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.


Twitter suspends two accounts linked to 12 Russians indicted by Mueller

The accounts have been suspended for being connected to a network of accounts previously suspended for operating in violation of our rules. (REUTERS)
Updated 15 July 2018
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Twitter suspends two accounts linked to 12 Russians indicted by Mueller

  • The indictment alleges that from around June 2016 the conspirators released tens of thousands of stolen emails and documents “using fictitious online personas, including ‘DCLeaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0.’.”
  • Friday’s indictment was the first by Mueller that directly charges the Russian government with meddling in the election

WASHINGTON: Social networking site Twitter Inc. on Saturday suspended two accounts linked to 12 Russian spies indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election.
On Friday, a federal grand jury charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic computer networks in 2016 in the most detailed US accusation yet that Moscow meddled in the election to help Republican Donald Trump.
Twitter said on Saturday it had suspended the accounts @DCLeaks_ and @Guccifer_2 that were named in the indictment, which alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy involving sophisticated hacking and staged release of documents.
The indictment alleges that from around June 2016 the conspirators released tens of thousands of stolen emails and documents “using fictitious online personas, including ‘DCLeaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0.’.”
In a statement on Saturday, a Twitter spokesman said: “The accounts have been suspended for being connected to a network of accounts previously suspended for operating in violation of our rules.”
Friday’s indictment was the first by Mueller that directly charges the Russian government with meddling in the election. The Kremlin denies it interfered.
Speaking at a cybersecurity conference in Philadelphia on Saturday, US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the indictments proved that the United States “will not tolerate interference with our democratic processes and that there will be consequences for foreign meddling.”