New York Times review reveals that free print and online publications produced by a US group are among the deceptive websites

US politicians Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have been targeted by a far-right propaganda operation linked to the Holocaust denier David Duke, the New York Times has reported.

The Times review of a state education department investigation into student newspapers for fake news found that 13 free print and online publications in the state were either “fraudulent” or “fake news”, including an organ of the Jewish Defence League and sites tied to Australia’s alt-right Thought Police.

The investigations focused on two publications, California Student Communications and a Chinese student newspaper, while on Monday, the Times reported that some of the state’s newspapers had also been found to be deceptive in their use of emails and other underhand practices.

Free speech has to mean freedom from paid interference by people whose point of view you disagree with Brendan O’Connor

The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull used his last days in power to force student newspapers to publish his op-ed refuting their stories and claiming that he had only ever told friends he was working on a piece about journalists. He was eventually forced to reveal that his article, which urged critics to consider the bias of mainstream media, had been written by an employee of his own office.

The Times review revealed the serious professional disarray within the wide array of fake news websites, all funded by a grant given by the New York Times’ own parent company.

The most prominently named organisation is the Voice of San Diego, which has been named as the principle funder and publisher of the State Publications, named as a group based in Ohio and Florida, that produces the sites for the state of California.

Other groups in the group are the National Security Conspiracy, which emerged in August after a 2017 audit found its most active subsidiary had been operating in Maryland, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania, and Blue Wave USA, a group that was active in August when it started promoting an article about an anti-Muslim gunman.

In a further analysis of seven websites, the Times found that the websites had shared content that had already been shared more than five times, fabricated stories that had been shared more than 10 times, and even published articles before publishing ones.

Attempts by Guardian Australia to contact Vox Media, which owns the sites Vox and Broadband respectively, were unsuccessful.

The Globe & Mail reported on the sites in June, after a report on National Public Radio by the American Republic, which said it believed they were funded by the New York Times’ New America thinktank. It did not name any of the individuals who fund the group.

“Our advice is: if you’re going to engage in these types of activities, first make sure you don’t set up any offshore shell companies,” Daniel Sack, the research director at the National Press Foundation, said at the time.

“This is a simple thing you could do, to make sure there’s no question that this group is US citizens, that they’re not relying on tax havens in places like Panama, and also showing that they have someone in the US that’s registering the domain registrations.”

The thinktank said it had never been approached by Vox or Broadband to fund the publications and, in fact, did not fund the media’s output, which came instead from the Internet Archive. The groups never published a statement on the matter.

Of the sites used by the New York Times’ parent company, Reverie Press is the least culpable, according to the review. The US department of education told the Times it couldn’t find evidence of Reverie Press publishing hoax stories, and the company’s president told the Times he wasn’t aware of any such instances.

Others appear to have made errors by not restricting their own publication outlets. Reverie Press and Broadband did not restrict who could publish content in their sites, something that likely increased the number of hoaxes appearing on their sites. In the case of California Student Communications, the pages used for exclusives don’t have filters so any of the seven online publishers can put their spin on them.

As a rule, the publications which received the biggest sums from New America were the California Student Communications, which received $500,000 and 20% of the total costs for the California State University system.

The review also found that the people behind the websites, some of whom are also employed by the New York Times and who were given smaller grants, often failed to follow the regulations of the websites and created problems for the publishers in other ways. For example, many received no payment for writing for the site, and