The town of Veles, Macedonia, achieved international fame last fall after a BuzzFeed News story reported on a large cluster of pro-Trump websites that often published fake news and that were being run by teenagers and young men. Soon camera crews from major media outlets such as Britain’s Channel 4, ABC’s Nightline, as well as reporters from Wired magazine and NBC News arrived to write about the “fake-news teens.”
But now panic has set in for some of the young publishers of Veles. Over the past two months, more than 30 Facebook pages they use to drive traffic to their websites have been removed due to what the social network said were multiple terms-of-service violations. Most of the killed pages were focused on US politics, but several publishers told BuzzFeed News they also lost large and lucrative pages about horses, motorcycles, muscle cars, and snowmobiles.
“They live from that [sic] fan pages,” wrote one Macedonian who reached out on behalf of several friends who lost their pages. “Now they got nothing.” (Like the three other Macedonian publishers who spoke to BuzzFeed News, he asked that his name not be used in order to prevent his pages and websites from suffering additional consequences from Facebook.)
“I'm in a very inappropriate situation, after spending a huge amount of money on Facebook for promoting articles and Page likes,” said a Macedonian publisher who lost a page with more than 1.3 million fans. “In end all have got is unpublished page.”
Another publisher estimated he spent roughly $100,000 on Facebook ads over the years to attract new fans for his four pages, which cumulatively had over 1.5 million likes. He and others assumed that being allowed to pay for Facebook ads for their pages meant they were operating in the clear.
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that a publisher who buys ads to promote posts or a page is not immune from the rules of the platform. The spokesperson also said there is not a specific effort to target Macedonian publishers.
“These instances are part of our ongoing, global effort to detect and stop spam activity on our platform, and not isolated to Macedonia,” they said.
The removal of roughly three dozen pages owned by Macedonian publishers is a result of Facebook’s push to rid its platform of spammers, fake news publishers, and others who violate its terms of service. But it’s also a reminder that no one really “owns” a Facebook page, in spite of how much money they might spend growing it. And while Facebook did not specifically target Macedonian publishers, the removals may have been in part a result of a strategy executed by a small group of American publishers who told BuzzFeed News they grew tired of having their content stolen by Macedonians.
“Macedonians refused to stop stealing my material,” said Christopher Blair, who goes by the online handle Busta Troll and runs TheLastLineOfDefense.org, which frequently saw its stories copied word for word by multiple sites run out of Macedonia. “My friends and I handled it. Most lost their pages, some lost their blogs.”
The automated message from Facebook received by some Macedonians after their pages were removed informed them, “Your Page has been unpublished for causing people to like or engage with it unintentionally in a misleading way.” BuzzFeed News has documented the fake news, fake accounts, and other dubious approaches used by some US political pages run by Macedonians. But the publishers who spoke to BuzzFeed News insisted they were following Facebook’s rules on at least some of the removed pages. One said he personally wrote all of the content on his website about muscle cars and was in line with Facebook’s terms of service.
“All the way I was trying to be correct with all the posts ... I’m not just a kid trying to get some instant money posting everything,” he said, acknowledging that some in Macedonia steal content and publish false information.
One publisher who recently lost five Facebook pages, two of which were about US politics, told BuzzFeed News he may have had some questionable content on his political pages but that his muscle car pages were clean.
“On my political [page] maybe there were some fake news, but you have to understand us, we are not doing that because we are [interested] in the politics — only for the money,” he said.
The Facebook spokesperson said the topic of a page is not a factor in its review process. “We don’t make our policy decisions about spam based on the topic of Pages. If a Page is in violation of Facebook policies, it’s in violation — no matter the topic.”
Though the page removals largely happened in May and June, the seeds for the Macedonian crackdown were planted months ago. Thousands of miles away in rural Maine, Blair and some of his collaborators on websites and Facebook pages were executing a simple strategy aimed at shutting down Macedonian publishers. They repeatedly reported Macedonian-run pages to Facebook for stealing content. As previously reported by BuzzFeed News, many Macedonian-run politics websites made a habit of copying and pasting any new articles published on Blair's site, which is filled with fake articles he says are meant to troll American conservatives.
Blair said he and others initially tried to work with some Macedonians to enable them to license rather steal his content. But when they refused, he decided to take them out by reporting them for copyright infringement.
“I tried to make deals to license with the requirement that they mark it satire, they kept just stealing,” Blair said in an interview via Facebook Messenger. He also called this reporter an "asshole" for including his website in stories about fake news.
“Assholes like Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed blamed me for the spread of fake news because of a bunch of kids in Macedonia who thought they were invincible,” he said. “You were wrong. Macedonian kids were responsible for their actions, not me. They've been handled.”
Blair said it took months of consistently reporting the pages and websites for Facebook and web-hosting companies to take action. Then, in early June, he received word from a Macedonian he knows that a slew of pages were down.
“Today when I woke up, I was informed by one of my Macedonian ‘contacts’ that 22 pages had gone down from Facebook,” he wrote in a post on GOPocalypse.org about his effort to take down the Macedonians. “That right there is what you can call a successful campaign.”
Alan James Whitmore, the name used on Facebook by a publisher who runs several conservative Facebook pages and who is also a liberal troll who works with Blair, told BuzzFeed News he was involved in the reporting effort as well.
“So yeah, I can confirm that liberal trolls reporting original, copyrighted material to Facebook and to webhosts as plagiarism most likely had something to do with the collapse of the fake news economy in Veles,” he said. (Whitmore added that “there isn't a liberal troll on the planet who would fully cooperate with BuzzFeed on a story right now” and then blocked this reporter on Facebook.)
The Macedonian publishers who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they don’t know who Blair is and had not heard of his site. They said they decided to go public about their page removals in the hope that Facebook might bring them back. However unlikely that seems, one publisher said the company previously brought pages of his back from the dead — only to kill them again.
He said several pages were killed on the same day in May and “Two of them were back later that day ... Computer mistake and FB said they are sorry for their mistake,” he said. “One month later those two pages were unpublished again.”
He acknowledged that in the past he had broken Facebook’s terms of service by spamming groups and using fake accounts. But he said he’d cleaned up his act and launched new pages, which were subsequently taken down. “When I was spamming to groups I know that it was not good, but I needed that money,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the bottom is falling out for at least some Macedonian publishers, Western media continue to descend on Veles.
“Just want to tell you that CNN are in our towns and make story about political websites,” one publisher told BuzzFeed News via Facebook Messenger yesterday. “They think that we are connected with Russians! WTF are they crazy.”