How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News
BuzzFeed News identified more than 100 pro-Trump websites being run from a single town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
"This is the news of the millennium!" said the story on WorldPoliticus.com. Citing unnamed FBI sources, it claimed Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her email scandal.
"Your Prayers Have Been Answered," declared the headline.
For Trump supporters, that certainly seemed to be the case. They helped the baseless story generate over 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
Meanwhile, roughly 6,000 miles away in a small town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a young man watched as money began trickling into his Google AdSense account.
Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.
The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don't care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.
As a result, this strange hub of pro-Trump sites in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is now playing a significant role in propagating the kind of false and misleading content that was identified in a recent BuzzFeed News analysis of hyperpartisan Facebook pages. These sites open a window into the economic incentives behind producing misinformation specifically for the wealthiest advertising markets and specifically for Facebook, the world's largest social network, as well as within online advertising networks such as Google AdSense.
"Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that 'if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,'" said a university student in Veles who started a US politics site, and who agreed to speak on the condition that BuzzFeed News not use his name.
Using domain name registration records and online searches, BuzzFeed News identified over 100 active US politics websites being run from Veles. The largest of these sites have Facebook pages that boast hundreds of thousands of followers.
BuzzFeed News also identified another 40 US politics domains registered by people in Veles that are no longer active. (An April report from the Macedonian website Meta.mk identified six pro-Trump sites being run from Veles. A Guardian report identified 150 politics sites.)
Their reasons for launching these sites are purely financial, according to the Macedonians with whom BuzzFeed News spoke.
"I started the site for a easy way to make money," said a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people. "In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money. I'm a musician but I can't afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things."
Most of the posts on these sites are aggregated, or completely plagiarized, from fringe and right-wing sites in the US. The Macedonians see a story elsewhere, write a sensationalized headline, and quickly post it to their site. Then they share it on Facebook to try and generate traffic. The more people who click through from Facebook, the more money they earn from ads on their website.
"People in America prefer to read news about Trump," said a Macedonian 16-year-old who operates BVANews.com.
BuzzFeed News' research also found that the most successful stories from these sites were nearly all false or misleading.
For example, the most successful post BuzzFeed News found from a Macedonian site is based on a story from a fake news website. The headline on the story from ConservativeState.com was "Hillary Clinton In 2013: 'I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought.'" The post is a week old and has racked up an astounding 480,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. (To put that into perspective, the New York Times' exclusive story that revealed Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns generated a little more than 175,000 Facebook interactions in a month.)
The viral Clinton story was sourced from TheRightists.com, a site that admits it publishes both real and fake content. According to emails released by WikiLeaks, Clinton said in a private speech to Goldman Sachs that she would like to see more successful business people enter politics. But she did not mention Donald Trump in any way. The quote used in the headline is false.
Four of the five most successful posts from the Macedonian sites BuzzFeed News identified are false. They include the false claim that the pope endorsed Trump, and the false claim that Mike Pence said Michelle Obama is the "most vulgar first lady we've ever had." Those four posts together generated more than 1 million shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. That resulted in huge traffic and significant ad revenue for the owners of these sites, with many people being misinformed along the way.
The Macedonians BuzzFeed News spoke to said the explosion in pro-Trump sites in Veles means the market has now become crowded, making it harder to earn money. The people who launched their sites early in 2016 are making the most money, according to the university student. He said a friend of his earns $5,000 per month, "or even $3,000 per day" when he gets a hit on Facebook.
The 16-year-old who operates BVANews.com with a partner said he also runs health websites in addition to the US politics site. They launched the site in early 2016 and it's now averaging 1 million page views a month, said his partner. (The teens declined to share revenue figures.)
The 17-year-old and his three partners are still waiting for Google's AdSense program to approve their site for ads. As of now, they're only generating about 800 views a day and aren't earning any revenue. The university student launched his site in August and stopped updating it in order to focus on another, more successful site he has that's focused on health and well-being. He estimated there are "thousands" of health-related sites being run out of Veles. US politics is just this year's opportunity, thanks to a combination of Trump and Facebook.
"I stopped because I didn't really enjoy doing it and we didn't actually make any money from it since there are so many people posting already," the university student said. "The people who started early are the ones reaping the rewards."
Aside from the allure of easy money, they also have an element of pride that web-savvy people — including teenagers — in a small country like Macedonia can earn money by gaming Facebook, Google, and Americans.
"A good chunk of the world thinks Macedonia is primitive, but that is not true," the 17-year-old said.
The young men running these sites know the Trump traffic bonanza will soon come to an end. They expect traffic and revenue to decline significantly once the election is over. But they also hold out hope that a Trump win will keep their sites afloat.
"If Trump loses I plan to redirect my site to sports," the 16-year-old's partner said. "It means that there will be no more politics [worth covering]."