Macedonian town oils wheels of fake news machine before US polls

End of the decade: False stories are still a lucrative business in Veles, three years after several sites interfered in 2016 campaign

A picture taken on June 12, 2018, show a general view of the city of Veles. (Photo by Robert ATANASOVSKI / AFP)
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In the Macedonian town of Veles, the self-styled global capital of fake news, locals are looking forward to 2020 as a year when new fortunes will be made.

With Donald Trump preparing to stand again in November's US presidential election, the Veles fake news machine is gearing up to persuade American voters to grant him a second term – it's in their financial interests.

Days before Mr Trump’s shock victory in 2016, BuzzFeed News revealed that a network of 100 pro-Trump sites based in Veles was pumping out false American political stories designed to attract right-leaning voters. Many were operated by teenagers.

Their motive, in a town once known for making porcelain but since ravaged by unemployment, was to become rich from advertising micropayments as their false stories went viral. Homes were built with the proceeds.

Since then, Facebook has removed many of the sites and Google has tried to block the flow of advertising money.

But when the BBC World Service returned to Veles this September, it found the fake news business still thriving and getting ready for the 2020 campaign. Elena, a medical student, was among an estimated 80 per cent of young locals drawn to creating fake news by the prospect of earning wages 30 times greater than the town’s average.

If it’s not Veles that cashes in, then it will be somewhere else.

On December 21, Facebook took down a network of 600 accounts run by Vietnamese users posing as Americans behind AI-generated fake profile pictures. The network, exposed by fact-checking website Snopes, pursued a pro-Trump and anti-Communist agenda and had 500 million followers.

Fake News is now an accepted feature of modern elections. India’s 2019 poll was preceded by a wave of fake news stories circulated on the Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp, which has 200 million Indian users.

At the recent UK election, the Conservative Party was caught doctoring a video of a leading figure in the rival Labour Party and concocting a false Labour website to capture searches on Google.

Fake News is such common parlance today that it seems incredible that the term was almost unheard of a decade ago.

When Barack Obama swept into the White House in 2008, much was made of how he and his tech agency, Blue State Digital, mobilised his grass-roots support on social media.

Facebook was regarded admiringly as an asset to a modern functioning democracy. How things have changed.

Teenage Macedonians were not the only ones to see Facebook as a soft underbelly that could be used to exploit American politics.

Amid fears that the 2016 result had been influenced by the fake news of state-sponsored Russian “troll farms”, Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress in April 2018.

“As long as there are people sitting in Russia whose job it is to try to interfere with elections around the world, this is going to be an ongoing conflict,” he told lawmakers.

In July 2019, US special counsel Robert Mueller published a 448-page report concluding that the "Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systemic fashion".

Facebook was regarded admiringly as an asset to a modern functioning democracy. How things have changed

The report identified a Russian organisation, the Internet Research Agency, which used fake identities to create Facebook-based movements such as "United Muslims of America" and "Being Patriotic", that gathered hundreds of thousands of real-life followers.

The IRA social media network, including 3,814 Twitter accounts, reached “tens of millions” of Americans. Its aim was “to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States”, Mueller found.

A UK government report into Russian interference in the country's 2016 referendum on its membership of the European Union remains unpublished. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of a cover-up.

However, the only example of Russian interference in the UK election was a leak of documents on Reddit, seemingly designed to embarrass Mr Johnson.

"Nobody is claiming that those documents aren't real," says Will Moy, director of the fact-checking charity Full Fact in London.

Selective leaking and amplification of negative but genuine news are also tools in this dark game. The Russians, for their part, deny interfering in these or any other elections.

Fake News is not easily defined. Mr Trump has deliberately corrupted the term by using it to denounce reporting which he doesn't like. By this means he seeks to stigmatise reputable news outlets such as The New York Times and CNN.

Fictitious "journalism" has been around for centuries. The New York Sun reported in 1835 that "goatlike creatures with blue skin" had been spotted on the moon by John Herschel, the astronomer. Such fantasies helped double the Sun's circulation and made it the most popular paper in the world.

Evolving technology provides new opportunities for perpetrators of fake news

What’s different today is the power of social media to carry these lies to audiences of millions in an instant.

Certainly the public recognises a current threat. Asked by the Reuters Institute if they had concerns over “what is real and what is fake on the internet when it comes to news”, 55 per cent of respondents across 38 countries said they did. The number rose to 85 per cent in Brazil.

Huge scale can be generated at low expense – 1,000 new Twitter accounts can be bought for $230 (Dh845). The “attack” software to get them all spouting the same message costs $202 a year.

Fake followers, to bolster the credibility of fake accounts, come in at $50 per 1,000 and bogus retweets, from other fake accounts, are $12 per 1,000.

Evolving technology provides new opportunities for perpetrators of fake news. Reuters has partnered with the Facebook Journalism Project to improve detection of “deepfake” videos that use machine-learning techniques to hoax viewers by making people look like they said something they didn’t. China and California have enacted laws that ban the practice.

Earlier this year, a manipulated video of US House Speaker (and Mr Trump critic) Nancy Pelosi circulated on social media – it had been slowed down and the pitch of her voice altered to make her seem drunk. The video went viral. President Trump's reaction was to share it with his 67 million Twitter followers with the message: "Pelosi Stammers Through News Conference".

Four years after Fake News became a thing, it infects social media like a drug-resistant superbug. Some people seem happy to see it thrive.

Ian Burrell is a media columnist for the i newspaper and The Drum and former assistant editor of The Independent