ACM will take no action against lawyer who hosted websites that used AI to alter legitimate news stories

Australian Community Media will take no action against its in-house lawyer who has been implicated in the creation of websites that later published thousands of articles using copy taken from legitimate news outlets.

The four websites – League Initiative, F1 Initiative, Surf Initiative and AliaVera – posted poor-quality articles apparently using generative AI to disguise them from the original copy.

The ABC’s Media Watch program revealed some stories on the sites carried the byline James Raptis, who is the regional publisher’s in-house lawyer. His private company shares the office address of AliaVera.

Raptis told the ABC he had hosted and set up the sites, but claimed to have no role in writing and publishing the articles. Hours after Media Watch tried to contact him, the websites were all taken down. His social media accounts have been shut down or switched to private.

In a statement to the ABC and Guardian Australia Raptis said the sites were “operated by another person without any involvement or oversight from me”.

“I do not have any involvement in the direction or operation of any of the websites you have mentioned, nor does my employer. I have never written any content for them. Any content carrying my byline has not been produced by me.”

One of the articles highlighted by Media Watch inadvertently included the AI prompt: “You are an experienced sports journalist. You are required to rewrite the following article. You are required to be extremely detailed. You are required to utilise Australian English spelling.

“You must ensure the article you generate is different from the original article to avoid plagiarism detection.”

ACM, owned by the former Domain publisher Antony Catalano, publishes the Canberra Times, the Illawarra Mercury and the Newcastle Herald among its 16 daily and 55 non-daily news brands.

Nine Entertainment sold 160 former Fairfax regional papers to Catalano and investors for $115m in 2019.

ACM would not speak on the record about its employee’s involvement in the business but said in a statement: “ACM does not comment on its employees. We refer you to the statements Mr Raptis has provided to Media Watch. ACM does not agree with using AI to take content from news websites.”

Guardian Australia understands Raptis’s involvement with the sites was not authorised by ACM, but the company will take no action against him.

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Sources say management has accepted his explanation that another person was responsible.

ACM told Guardian Australia in an off-the-record briefing who was responsible for the websites, but Media Watch is believed to have been given a different account from another source.

Barry told Guardian Australia: “Perhaps Mr Raptis should … identify the owner-operator of the websites, plus who paid for them to be set up. I think he owes that to the public.”

Associate Prof Alexandra Wake, who teaches journalism at RMIT University, said the sites represented the AI “nightmare becoming a reality” for journalism.

“AI experts have been telling us it was happening, but previously it has been difficult to identify,” Wake said.

“Humans bring an ethical eye to stories – and there should never be a story published that hasn’t had a human eye over it.”

Patrick Woods, a sports journalist at the Townsville Bulletin who had his articles lifted, described the practice as “parasitic plagiarism”.

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