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CNET robot used to write articles committed plagiarism

A robot with the CNET logo superimposed on the chest.
(Original photo by Pavel Danilyuk, Composite image by The Desk)

A robot used by marketing firm Red Ventures for various publications committed acts of plagiarism that went largely unchecked for months, according to a new report.

The issue will no doubt add to mounting criticism of Red Ventures and its tech-focused publication, CNET, which was caught using artificial intelligence software to write finance-focused articles, which contained numerous basic errors.

Late last week, editors at CNET and executives at Red Ventures dismissed concerns that they didn’t disclose their use of artificial intelligence software for dozens of stories that carried the generic byline “CNET Money Staff” until the website Futurism pointed out that the stories weren’t written by a human staff member at all.

Instead, CNET officials said their use of robots to write clickbait articles was done on the down low, but affirmed the website has now temporarily stopped using the software after numerous errors were pointed out, and said a more-prominent disclaimer was now visible to readers for the few articles that appear online.

On Monday, the website Futurism said it found numerous examples of Red Ventures’ robot plagiarizing the work of others, including a story on overdraft fees that was previously covered by competing outlets Forbes, Investopedia and The Balance.

After reviewing numerous examples of plagiarized work, a current Red Ventures employee who went unnamed by Futurism appeared to agree that the issue was a big problem for the company.

“It poses the question of what kind of institutions do CNET and Bankrate want to be seen as — they’re just taking these articles and rephrasing a couple of things,” the employee said. Bankrate is a finance-focused website owned by Red Ventures that, among other things, earns commissions from readers when they sign up for credit cards and other services using specific links found in articles.

Futurism reporter Jon Christian ultimately reached the conclusion that the robot CNET and other Red Ventures websites used to generate content was not “sophisticated,” but rather “an automated plagiarism machine, casually pumping out pilfered work that would get a human journalist fired.”

Recent history is littered with examples of just that: Jared Keller was fired by now-shuttered Mic for purported acts of plagiarism, though an actual review of the problematic content showed it was more instances of poor aggregation and sourcing than actual intent to copy and steal. Several years later, prominent BuzzFeed content creator Ryan Broderick was fired for actual acts of plagiarism stemming from sloppy copy-and-paste jobs and for not sourcing any of the original work where he found his material.

In both cases, a seeming need to create as much content as possible in order to gain much-needed traffic from social media platforms and search engine listings appeared to be the foundation for what cost both editors their jobs. The same could be said for CNET’s use of robots — it is a multi-billion dollar operation, after all, and it didn’t spend $500 million acquiring CNET and other publications from ViacomCBS (now Paramount Global) for nothing.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).