How a Macedonian town became a ‘fake news’ epicenter

As the US presidential race heated up, politics suddenly became a new attractive target for websites being developed in Veles, Macedonia, especially those supportive of then-Republican nominee Donald Trump. (AFP)
Updated 12 July 2018
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How a Macedonian town became a ‘fake news’ epicenter

  • Two years ago, a new source of income opened up when investors offered money to locals for producing news stories in support of Donald Trump who was campaigning to become the 45th president
  • The clickbait websites helped generate income in a country where youth unemployment is a whopping 55 percent

VELES, Macedonia: Jovan got a pair of Nike sneakers and went on holiday to Greece, his reward for having helped turn the small Macedonian town of Veles into an epicenter of “fake news” during the 2016 US presidential race.
“That’s what the so-called fake news sites bought me,” said the 20-year-old who did not want to reveal his last name.
“I was earning about €200 ($230) a month ... Only a few earn this kind of money,” he said in Veles, home to around 50,000 people.
Once a thriving industrial hub, Veles has suffered decline since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and, like the rest of the country, now grapples with rampant youth unemployment and mass emigration.
But two years ago, a new source of income unexpectedly opened up when investors offered money to locals for producing news stories in support of Donald Trump who was campaigning to become the 45th president of the United States.
Hundreds of websites and Facebook pages started to come out of Veles servers with the sole aim of tarnishing Trump’s Democrat opponents like Hillary Clinton or his predecessor Barack Obama.
The sites, many of which have since disappeared, distributed articles about Clinton’s alleged racist remarks on Beyonce or fake statements, in which she allegedly praising Trump’s honesty.
Jovan, a student at the Veles’s Faculty of Technology, was recruited in 2016 by one of dozens of local investors engaged in a clickbait race.
His work consisted of retrieving articles published mainly on right wing US websites, such as Fox News or Breitbart News, and then “adapting them, changing them a little, putting in a catchy title.”
Jovan says he “doesn’t know” if he contributed to Trump’s victory, adding: “I don’t care.”
What mattered to the young man, whose parents lost their factory jobs in 2003, was that for the first time he made enough money to afford things.
“We were writing what people wanted to read,” Jovan said.
With lower living costs than Skopje — the only other city to offer a university degree in IT studies — students started to flock to Veles in recent years and get involved in clickbait sites.
Until 2016, they primarily focused on celebrities, cars and the lucrative beauty industry.
The sites helped generate income in a country where youth unemployment is a whopping 55 percent.
“Young people understood how Google algorithm worked and they were experimenting for couple of years with ways of making money from ads,” IT expert Igor Velkovski said.
But as the US presidential race heated up, politics suddenly became a new attractive target.
“Trump started to mean revenue. When Trump stories turned out to be profitable, they understood that conspiracy theories will always gain an audience,” Velkovski said.
Web designer Borce Pejcev, 34, helped create many of the pro-Trump sites.
“It became clear that the conservatives were better for making money, they like conspiracy theory stories, which are always clicked before being shared,” he said.
Digital consultant Mirko Ceselkovski makes no secret of the fact that he helped advise people like Pejcev on how to create fake news.
“I helped Trump win,” his business card reads.
“I just taught them how to make money on Internet and how to find an audience,” Ceselkovski said.
“The more clicks, the more Google Ads money... it’s a click-ruled world.”
Even adults with steady jobs joined the fake news industry, including English teacher Violeta who only gave her first name.
During the US election campaign, she almost doubled her €350 monthly salary by working just three hours a day.
“I know it’s wrong to take a side job which consists of saying ‘Vaccines kill!’, ‘The Holocaust did not exist’ or promoting Trump,” said the mother of two.
“But when one is hungry, one doesn’t have the luxury to think about democratic progress,” she added.
Violeta said some of her own students were regularly “arriving late and sleeping in class” because they too were writing for those websites.
While Jovan has stopped producing fake news, his friend Teodor continues to work for a company that runs hundreds of lifestyle websites.
Teodor is earning €100 to €150 monthly, almost as much as his mother, a part-time worker in a textile company.
“Blame me if you like, but between that and putting stories on Internet, I choose the second option,” Teodor said.


WhatsApp to limit message forwarding

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 20 July 2018
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WhatsApp to limit message forwarding

  • Indians forward more messages, photos and videos than any other country in the world

NEW DELHI: WhatsApp announced curbs on its service in India on Friday in an effort to stop a spate of horrific lynchings and to assuage government threats of legal action in its biggest market.
More than 20 people have been killed by mobs in the past two months across the country after being accused of child kidnapping and other crimes in viral messages circulated on WhatsApp.
The Facebook-owned firm said on Friday that in India it will test limiting the ability of users to forward messages, and will also experiment with a lower limit of five chats at once.
It addition, it said it will “remove the quick forward button next to media messages,” a statement said.
“We believe that these changes — which we’ll continue to evaluate — will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app,” it added.
Under pressure from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the firm had already announced new features to help users identify messages that have been forwarded.
WhatsApp had also bought full-page adverts in Indian newspapers with tips on how to spot misinformation.
But in a strongly worded statement released late Thursday, India’s information technology ministry said the action taken was not enough.
“Rampant circulation of irresponsible messages in large volumes on their platform have not been addressed adequately by WhatsApp,” the ministry said.
“When rumors and fake news get propagated by mischief-mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability,” it said.
“If (WhatsApp) remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action.”