Patterico's Pontifications

11/28/2023

Sports Illustrated Caught Using Artificial Intelligence Bots to Generate Content

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:16 am



[guest post by JVW]

An amazing story published Monday morning on the website Futurism calls to account the historically-venerable but increasingly-tiresome magazine Sports Illustrated for deceiving the public:

There was nothing in Drew Ortiz’s author biography at Sports Illustrated to suggest that he was anything other than human.

“Drew has spent much of his life outdoors, and is excited to guide you through his never-ending list of the best products to keep you from falling to the perils of nature,” it read. “Nowadays, there is rarely a weekend that goes by where Drew isn’t out camping, hiking, or just back on his parents’ farm.”

The only problem? Outside of Sports Illustrated, Drew Ortiz doesn’t seem to exist. He has no social media presence and no publishing history. And even more strangely, his profile photo on Sports Illustrated is for sale on a website that sells AI-generated headshots, where he’s described as “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes.”

“Drew Ortiz” is allegedly not the only fake author on the SI website, according to an unnamed source who helped the magazine in its deceptions:

“There’s a lot,” they told us of the fake authors. “I was like, what are they? This is ridiculous. This person does not exist.”

“At the bottom [of the page] there would be a photo of a person and some fake description of them like, ‘oh, John lives in Houston, Texas. He loves yard games and hanging out with his dog, Sam.’ Stuff like that,” they continued. “It’s just crazy.”

Why would SI go to such links to invent ersatz content providers? Apparently because some of the content itself is generated by artificial intelligence:

According to a second person involved in the creation of the Sports Illustrated content who also asked to be kept anonymous, that’s because it’s not just the authors’ headshots that are AI-generated. At least some of the articles themselves, they said, were churned out using AI as well.

“The content is absolutely AI-generated,” the second source said, “no matter how much they say that it’s not.”

After we reached out with questions to the magazine’s publisher, The Arena Group, all the AI-generated authors disappeared from Sports Illustrated’s site without explanation. Our questions received no response.

Sports Illustrated was once the gold standard not only of sports journalism, but of magazine journalism in general. Some of the most celebrated sports writers of the second-half of the Twentieth Century — Dan Jenkins, Jim Murray, Frank Deford, Rick Reilly, Franz Lidz, Gary Smith — were on the SI masthead, and notable literary figures such as William Faulkner, George Plimpton, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name but a few, contributed guest pieces. These days, in a world full of sports blogs, 24-hour sports media on television and the Internet, sports podcasts, and numerous other outlets, SI finds itself with a declining circulation and has responded by branching out into new realms including even opening up sports-themed resort hotels in college towns and the Caribbean.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that while SI is looking to maintain their brand by diversifying their focus, traditional journalism is being neglected. Thus far, the magazine has not been accused of using AI bots to help create sports reportage or write long-form stories, but it would appear that it has been used to generate product guides and reviews on items for which the magazine receives financial compensation for clicks. And to keep it on the QT, it seems that old fake authors would disappear after a while and new fake authors would come along:

Sometime this summer, for example, Ortiz disappeared from Sports Illustrated’s site entirely, his profile page instead redirecting to that of a “Sora Tanaka.” Again, there’s no online record of a writer by that name — but Tanaka’s profile picture is for sale on the same AI headshot marketplace as Ortiz, where she’s listed as “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.”

“Sora has always been a fitness guru, and loves to try different foods and drinks,” read Tanaka’s bio. “Ms. Tanaka is thrilled to bring her fitness and nutritional expertise to the Product Reviews Team, and promises to bring you nothing but the best of the best.”

[. . .]

It wasn’t just author profiles that the magazine repeatedly replaced. Each time an author was switched out, the posts they supposedly penned would be reattributed to the new persona, with no editor’s note explaining the change in byline.

In the least surprising development of all, when Futurism asked Sports Illustrated about this curious behavior, all of the fake authors and their past articles suddenly disappeared from the SI website, with no explanation as to why nor any reply by SI to Futurism. As the article pointed out, at no point did SI ever appear to append any kind of disclaimer that these product guides and reviews had been generated by third-party providers, let alone by a bot.

And, in the second least-surprising development of all, it turns out that SI is not the only Arena Group holding to use AI bot-generated content. Futurism reports that this phenomenon of never heard of before writers suddenly appearing, writing for a short period of time, then being scrubbed from the site is common at TheStreet, a financial publication founded by CNBC’s Jim Cramer which the Arena Group purchased four years ago. And the editorial directors there are even sloppier than those at Sports Illustrated:

Sometimes TheStreet’s efforts to remove the fake writers can be sloppy. On its review section’s title page, for instance, the site still proudly flaunts the expertise of AI-generated contributors who have since been deleted, linking to writer profiles it describes as ranging “from stay-at-home dads to computer and information analysts.” This team, the site continues, “is comprised of a well-rounded group of people who bring varying backgrounds and experiences to the table.”

