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Top news app in US has Chinese origins and ‘writes fiction’ with the help of AI

Last Christmas Eve, NewsBreak, a free app with roots in China that is the most downloaded news app in the United States, published an alarming piece about a small town shooting.
It was headlined “Christmas Day Tragedy Strikes Bridgeton, New Jersey Amid Rising Gun Violence in Small Towns.”
The problem was, no such shooting took place. The Bridgeton, New Jersey police department posted a statement on Facebook on Dec.27 dismissing the article – produced using AI technology – as “entirely false.”
“Nothing even similar to this story occurred on or around Christmas, or even in recent memory for the area they described,” the post said.
“It seems this ‘news’ outlet’s AI writes fiction they have no problem publishing to readers.”
The company said “the inaccurate information originated from the content source,” and provided a link to the website, adding: “When NewsBreak identifies any inaccurate content or any violation of our community standards, we take prompt action to remove that content.”
As local news outlets across America have shuttered in recent years, NewsBreak has filled the void.
Billing itself as “the go-to source for all things local,” Newsbreak says it has over 50 million monthly users.
On three occasions in January, February and March, Food to Power, a Colorado-based food bank said it had to turn people away because NewsBreak stated incorrect times of food distributions.
The charity said it received no response. Harvest912, a charity in Erie, Pennsylvania emailed NewsBreak about two inaccurate, AI-based news stories which said it was holding a 24-hour foot-care clinic for homeless people, asking the outlet to “cease and desist” erroneous coverage.
The company launched in the US in 2015 as a subsidiary of Yidian, a Chinese news aggregation app. Both companies were founded by Jeff Zheng, the CEO of Newsbreak, and the companies share a US patent registered in 2015 for an “Interest Engine” algorithm, which recommends news content based on a user’s interests and location.
“I cannot think of a faster way to destroy the NewsBreak brand,” Norm Pearlstine, former Executive Editor at the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times who was working at the time as a consultant to NewsBreak, wrote in the memo to Zheng.
“I question the legality of creating fake accounts using content publishers put behind their paywalls. If I had learned about the practice while at the LA Times, I would have instructed our lawyer to seek a restraining order and sue for damages,” wrote Pearlstine, whose six-month consulting role at NewsBreak in 2022 consisted of advising the company about US editorial businesses.
Pearlstine, who confirmed the memo was authentic, attributed the lapse to a lack of journalistic experience.
NewsBreak said the news stories referenced in Pearlstine’s memo were a “limited experiment in three US counties” to aggregate third-party content, and that the effort was disbanded after producing ten articles. The company denied going behind paywalls and said it used “snippets” of articles that were publicly visible to produce complete news stories using OpenAI.
Patch did not respond to a request for comment. NewsBreak said the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing.
Emmerich Newspapers, which operates newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, reached a 2021 settlement with NewsBreak in a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement related to NewsBreak’s use of Emmerich’s content without permission. NewsBreak said the settlement was “amicable.”
Another copyright lawsuit is ongoing. The two parties are “embroiled in additional lawsuits which we are vigorously defending against,” NewsBreak said.
Wyatt Emmerich, the company’s president, said the lawsuit against NewsBreak involved “verbatim copying of content.”
He added: “What worries me in the future is that news aggregators could use artificial intelligence to slightly rewrite our stories which would make proving copyright infringement much more difficult. I have witnessed instances of this happening already on news aggregation sites.”
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