the reason why you see outlets exploiting Taylor Swift, whose name the algorithms embrace wholeheartedly enough to drag along news organizations like barnacles. A barnacle strategy is the best that the social-media teams in newsrooms can come up with right now. 

I definitely don't know what comes next, and for now, I sure hope that this newsletter remains within your budget. But I have a sinking feeling that what comes next looks like whatever it is that is doing.

COINCIDENTALLY, the Times journalist Lydia DePillis noticed something was up as I was drafting this edition. The Washington Independent has "turned into what appears to be a completely AI-generated content farm, complete with writers who have no other internet presence and very strange, non-grammatical writing," DePillis observed on Tuesday. She noticed a site-leading report about Haiti that resembles an altered CNN story, backdated a day. sure wants to pass for a news outlet. Its logo uses an Olde Englishe-style font, albeit a cheap one, to produce a facsimile of how an Authoritative Newspaper would present itself digitally. This was indeed the style of the Washington Independent when I worked there. If you look at the website, it presents stories in the "stacked bucket" format familiar to readers of ink-and-pulp newspaper front pages, where articles are arrayed in columns, some are illustrated, and the "deks" below the headlines are the only elaboration you get before clicking through. Articles are bylined on the front page with names like "Landon Morton" and "Mariella Blankenship." 

A cursory look shows that something's clearly up. articles dated current-day occupy the center column, while older ones are pushed to the side columns. No human being in an English-language newsroom would ever format a news array that way. We put new stuff on top and older stuff down below, unless compelling traffic reasons override that presentation, and generations of journalistic graphic design has habituated readers to read that way, to say nothing of the English language, which reads left-to-right. But you can see why a computer would consider such a format rational. 

There's also a subvertical on crypto. My early hypothesis was that is a scheme to push crypto under the guise of independent news, but even this seems lazily done. There is roughly equal placement provided to a numerology subvertical, usually written by "someone" with the byline Vishal Hodgson. Somehow they did a whole article on the numerology of 69 without, well, you know. Anyway, I have a book to write, and I don't have the time to devote to reporting out's ownership questions and pursuing what the purpose of all this is. We're just going to proceed without a theory, because we're going to some wild places. 

Here's the interesting thing about those bylines. Back in 2010, I reported for the Washington Independent that Senate investigators found that Blackwater guards in Afghanistan were signing Eric Cartman's name at U.S. ammunition depots and walking out with hundreds of AK-47s. For a brief period, my piece got a lot of attention, including from South Park, who naturally put it into an episode. But when the Washington Independent shuttered, my piece disappeared like all the others, leaving only pieces about my piece. (And a South Park episode.) 

Now, however, the piece is back on the internet. Only it's dated 2020, 10 years after we published it, as an "update." But there is no editorial update, making that a casual manipulation of the record and falsely implying that something editorially significant has happened post-publication to require an update. And, more personally, my name is removed. 

This is actually an improvement on recent practices. 

The above story used to have a byline: "Karan Emery," who, I assure you, did not have anything to do with the production of that piece. A related Washington Independent story I wrote, dated March 15, 2010 and "last updated: July 30, 2020," was bylined "Katharine Tate."

Another piece I reported in May 2010, this one from Guantanamo Bay, was attributed to the reporter I introduced you to above, Landon Morton. Aside from not being me, who is Landon Morton? Well, like his current colleagues, Landon doesn't seem to have an author bio anymore. But in 2022 he did, and I took a screenshot. 

There you have it. What qualifies Landon to report from Guantanamo Bay about a war crimes military tribunal for a child soldier? Well, he "brings your company valuable insights gained from his battlefield experience as a decorated combat veteran, enabling you to unleash the untapped potential of your employees." These are normal things that journalists write in our bios! We offer our services to your unspecified business on a consultancy basis, rather than telling you where else we've published and what awards we've won to establish credibility and accountability! It's definitely not ghoulish stolen valor. 

Another person I'm not, but who according to this website wrote my piece "'South Park' To Show Eric Cartman Signing, Blackwater-like, for 500 AK-47s," is Tyreece Bauer.

