MSN fired its journalists and replaced them with AI. Here’s what happened next.
The Microsoft-operated news site MSN had run a clearly bogus story claiming that Claire “Grimes” Boucher had publicly called out ex-boyfriend Elon Musk on Twitter for not paying child support. The tweet the story based its claims off was an obvious fabrication, but that didn’t stop the Inquisitr from publishing it, or MSN from distributing it to a much wider audience.
It turns out that was only the tip of the iceberg in MSN‘s sloppy propagation of patently fake news.
Take its affinity for Exemplore, a hokey paranormal and conspiracy news site that peddles tales of cryptids, signs of Atlantis, and magical crystals. Here are a few recent — and clearly preposterous — Exemplore articles that MSN has syndicated to its vast readership:
-“Fishermen Catch Mermaid Creature in Their Nets“
-“Woman Films Bigfoot Jumping Out of a Tree in California“
-“Party Stops as Giant UFO Flies Directly Over It“
-“Mars Rover Appears to Catch ‘Dark Beast’ Roaming the Surface of Mars“
-“Someone Swears They Caught a Biblically Accurate Angel Floating in the Sky Over LA“
Needless to say, if any of these stories were remotely credible, they’d have completely upended the scientific establishment. Instead, the source material for each of these sensational headlines is invariably a grainy and unconvincing video that does nothing to convince us that mermaids, bigfoot, angels, or aliens are real.
While Exemplore’s headlines on MSN are blatantly ridiculous, others, like the Grimes story, are more insidious in their plausibility. A cursory examination of the MSN comments section under Grimes-Musk affair shows that many readers were easily fooled.
Futurism reached out to MSN for comment regarding both the Grimes story and the many Exemplore stories and received no response. After we published this story, MSN deleted all the hoax articles — but without a retraction note or anything else documenting the removal.
Is it Exemplore‘s right to run clickbait garbage? Sure, and maybe its readers have fun suspending their disbelief, like the readers of supermarket tabloids in decades past. Believing in bigfoot isn’t exactly harmful, although it probably does indicate a weaker-than-average grasp on reality.
But there’s no excuse for MSN, a media giant with the extraordinary resources of Microsoft behind it, to be amplifying — and monetizing — this ridiculous and inaccurate content. Its audience is vast, with the analytics service Similarweb estimating that it attracts nearly a billion readers per month.
Furthermore, MSN wields enormous SEO power that pushes its content to the top of search results, oftentimes superseding the original publication. If by happenstance a reader Googles something that resembles one of MSN’s many fake headlines, a search engine will return MSN’s republication of a story while sometimes omitting the original, lending it undue credibility.
Many in that immense audience will see lazy and false stories by Exemplore, the Inquisitr and other bottom-tier publishers alongside other legitimate outlets syndicated by MSN, like Bloomberg, The New York Times, and The Daily Beast. The effect, inevitably, undermines the good work done by hardworking and ethical publishers, rewards the nonsense published by low quality content farms, and undermines the public’s faith in science and tech journalism.
As such, MSN‘s seemingly nonexistent editorial standards illustrate the perils of the contemporary media industry. In particular, recent years have seen Microsoft embrace an increasingly callous and cynical strategy toward the site: in 2020, for instance, it gutted MSN by firing dozens of workers, including journalists, editors, and other production staff, vowing to replace them with automated systems instead.
“I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI is going to take all our jobs, and here I am,” one fired MSN staffer told The Guardian at the time. “AI has taken my job.”
That anonymous staffer imparted a prescient warning: that though the human team had employed close editorial guidelines to vet the material that appeared on MSN‘s site, the new automated system would likely struggle to bring the same level of nuance and skepticism.
MSN makes lofty promises that there’s still “human oversight” over the stories it syndicates, but given the desultory deluge of fake nonsense it appears to run constantly, it seems very unlikely that the site’s remaining skeleton crew is accomplishing much at all.
And with its dwindling human staff, fewer still are left to hear readers’ concerns, effectively erecting a brick wall that imposes a worrying opacity. Requests for comments go unanswered, and MSN publishes more bogus stories all the time.
Microsoft’s end goal, it seems, was to automate its news distribution system, while cutting costs in the process. To that end, Microsoft may have been successful, but in the process has poisoned the well of a news reading public.
That would be worrying at any widely read news aggregator. But MSN isn’t just popular; it’s the default source of news for many Windows users. Open a new tab on Microsoft’s Edge browser and it lands you on an MSN hub. And if you still use Internet Explorer for some reason, MSN is the default home page of that, too. Hell, even the Windows Start Menu will show you its articles. It’s even hooked into competitors’ systems, picking up untold new pageviews on Google News.
In sum? It’s yet another cautionary tale about the growing corporate hunger to offload decision making to flawed AI systems that eliminate important jobs, exercise poor judgment with little oversight, and generally make society worse for the humans still living in it.