People? We’re not so sure.

The “stay-at-home dad” linked in that sentence above, for instance, is a so-called Domino Abrams — “a pro at home cleaning and maintenance,” at least until he was expunged from the site — whose profile picture can again be found on that same site that sells AI-generated headshots.

Or look at “Denise McNamara,” the “information analyst” that TheStreet boasted about — “her extensive personal experience with electronics allows her to share her findings with others online” — whose profile picture is once again listed on the same AI headshot marketplace. Or “Nicole Merrifield,” an alleged “first grade teacher” who “loves helping people,” but whose profile is again from that AI headshot site. (At some point this year, Abrams, McNamara, and Merrifield were replaced by bylines whose profile pictures aren’t for sale on the AI headshot site.)

As with Sports Illustrated, it’s not only the fake biographies that are galling; it’s also the utterly insipid and haphazard bot prose:

This article about personal finance by the AI-generated Merrifield, for example, starts off with the sweeping libertarian claim that “your financial status translates to your value in society.”

After that bold premise, the article explains that “people with strong financial status are revered and given special advantages everywhere around the world,” and launches into a numbered list of how you can “improve your finance status” for yourself. Each number on what should be a five-point list, though, is just number one. Mistakes happen, but we can’t imagine that anyone who can’t count to five would give stellar financial advice.

In fairness, the Arena Group has in other circumstances been open about their use of artificial intelligence. Back in February, when the company first announced that they would be using AI as a way to pitch story ideas to journalists and to create a small amounts of content, CEO Ross Levinsohn insisted that there would be ethical limits on how the emerging technology would be used, which would fall well short of using AI bots to generate entire stories. Clearly the Arena Group has failed in that endeavor, as have other web-heavy outlets such as CNET and Bankrate, both owned by Red Ventures; Gizmodo and The A.V. Club both owned by G/O Media; and the infamously horrid BuzzFeed, all of whom have failed to keep their pompous promises to use AI to sharpen content, not to generate it. Even more traditional publishing outfits like Gannett Company, publishers of USA Today and hundreds of local newspapers have been caught publishing AI-written garbage content instead of giving the job to real reporters who are trained by our nation’s finest journalism schools to produce human-generated garbage content.

Futurism sums up the problem with news outlets trying to pass off this sort of nonsense without at least disclosing the source to the readers:

Needless to say, neither fake authors who are suddenly replaced with different names nor deplorable-quality AI-generated content with no disclosure amount to anything resembling good journalism, and to see it published by a once-iconic magazine like Sports Illustrated is disheartening. Bylines exist for a reason: they give credit where it’s due, and just as importantly, they let readers hold writers accountable.

The undisclosed AI content is a direct affront to the fabric of media ethics, in other words, not to mention a perfect recipe for eroding reader trust. And at the end of the day, it’s just remarkably irresponsible behavior that we shouldn’t see anywhere — let alone normalized by a high-visibility publisher.

This sort of mess is another thing to remember next time some blowhard journalist tries to lecture the public about how his industry is the gatekeeper of democracy or is run by the highest ethical standards imaginable. At least a whorehouse can usually be counted upon for quality piano playing.

[UPDATE]
The Arena Group, via SI’s Twitter account, assures us that this is an issue with a third-party supplier who will no longer be retained. Again SI, as noted above, according to Futurism, never disclosed on their site that these product reviews and other licensed content came from a third party.

– JVW

15 Responses to “Sports Illustrated Caught Using Artificial Intelligence Bots to Generate Content”

  1. No worse than their actual diversity content.

    NJRob (eb56c3)

  2. Soe real person at least had to decide on the putative author’s age sex and looks.

    It’s astonishing that Sports Illustrated went so far in committing outright fraud, but it is no longer owned by a big magazine company.

    https://hl.com/about-us/transactions/houlihan-lokey-advises-meredith-on-sale-of-sports-illustrated

    Houlihan Lokey is pleased to announce that Sports Illustrated, a subsidiary of Meredith Corporation (NYSE:MDP), has been acquired by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) for $110 million..

    It’s another case of somebody buying a trademark.

    Sammy Finkelman (f1a67c)

  3. You’re right that ABG is the actual owner of the Sports Illustrated brand, Sammy. It seems that they in turn have contracted out the editorial operations of SI to The Arena Group, while ABG is in charge of the brand’s non-publishing ventures such as the hotels and clubs.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  4. [UPDATE]
    The Arena Group, via SI’s Twitter account, assures us that this is an issue with a third-party supplier who will no longer be retained. Again SI, as noted above, according to Futurism, never disclosed on their site that these product reviews and other licensed content came from a third party.