Tyreece describes herself as follows: "Analyst and photographer in the field of technology." Analyst and photographer in the field of technology. Just like any human would describe themselves, particularly in an author bio for a piece about the intersection of "national security" and pop culture. As you can see at the top of this piece, Tyreece Bauer's biography is illustrated with a picture of a white woman. 

"When I'm not working on my laptop," Tyreece continues, "I like to go surfing, hiking with friends, and go karting or play [sic] soccer with my nephew. I enjoy traveling and am excited to visit Tokyo this summer. What are your plans for your next trip?"

Mind your own business, Tyreece!

Sometime between me noticing my active byline replacement in 2022 and this week, has thought better about fabricating bylines. But look at the bylines of the "people" who currently "generate" what the site represents as authentic work in both news and entertainment. Kenzo Norman. Stefano Mclaughlin. Adaline Fritz. None of their bylines link to an author page. Fritz here wrote and definitely did not scrape the internet for the following description in a profile of Nickelback, because she is a human being and not software: "Born on November 15, 1974, in Hanna, Alberta, Canada, Kroeger's musical journey is adorned with significant career milestones, major contributions to the music industry, and personal details that provide insight into his multifaceted life."

But Fritz is the future: she's a language module tasked with producing something that registers as "news, of the reliable sort" in the minds of those who come across it. She appears to be software trained in part on work I did—and for which until recently her "colleagues" Tyreece Bauer, Landon Morton, Katharine Tate and Karan Emery got the credit—after that work was acquired, the manner of which I know not how. This Washington Post story indicates that Democratic operatives are using the name of the Windy's old parent company, the American Independent News Network (AINN), but I don't know if that means they own or operate The sites the AINN definitely runs have some minimal disclosure at the bottom of their homepages. doesn’t even have an “About” link.

It occurs to me that it would take effort on my part to convince a skeptical reader that I actually produced the now-unbylined work that features. Maybe soon, as a byproduct of the emerging economic reality, the concept of authorship will undergo revision to favor the one modeled under this mode of production. Was the act of authorship the act of reporting and writing the story? Or was it scraping the remains of the internet and importing it into a new backend, replacing the date with something incorrect?

If it's the second, then the robot deserves the byline it possesses, through omission, on work that used to be credited to Spencer Ackerman. But for as long as it's the first, I want my goddamn bylines back! 

I don't pretend like I have an answer here. Believe me, I wish I was the person who's going to solve journalism's financial crisis. The best I can do is present a sophisticated approach for thinking about the crisis' downstream consequences for the historical record. That comes from my friend and former WIRED colleague Arikia Millikan, in her 2022 Defcon talk, "Memory Holing and The Search-Engine-Optimized Warping of Human History." Among the examples she discusses is mine. Arikia appropriately locates the danger of where we're headed in the pretense of reliability meant to be conveyed by the way postures as the Washington Independent. "Well, this article looks legitimate—good journalism—so what else could be placed next to it that might be completely made up; misinformation, propaganda from who knows where?" 

It's worth taking the time to watch Arikia detail the disappearances from the internet of everything from individual articles, to entire verticals—including two she ran at WIRED—to wholesale publications. When the publications die—or, as the owners kill them—they're stripped for saleable parts like their mailing lists, collected-and-compiled demographic information from readers, and social media accounts with proven reach. Arikia describes WIRED selling a how-to Wiki she ran. The new owner stripped away the bylines of all the writers who worked to acquire, process and present the accurate, useful information that represents the entirety of that site's value. 

"If it keeps going," Arikia concludes, "maybe we won't be able to learn from our past mistakes." 

Now, looking at my removed or replaced bylines, it's hard not to anticipate that the last asset capital managers will try to arbitrage from the news outlets they by on the cheap will be those outlets' large copyrighted archives—the ones that represent a crucial factual record of a time and place, observed as close to the ground as was possible—as fodder for training an AI. 

THERE'S NO REAL NEWS PEG HERE, just conversations with friends I've had recently. But it occurred to me to revisit the corpse desecration of the Washington Independent for FOREVER WARS after reading some excellent recent meditations on journalism in financial crisis from Matt Pearce, a respected reporter. Pearce took the Los Angeles Times buyout, but is continuing, without pay, as president of the west coast branch of the NewsGuild, my old union. I have a lot of respect for that, and I'll be thinking about Pearce's observations for a while, particularly the one about antitrust, because I don't think I agree with it. But he's clearly thought a lot about all this, and with a depth I have not. 

