In Org We Trust? - Misinformation Monitor

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Public Interest Registry (PIR), a U.S. nonprofit that owns and manages all .org domains and advocates for internet-related policy issues, markets its well-known suffix as "one of the most trusted domains" that "has enabled people and organizations the world over to establish their trusted online identity." Indeed, many websites tout their .org address as evidence that they meet some standard of trustworthiness.

In fact, there are no such standards. A NewsGuard analysis has found that a significant number of sites with a .org domain traffic in misinformation related to COVID-19, U.S. politics, and other important issues. Of 290 .org sites in NewsGuard's U.S. database as of February 2022, nearly 20 percent — 56 sites — were Red-rated, meaning they are generally unreliable.

PIR: Monitoring misinformation is not our job

Asked about the large number of .org sites that have published false claims, PIR Chief Strategy Officer Judy Song-Marshall told NewsGuard in a February 2022 email that monitoring .org sites for quality is not PIR's role.

"PIR does not monitor the 'reliability' of information on the over 10.6M .ORG domains in existence. This kind of review is more appropriate on the level of the companies hosting such content," Song-Marshall said. "With that said, both the .ORG registry, as well as the registrars ... with which the customers register domain names, both have acceptable use policies that might be implicated depending on the content. PIR is aggressive in combatting abuse and has the least abuse of its peers."

The registrars Song-Marshall referred to are companies such as GoDaddy and, through which customers can purchase domain names.

Anyone can obtain a .org domain, simply by paying a modest annual fee. The price per year varies, depending on the web-hosting company, but can run as low as $9.99 annually. But it would appear that many people believe that ".org" signals quality. In a 2013 brand study conducted by PIR, 66 percent of respondents in the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Brazil, and India believed "that some criteria must be met in order to purchase a .ORG domain name."

Major colleges and universities have contributed to this misperception. Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Boston College are among institutions of higher education that have identified .org domains as typically belonging to nonprofit organizations in materials with recommendations on how to evaluate sources online.

For example, Harvard's College Writing Program, on the university's website, instructs students to check whether a website is a .org to determine if it is a nonprofit site — as if that distinguishes it from a .com even though there is nothing that requires .orgs to be nonprofit, and many, if not most, of the unreliable ones aren't.

Bad actors hiding behind .org, the Red-rated website of an anti-abortion group, was the Red-rated .org site in NewsGuard's U.S. database with the most online engagement (defined as the total number of interactions its articles received on social media) that repeatedly published false news in the last 90 days, as of Feb. 1, 2022.

● An August 2020 article published by the site titled "Report: Birth control increases risk of deadly blood clots from COVID-19," falsely linked oral contraceptives to poor outcomes for women who have COVID-19, citing a report published in the journal Endocrinology.

● In fact, the Endocrinology report cited by was an opinion article, not a study. The article itself stated: "As this Commentary is being submitted, no reports of increased incidence of VTEs [venous thromboembolism] in pregnant women or women taking estrogen preparation who also have COVID-19 have emerged."

● The August 2020 article had received approximately 8,500 reactions, shares, and comments on Facebook as of Feb. 1, 2022, according to CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring tool owned by Facebook.

Asked about this article, Live Action Chief Operating Officer Josef Lipp told NewsGuard in a March 2021 email that "upon review, the only issue one could have with our article is one word in our first line." Indeed, after NewsGuard questioned Lipp, changed the language of the first line of the article to state that "women taking hormonal birth control pills may be at an increased risk of blood clots if they contract COVID-19," rather than stating that they "are at an increased risk." However, after this change was made, the story still stated baselessly that "in short, taking oral contraceptives like the pill only increases the dangers and risks of COVID-19."

The bottom line: It does not matter what kind of content a website publishes; anyone can slap a .org domain on their site and reap the benefits of this supposed trust indicator. Nevertheless, many people believe — for understandable reasons — that .org connotes reliability. And out of the more than 10.6 million .org domains that PIR oversees, there are sure to be many more sites than those noted here that are reaping the benefits of a reputation they may not have earned.

By Melissa Goldin
Additional reporting by
Sara Badilini, Alex Cadier, Chine Labbé, Kendrick McDonald, Virginia Padovese, Giulia Pozzi, and Marie Richter