    Today, an article was published alleging that Sports Illustrated published AI-generated articles. According to our initial investigation, this is not accurate.The articles in question were product reviews and were licensed content from an external, third-party company, AdVon…— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) November 27, 2023

    JVW (1ad43e)

  5. Full text of that Tweet for those of you who don’t like to click over to Twitter [I don’t use the company’s new name because I find it even more stupid than their original name]:

    Today, an article was published alleging that Sports Illustrated published AI-generated articles. According to our initial investigation, this is not accurate.

    The articles in question were product reviews and were licensed content from an external, third-party company, AdVon Commerce. A number of AdVon’s e-commerce articles ran on certain Arena websites. We continually monitor our partners and were in the midst of a review when these allegations were raised.

    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 in certain articles to protect author privacy – actions we strongly condemn – and we are removing the content while our internal investigation continues and have since ended the partnership.

    – Spokesperson for The Arena Group

    JVW (1ad43e)

  6. People will sell their souls in order to maintain an enterprise.

    SI and other outlets are trying to prevent revenue drop by using AI.

    And didn’t National Review tone down its criticism of Trump once it realized it was losing subscribers? Isn’t that why Jonah Goldberg and David French left NR and founded The Dispatch?

    norcal (73ebcf)

  7. And didn’t National Review tone down its criticism of Trump once it realized it was losing subscribers? Isn’t that why Jonah Goldberg and David French left NR and founded The Dispatch?

    I don’t know about that. Kevin Williamson and Charlie Cooke remained, and they were strongly anti-Trump, and Trump skeptics like Maddie Kearns and Luther Ray Abel were brought on. NR did continue to publish some voices ranging from pro-Trumpers like Conrad Black and Armond White, to other voices who may have been uncomfortable with the man but were fine with agreeing with him now and again such as Ed Whelan, Mark Kirkorian, and Robert VerBruggen, but it seems that the 2020 election and the aftermath culminating in the January 6, 2021 fracas permanently soured most everyone at NR on Donald Trump.

    I don’t know why Jonah Goldberg and David French left NR, but I have a hard time believing that it was over Trump or over declining subscriptions. Virtually every magazine is losing subscribers these days, especially journals of opinion like National Review. I think both Goldberg and French saw their opportunity to attempt a new business model that at the time seemed to be working reasonably well for established writers, so they went for it.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  8. I was wondering about the drivel their articles on young race car drivers Hailie Deegan, Katie Hettinger, Jamie Chadwick and Chloe Chambers were so bland.

    asset (5b4114)

  9. Thanks for the feedback, JVW.

    norcal (73ebcf)

  10. I was wondering about the drivel their articles on young race car drivers Hailie Deegan, Katie Hettinger, Jamie Chadwick and Chloe Chambers were so bland.

    Now if you believe the claims of SI, their use of AI bots was limited only to the reviews and other paid content the published. But of course I think we have every reason to suspect that they might have run some of their event coverage through the bots too. My post mentions that the Gannett News Group got busted using AI bots to write-up high school football games, and it sounds like the results were truly awful:

    Many of the reports feature identical language, describing “high school football action,” noting when one team “took victory away from” another and describing “cruise-control” wins. In many cases, the stories also repeated the date of the games being covered multiple times in just a few paragraphs.

    Gannett has paused its experiment with LedeAI in all of its local markets that had been using the service, according to the company. The pause was earlier reported by Axios.

    Are you seeing repetitive phrases and cliches in SI’s coverage of the young race car drivers?

    JVW (1ad43e)

  11. When the swimsuit models turn out to be AI fever dreams, that’s when we know we are in trouble.

    Any of the folks who read Playboy for the articles notice a problem there?

    Appalled (03f53c)

  12. When I hear AI, I think “Oy vey”. It’s the “rich Corinthian leather” of “computer-generated”. Puffery and hucksterism.

    And a lot of stuff is written by professional writers, also known as “hacks” in the trade. Usually anonymously, though. Seldom under a made-up identity unless it’s for a branded product such as “Ellery Queen”, “Doc Savage” or “Miss Manners”.

    nk (bb1548)

  13. Any of the folks who read Playboy for the articles notice a problem there?

    Appalled (03f53c) — 11/28/2023 @ 1:44 pm

    🤣🤣

    norcal (73ebcf)

  14. @10 I was so angry that the articles on young female race cars drivers didn’t mention that they complain that they are deliberately wrecked by boys and men who don’t want to be passed by a girl. Like joe graf jr. who was told on the radio by crew chief “don’t you let a girl pass you!” so he wrecked Hailie Deegan in ARCA race. That was all I cared about when I read the article.

    asset (5b4114)

  15. This isn’t really AI. It’s automated plagiarism.

    Kevin M (ed969f)


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