Macedonia’s Fake News Factories | AJ+


So-called fake news can have real-world consequences… This is an arms race. They’re going to keep getting better at this, and we need to invest in keeping on getting better at this, too. How much responsibility does Facebook have for the content on the platform? So Facebook knew that this was happening, and you’re saying that they were profiting? I’m Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, and this is a story about fake news and the people profiting from it. In the three months leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, viral fake news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than those from the top 19 major news outlets combined. Some of these fake stories came from an unlikely place — the Republic of North Macedonia, a country of about two million people just north of Greece. There’s all these stories about guys over in Macedonia who are running these fake news sites. We found a lot of different accounts coming from Macedonia. Hundreds of pro-Trump websites popped up all over the country. And teenagers – particularly in one poor former factory town – purportedly made millions by duping American news consumers on social media sites like Facebook. I came to Macedonia to find out what the fake news industry here is like amid a tech industry crackdown and reports that trolls are already preparing to cash in on the next U.S. elections. Saska Cvetkovska is an investigative journalist in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. She says it’s not a coincidence that Macedonia has become one of the world’s fake news hubs. It has a young, tech-savvy population, an unemployment rate of over 20 percent and the recently ousted government regularly blasted fake news through state-run media. She is investigating who is funding the fake news factories in the country. At the center of Macedonia’s fake news industry is a man named Mirko Ceselkoski. He calls himself an Internet marketing consultant and Facebook strategist, though he’s been referred to as a clickbait coach. He says he’s taught over a thousand young people here how to make content for an American audience. You refer to yourself as the man who accidentally helped Donald Trump win the U.S. election. Mirko started making money on the Internet in the early 2000s by writing stories about yachts and muscle cars. He insists it was purely by accident that his students stumbled upon the money pot that is U.S. partisan politics. Here’s how this works: Create a simple website through a site like WordPress. Choose a domain name that sounds like a mainstream American news organization. Copy and paste stories from alt-right sites like Breitbart and InfoWars. Then create or buy Facebook profiles, pages and likes. When readers click through from Facebook to the websites, they’re hit with dozens of ads. With each click, the ad revenue begins pouring in through automated advertising engines, like Google AdSense. The secret ingredients for a viral hit: Did your students know much about the U.S. or U.S. politics before they started writing these stories? From America. Mirko says his students often hire freelance writers in the United States through websites like Upwork. That’s a lot of money. Do you feel that there’s a moral or ethical concern to be making money off of convincing millions of Americans that something is real, that can then affect how they vote? Facebook’s crackdown on fake news has been bad for business here. In 2020 for example, there’s another huge election in America. You think there will be people doing the same thing? After meeting Mirko, I traveled to a small town that has become the epicenter of the fake news industry here. I’m here in Veles, Macedonia, a former factory town where young people, if they’re lucky to have a job at all, rarely earn over 300 Euros a month, but where fake news factories are now making some of them very rich. I’m on my way to meet a young man named “Boris” who has learned from Mirko’s methods and works in a content factory along with 20 others. We weren’t invited inside. Instead, he agreed to meet me at an Internet café. Boris has asked that we conceal his identity because he’s afraid of legal action from the U.S. He didn’t want to share just how much money he’s made, worried it might reveal his identity. Generally you work at night, right? What do you think about these Americans who were reading all this fake news, the stuff you were publishing? And how did you know what Americans wanted? What Boris told me next caught me by surprise. So Facebook knew that this was happening? Boris is saying that in the days before the election, the price for promoting content that was pro-Trump on the pages he was managing dropped significantly, so he went all in to heavily promote Trump. What are your plans in the next election? My time in Macedonia left me with a lot of questions. so I returned to the U.S. in search of answers. We came here to Facebook’s headquarters to find out what went wrong in the 2016 elections and what their plans are to protect the integrity of future elections in the U.S. and abroad. Monika Bickert is head of content policy at Facebook. This is definitely an area where we’ve made mistakes and where we’re investing a lot in getting better. If you look back to 2016, for instance, our tools that identify fake accounts weren’t as good then as they are now. We’ve come across a lot of accounts that are Macedonian and Russian accounts that seem dubious to us throughout the reporting process but they’re still active. We won’t always be perfect but I can tell you it’s absolutely a priority to proactively find and remove those types of accounts. In the lead-up to the French and German elections in 2017, Facebook removed tens of thousands of fake accounts. But the company announced recently that there may be as many as 87 million fake accounts still on the platform. Facebook is hiring thousands of people to review content, developing artificial intelligence to detect fake news and accounts, and trying to contextualize articles that have been flagged as potential fakes so users can decide for themselves. What would you say to American Facebook users who are concerned about fake news and how it might influence the midterm elections? Facebook certainly has a role to play in removing inauthentic actors, fake accounts, people who are intentionally sharing disinformation to sow discord. At the same time, there’s also more than we can be doing as a society to identify when something is likely fake. I asked her about Boris’s allegations that Facebook was profiting off of content like his. He claims that Facebook knew, whether it was an algorithm’s decision or a human’s, that the price was all of a sudden dramatically cheaper to promote Trump content. Well, for advertising prices, I’d have to follow up with you on exactly how we set those. But we didn’t receive an explanation on the record from the company, despite repeated attempts to obtain one. Former Facebook employee Antonio Garcia-Martinez has his own take on Boris’s claims. He was a product manager who helped develop the platform’s advertising side and left the company in 2013. What do you make of that, because it can be coincidence… It may not be. It may not be. If you employ a certain inflammatory rhetoric that gets people engaged with your thing, then your net media cost will be lower. That is how Facebook is designed to work. But it’s kind of problematic. Right … they didn’t come up with this. Google does the same thing. But yeah, in this context, I think you’re right, that maybe it is problematic, yes. It seems like everyone benefited that was in that game. That’s right. That’s right. As did the Trump campaign. Antonio is critical of the company’s early attempts to minimize the fake news problem. Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way I think is a pretty crazy idea. To discard the possibility that Facebook could actually swing the election so quickly is obviously really disingenuous and, frankly not true. Why? So literally until like 72 hours before the election, there was a huge political ads sales force, which Facebook has, telling every politician with a marketing budget exactly the opposite, that Facebook could deliver them the election. Antonio says that the reason this matters comes down to a simple but fundamental question. How much responsibility does Facebook have for the content on the platform? That really is the big question. So how does the company fix this problem? Trillion dollar question. I don’t know, and I don’t think Facebook knows the answer to it, either. In his recent Senate hearing, Mark Zuckerberg addressed the challenge of staying ahead of fake news before it impacts future elections. This is an arms race, right? I mean, they’re going to keep on getting better at this, and we need to invest in keeping on getting better at this, too. Hey, It’s Ahmed, so as you just saw, some fake news producers are financially motivated, but others have political ends in sight. Be sure to check out this video, we did an interview with an investigative journalist in Russia who went under cover in a troll farm.

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