Lawyer linked to ‘parasitic’ AI content network identified

Lawyer linked to ‘parasitic’ AI content network identified
  • PublishedMay 14, 2024

The ABC asked an Australian lawyer, employed by a large media organisation, if he was behind a “parasitic” content farm.

Hours later it was all taken down – though this lawyer said he was not actually operating the websites.

The ABC’s investigation started when Patrick Woods, a sports journalist at the Townsville Bulletin, noticed that strange versions of his stories were showing up on a site called League Initiative.

One of Mr Woods’s stories, published on April 24, had the headline:

Cowboys sign back-rower Heilum Luki to monster contract extension

It was written and published on the League Initiative website as:

Cowboys secure back-rower Heilum Luki with colossal contract extension

Neither Mr Woods nor the Townsville Bulletin were credited as the source of the information.

League Initiative published more than 3,000 of these plagiarised articles, starting in March 2023.

A profile shot of a caucasian man in his twenties.
Patrick Woods is a sports journalist at the Townsville Bulletin.(Supplied: Townsville Bulletin)

Mr Woods said whoever was operating the site was one of a new breed of “parasitic plagiarism merchants that are becoming all too common”.

“Not only [do they] hurt my ability to report on the NRL, but also damage the integrity of sports journalism,” he said.

League Initiative claimed to be “your go-to source for all the latest breaking news and in-depth analysis of the National Rugby League (NRL)”.

The site also touted its team of “journalists” and “editors”, however there was little evidence of human oversight in the content it published.

AI enables poorly executed mass plagiarism

Initiative Media, the entity behind the site, was running at least two other sports sites called Surf Initiative and F1 Initiative that were plagiarising content.

It also operated AliaVera, which took articles from Russian and Chinese news sites and translated them into English.

In an attempt to avoid charges of plagiarism, the site’s operator appeared to be using generative AI to rewrite the stories.

One article published on League Initiative in October inadvertently included the prompt used to instruct the AI:

“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.”

The prompt revealed that the site’s operator made some efforts to avoid mangling the text by instructing it to “not remove, edit or modify any quotes in any way”.

However, this instruction was frequently ignored by the AI process.

In one example, a quote attributed to North Queensland Cowboys football manager Michael Luck read:

“We believe he’s only just scratched the surface of his potential.”

It was re-written as the nonsensical:

“He’s nudged the iceberg but there’s so much more to come.”

Initiative Media was just one of a growing number of publishers using AI to produce large amounts of content at low cost, a strategy that has even been tried by well-known outlets like Sports Illustrated.

Despite the low quality of its articles, Initiative Media was able to make money through the ads placed in them.

In this way, it was taking money that could have gone towards paying journalists like those who wrote the original stories.

But who’s behind the AI?

Initiative Media’s sports sites did not attach by-lines to their stories at all, while articles on AliaVera were attributed to stereotypically Russian and Chinese names like “Alexander Petrov” and “Adam Li”.

All four domain names were registered anonymously, and the ABC’s emails – sent to the contact addresses they listed – were ignored.

Whoever was behind these sites clearly didn’t want to be identified, especially after League Initiative was criticised on Media Watch two weeks ago.

However, the ABC tracked down an archived version of the F1 Initiative site that included a named author on the by-line: James Raptis.

A screenshot of an article on F1 Initiative with the byline, saying "James Raptis", highlighted
An archived version of the F1 Initiative site listed James Raptis as the author of a plagiarised article.(ABC News)

Mr Raptis is a senior legal counsel at Australian Community Media, which publishes a large number of regional newspapers and websites.

His account on X, it turns out, was following League Initiative. And he was, in return, followed by the site’s account.

The same Mr Raptis is also a director of a company called FlyLearner, according to his LinkedIn account, and that company shares an office address with AliaVera.

Websites quickly shut down after ABC query

The ABC reached out to check whether this lawyer – who works for a big media company – was involved in stealing copy from other media groups.

Hours after we tried getting in touch with Mr Raptis, the websites for League Initiative, F1 Initiative, Surf Initiative and AliaVera, were all taken down.

A profile shot of a caucasian man in his late twenties wearing a suit
James Raptis was linked to Initiative Media’s websites but denied touching the content published on them.(LinkedIn: James Raptis)

Mr Raptis also set his account on X to private.

He eventually called back and promised a statement, in which he admitted to hosting the websites.

“I have never written any content for them,” he said.

He claimed that he initially helped set up the sites, which featured his by-line and office address, but had been unaware they were publishing plagiarised stories.

However, Mr Raptis’s social media activity showed that he followed – and liked plagiarised articles posted by – one of the sites.


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