How a small number of young eastern Europeans have managed to influence U.S politics
Fake news has no borders. Last fall, in the flurry of debunked reports of fraudulent ballot boxes, coded emails and child-sex rings pushed by D.C.-based supporters of Donald J. Trump, an even more disturbing pattern was playing out much farther from home.
Days before the U.S. election, the Canadian platform BuzzFeed reported on some 140 aggressively pro-Trump websites pushing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories damaging Hillary Clinton. They had professional-sounding names like WorldPoliticus.com, USADailyPolitics.com, or USConservativeToday.com, and ran articles that sounded like news: “Citing unnamed FBI sources,” BuzzFeed reported, “WorldPoliticus.com claimed ‘Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her email scandal.’ ” Except that there were no crimes. And there was no FBI source.
So where was this coming from?
From the town of Veles, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. There, “Alex” and a group of university students launched a small cottage industry, disseminating fake news to eager Trump voters happy to send it viral over Facebook. With every click, a fraction of a penny dropped into the Google AdSense coffers of the fake news sites.
“Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading,” admitted one student, “but if it gets people to click on it and engage, then [we] use it.” He didn’t care about the election, he said; it was all about the money. There were no jobs in Veles. An American Facebook user is worth four times a European; if you live in Macedonia, the pennies add up fast.
Another fake news phenomenon is EndingTheFed.com, based in nearby Romania. Proudly pro-Trump, creator Ovidiu Drobota (24) was behind four of the 10 most-shared hoax stories on Facebook in the three months before November 8, according to BuzzFeed, including that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump, that Hillary Clinton was selling weapons to ISIS, and that Clinton had been disqualified from holding federal office. With some 3.4 million unique U.S. visitors per month, the site is a cash cow.
Now what? By lying to the public, fake news is a danger to democracy. But so is censorship, as European Commission chief Thorbjørn Jagland warned in mid-January. No society can be free without a free press. But the speed and volume of the Internet changes its nature. Unscreened by professional ethics or standards of verification, uninhibited by the mechanics and expense of print, electronic publishing needs to be held accountable in other ways.
In December, Facebook finally agreed to act. Users can now label “fake news,” alerting a coalition of fact-checkers donated by news organizations like the Associated Press and ABC News, watchdogs like Snopes, PolitiFact, and FactCheck.org. Once flagged as “disputed”, articles drop lower on the news feed, and are blocked from the most lucrative advertising revenue streams.
It’s a start. But it’s nowhere near enough.