The BBC reports a journalist caught up with a 19-year-old student in Veles, Macedonia. According to Goran (not his real name), he and his friends are responsible for much of the fake news that surfaced during the 2016 U.S. election. Goran told the reporter he and his friends would cut and paste information obtained from right-wing American sites and then provide a catchy headline or clickbait to attract readership.
Examples of headlines that appeared during the election campaign included the Pope endorsing Donald Trump and reports Hillary Clinton had died. The salacious headlines led people to click on the articles, bringing in a lot of advertising revenue to the sites.
The fact that many fake news sites originating in the Macedonian city was originally discovered by BuzzFeed. This finding led a reporter with BBC’s Channel 4 to visit Veles and track down some of the teens who created these sites. A search revealed there are about 200 sites providing U.S. news registered in Veles. Most of these sites sprang up in the last year.
A journalist in Veles told the BBC at least seven groups of teens have been identified as purveyors of false news and she suspects more teens are working independently. Goran claims he made $1,950 in the month leading up to the election while acknowledging other teens made thousands of dollars per month. The average income in Veles is $350 a month.
In Macedonia, what Goran and the others are doing is not illegal. Slavco Chediev, mayor of Veles, is not concerned about these fake news sites. He was quoted as saying there is no dirty money in his city and actually praised the teens for their entrepreneurial abilities. Not everyone in Veles agrees with the mayor; especially legitimate journalists who see their profession suffering with the proliferation of fake news.
When Goran was asked about how these fake news sites could affect the American election, he said he didn’t care. All he and his friends were concerned about was making money to finance their lifestyles. But fake news can have consequences beyond possibly affecting the outcome of elections.
On Sunday, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch entered the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. armed with a high-powered rifle. He fired off shots and claimed he went to the pizzeria to investigate what is known as “Pizzagate”. Fake news stories identified this restaurant as the one where high profile Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, were running a child sex trafficking ring. The reports said the ring was run out of the basement of this restaurant even though the premises does not have a basement. Prior to Sunday, the owner of the pizzeria had received death threats.
Facebook is taking steps in an attempt to combat fake news stories. The company is beginning to ask users to rate whether articles are misleading or leave out important details. It is anticipated Facebook users being asked to say whether news they read is fake will become more widespread over time.