Reporters, writers, etc.: do as Arikia says and read your contracts! Consult your shop steward, and if you don't have a union, organize your colleagues! The NewsGuild and the Writers' Guild are here for you!

EVAN OSNOS' EXTENSIVE extensive New Yorker piece on Biden reveals the president to be clinging to this Mideast coping mechanism: "Without saying so explicitly, he is betting that an offer of Saudi normalization would be so popular with Israeli leaders that Netanyahu would have no choice but to engage it." As readers of this piece are already asking, why would Mohammed bin Salman do this on behalf of Biden, whom MBS loves to humiliate after Biden sought to punish MBS before backing down, rather than waiting to see if Trump is reelected? (Or otherwise returned to the White House.) 

Then there's this: 

The Administration treats each no from Israel as an “initial answer,” a national-security official told me, adding, “Other people would like us to take an approach that is much more publicly confrontational. But would it actually lead to better outcomes in the war?”

More than 30,000 Palestinians, including many thousands of children, were unavailable to congratulate this official on the effectiveness of his pragmatism. 

AMJAD IRAQI in the New York Review of Books is also worth your time. Among its points is a good contextualization of the stakes in Israel's attacks on UNRWA:

Another item on Israel’s wish list is the elimination of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Since 1950 UNRWA has taken on quasi-governmental duties for Palestinian refugees expelled in the 1948 war and their exiled descendants, providing them with basic services including health care, education, microloans, and shelter. The Gaza Strip, a majority of whose population originates from towns and villages now inside the Israeli state, is one of its chief areas of operation. Israeli politicians have long had the agency in their crosshairs, accusing it of manufacturing Palestinians’ demand to return to their lands—a right enshrined for refugees worldwide, but which Israel blocks in the interest of preserving its Jewish demographic majority.
In early January the Knesset’s subcommittee on foreign policy and public diplomacy deliberated over what to do with UNRWA. Noga Arbell, a researcher with the right-wing Kohelet Policy Forum and a former foreign ministry official, was blunt in her recommendations. “It will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA, and this destruction must begin immediately,” she said. The government, Arbell stressed, should not “miss the window of opportunity.”

The Biden administration going along with this really helps underscore the obscenity of its tiny little airdrop of aid this weekend. As Iraqi puts it, "The Americans, it seems, are willing to do everything except order Israel to stop its assault and fully open all crossings." Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday that the U.S.-airdropped aid is often unusable: "Some meals have to be microwaved, but we don’t have electricity here in Gaza," the network quoted Mahmoud Shalabi, a senior program manager for the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Meanwhile, as we were editing this edition, John Hudson of the Washington Post revealed that the extent of U.S. arms sales and provisions to the IDF is far greater than known, as the Biden administration has parceled out the weaponry to remain under certain thresholds for congressional and public reporting. The final quote hits the heart of the matter, and it comes from Jeremy Konyndyk, formerly USAID's top COVID-19 official under Biden and now the head of Refugees International: "The U.S. cannot maintain that, on the one hand, Israel is a sovereign state that’s making its own decisions and we’re not going to second guess them, and, on the other hand, transfer this level of armament in such a short time and somehow act as if we are not directly involved."

THE WHITE HOUSE ANNOUNCED ON TUESDAY that Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will visit around St. Patrick's Day. I hope this version of Varadkar shows up

FRIDAY! On Friday, March 8, me and my WALLER VS. WILDSTORM co-writer and friend Evan Narcisse will be signing at Brooklyn's finest, Bulletproof Comics on Nostrand Avenue! From 5pm to the 8pm closing, not only can you get your currently-available-for-purchase WVW hardcover edition signed, but you should get Evan to sign your copies of Rise of The Black Panther, Batman: Gotham Knights–Gilded City, the Milestone 30th Anniversary special and all his other modern comics instant-classics. Come hang, it'll be fun. 

Meanwhile, if you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof! No one is prouder of WVW than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, which is available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN