The Fake AI Content Era Has Arrived... at Sports Illustrated

Something of a crisis for a company that needs you to, uh, read things. 

The Fake AI Content Era Has Arrived... at Sports Illustrated
An illustration of reviews for cheap athleisure wear with dollar signs... but make it tackier. -- DALLE

I may run an AI blog, but I’m still pretty sympathetic to anyone out there with a blanket “screw AI” stance. The latest big scoop from Futurism, about Sports Illustrated’s owner running content by fake AI authors, reminds us why any full-throated defense of the industry will include a lot of to-be-sures, em-dashes and ellipses. 

Long story short: the Arena Group bought publications like Sports Illustrated and The Street. A traditional editorial staff remains, but the new business model involves publishing shopping content in exchange for a cut of the money from subsequent sales. The shopping content is published under the name of these reputable publications to gain consumer trust, under the implicit bargain with readers that the renouned publisher has an incentive to make sure everything is above board. However, the Arena Group’s partner, a company called AdVon Commerce, created a rotating cast of fake human writers with fake bios to churn out careless chum for their unsuspecting audience. 

The obvious reaction from everyone who reads the headlines: ‘Huh! Maybe I shouldn’t read Sports Illustrated and The Street anymore,’ is something of a crisis for a company that needs you to, uh, read things. 

The SI union put out a bewildered statement that includes perhaps the most dystopian sentence of 2023:

“We demand that the company commit to adhering to basic journalistic standards, including not publishing computer-written stories by fake people.” 

If you’ve heard of affiliate marketing, but aren’t really sure what it’s all about, here’s an example of how it works on the editorial end: A third-party contractor distributes a set of products to a half dozen freelancers. Those freelancers put their reactions to the products into a poorly-formatted spreadsheet. Once complete, that spreadsheet is sent to a contracting writer, who is tasked with turning that spreadsheet into something resembling an article.

Basically, publishers can add affiliate links to products referenced in their content and earn a commission on sales. Amazon runs the largest affiliate program, and there are many, many more.

So, this business model isn’t new at all – but AI makes it easier by cutting out some of the freelancers. (Well, maybe not easier per se, but definitely more profitable in the short-term, which is, per tradition, the only thing that matters.) 

A quick look at AdVon’s previous clients shows a pretty common collection of tangentially-relevant marketing content. “How to manage your busy morning,” “the facts about soy,” “making breakfast easy for kids,” that kind of thing. Places like The New York Times (Wirecutter) and CNN (Underscored) have affiliate marketing businesses, but it takes a level of time and attention beyond the Arena Group’s sensibilities to get right. 

Brian Morrissey’s excellent newsletter The Rebooting puts it in context:

“SI has been through the wringer since its heyday, passed around from Time Inc to Meredith to what is now Arena Group while Authentic Brands Group milks the IP through ‘brand extensions’ like a sportsbook, JCPenny swimsuits and hotels in Orlando.”

I’ve been critical of attempts to automate editorial content in this blog, but this situation with the Arena Group is on a different level. Where in the past we’ve seen large companies stretch AI tech beyond its capabilities, the Arena Group's partners are involved in abusive practices that degrade the foundations of journalism as a whole. 

What are the long term consequences if this kind of scam content is increasingly laundered through legitimate editorial operations? There are too many variables re: stylistic format evolution for me to hazard a confident guess. But I am comfortable saying that a drip-drip-drip of these kinds of stories about venerable legacy publications would poison the perception of online written media as a whole. 

Back in February, the Arena Group was upset about Futurism’s implication that its reporters are being replaced with AI. In response, the company wrote:  

Your assertion that this is the beginning of some attempt to replace writers with AI is categorically false. Again, we have been clear that AI will never replace journalists or editors. Your reporting is inaccurate and drives a false narrative.

I suppose this statement could be true as far as it goes: AI may not have replaced editors at the Arena Group. Their partners simply invented fake humans with AI photos and fake biographies publishing content that happens to be written by a person who writes a lot like an LLM. Cool, cool. 

Anyways, the Sports Illustrated publisher did respond to the latest Futurism story, and once again offered a rather vague defense. 

Today, an article was published alleging that Sports Illustrated published AI-generated articles. According to our initial investigation, this is not accurate … 
AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans. According to AdVon, their writers, editors, and researchers create and curate content and follow a policy that involves using both counter-plagiarism and counter-AI software on all content. However, we have learned that AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name …

Look, I can’t say for sure whether these articles written under fabricated AI biographies and composed in the same style as ChatGPT writing were in fact written by AI. However, a cursory look at the LinkedIn profiles of AdVon employees strongly suggests that automated content generation is in their wheelhouse. 

I have, though, reviewed many of these pieces with fake authors – some of which are detailed in the fantastic futurism report by Maggie Harrison. Frankly, the assertion that real humans wrote these articles is a lot like Chris Brown’s new album: I'm not buying it.


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