Red Ventures/CNET AI automated 'journalism'
Released: October 2022
In October 2022, US-based technology news website CNET was discovered by Futurism's The Byte to be using 'automation technology' to publish a series of financial explainer articles, prompting critics to voice concerns about the future of journalism and journalistic jobs.
75 articles had been published since the 'CNET Money' programme started early November 2022, with topics ranging from 'What is Compound Interest?' to 'How to cancel you home equity loan'. Each article was by-lined 'CNET Money Staff'.
During this period, most CNET employees had been kept in the dark about what tools the company was using or how it was using them and that, 'at times, they didn’t know if content published to CNET was AI-generated or written by their human colleagues.'
Covert automated journalism
'This is just the beginning,' tweeted Washington Post reporter Nathan Grayson in response to the story, 'and aggregation plus explanation performed by AI will doubtless result in lower-quality work and fewer jobs.'
Platformer journalist Casey Newton called it 'a grim development for journalism, as more of the work once reserved for entry-level writers building their resumes is swiftly automated away.'
According to a CNET owner Red Ventures employee, 'All it's doing is forcing writers away from their jobs, delivering a worse product to readers, and putting more money into corporate products off the hard work of others.'
CNET initially failed to respond to questions about its programme, which it appeared to be trying to keep as low profile as possible. CNET editor-in-chief Connie Guglielmo later confimed the use of AI, said the byline had been changed to 'CNET Money', and the disclosure about the use of AI made more prominent on relevant articles.
A few days later, Futurism pointed out that an AI explainer on compound interest made a series of 'bone-headed' errors, underlining the difficulty text generators have in distinguishing fact from fiction. Guglielmo had previously committed that every CNET article 'is reviewed, fact-checked and edited by an editor with topical expertise before we hit publish'.
Every AI-generated article was then updated with a note that reads: 'Editors' note: We are currently reviewing this story for accuracy. If we find errors, we will update and issue corrections,' Vice observed.
On January 20, The Verge reported that Red Ventures had paused AI-generated content across its properties, including CNET. Red Ventures also confirmed the AI is a proprietary tool that enables editors to generate fully AI-written stories, or a combination of AI-generated text and their own writing or reporting.
It subsequently came to light that AIs used by Red Ventures appear to include Wordsmith and OpenAI’s GPT series - neither of whch are proprietary to the company.
Futurism also discovered that CNET's AI had been directly plagiarising the work of Red Ventures competitors, in addition to human writers at Red Ventures-owned websites, including CNET, and that the publisher had had to correct 41 of the 77 stories it's AI tool had 'written'.
A week after Red Ventures had paused its AI publishing activities, it transpired that its properties Bankrate and CreditCards.com had re-started, only to pull its latest AI-generated articles due to another flood of inaccuracies.
AI-powered SEO 'money machine'
On January 19, 2023, The Verge published an detailed look at Red Ventures' search engine optimisation (SEO)-driven business model focusing on the monetisation of its media properties through credit card affiliate fees.
According to The Verge, AI enables Red Ventures to flood Google with content and to collect fees when visitors click through to a credit card or mortgage application. AI lowers the cost of content creation, increasing the profit for each click. Affiliate industry sites estimate the bounty for a credit card signup to be around USD 250 each.
It later transpired that Red Ventures is also using AI to re-write existing articles in order to attract search engines and maximise revenue, and that errors are also being automatically inserted into these re-writes.
Automatic for the future
Connie Guglielmo published a new statement admitting the firm's AI had not been properly used, and setting out what CNET intended to do about it:
'In a handful of stories, our plagiarism checker tool either wasn't properly used by the editor or it failed to catch sentences or partial sentences that closely resembled the original language. We're developing additional ways to flag exact or similar matches to other published content identified by the AI tool, including automatic citations and external links for proprietary information such as data points or direct quotes. We're also adding additional steps to flag potential misinformation.'
Editorial cull, unionisation
In early March, Red Ventures reputedly laid off around 50% of its news and video employees. The company insisted to Variety that the 'decision was not a reflection of the value or performance of our team members, the use of emerging technologies, or our confidence in the CNET Group's future.'
In May 2022, approximately 100 CNET staffers announced they were unionising in response to a 'lack of transparency and accountability' from management about layoffs and the company’s use of artificial intelligence and its 'blurring of editorial and monetization strategies.'
Operator: Red Ventures/CNET
Developer: Red Ventures/CNET
Country: USA; Global
Purpose: Automate copywriting
Technology: Large language model (LLM); NLP/text analysis; Neural network; Deep learning
Issue: Accuracy/reliability; Employment - jobs; Ethics
Transparency: Governance; Marketing
Investigations, assessments, audits
News, commentary, analysis
Published: January 2023
Last updated: May 2023