The City of Lies (translated from German)

This is a translation of Alex Rühle’s article “Die Stadt der Lügen.” That article was published Dec 22, 2017 by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The translation was done by me, Zachary Elwood, and released Jan 7, 2018; it’s admittedly a rough translation, done mainly with Google Translate. I added some notes, updates, and links in brackets/italics. If you’re interested in the subject of fake Facebook accounts/news, I’ve written some pieces on the subject, including this one about the many fake-American Facebook accounts.

Photo taken from www.balkaninsight.com

A digital gold rush? Here? In such a gray place?

The people who scurry through the winding streets of Veles, Macedonia this morning seem to have gotten none of that gold. Most citizens here, where the average income is 400 Euros per year, struggle to navigate daily Macedonian life. The city is an online powerhouse, but does not give any impression of it. Everywhere, knotted cables hang across the street, weathered telegraph poles lean over market stalls where old women sell potatoes.

Is this really the place that reportedly exerted such a large influence on Trump’s 2016 triumph?

Shortly before the U.S. elections, articles about Veles, Macedonia started to appear in English-language newspapers. The Guardian showed that more than 150 domains were registered by Macedonians posing as American Trump supporters; these people made money by stealing and spreading articles from other news sites, usually American, whether they were true and false. Fake news stories like: Hillary Clinton’s e-mails being to blame for the deaths of U.S. spies; Bill Clinton operating a child sex ring; Pope Francis supported Trump being elected.

Other outlets wrote similar articles: CNN, NBC, BuzzFeed, Vice. The disconnect between Macedonia’s outsized online presence and its rather sad appearance starts to make more sense. Nobody here wants to talk about the country’s fake news connection. A teacher I talked to said that Veles had had image problems in the past — the so-called Frankfurt Mafia came from here — “but the Internet boys with their champagne orgies is a much bigger disgrace.” She is alluding to an 18-year-old Macedonian who bragged to NBC that he was earning so much money with his fake news pages that he threw lavish parties.

I set up an interview with a Veles man, Vlatko, a pseudonym for a man who runs these types of websites. He insisted on meeting me in the capital, Skopje, where he said he would feel safer and more anonymous.

And the next day I scheduled a talk with Mirko Ceselkoski. Ceselkoski is a small businessman who has long operated websites tailored entirely to an American audience: websites about fancy cars, yachts, celebrities. This lifestyle niche is also doing very well, he says: “Everyone is so helpless today; they crave self-help.” Ceselkoski has been so successful with his 12 websites that he now teaches others how to make money on the internet. [This Buzzfeed article about Macedonian fake news also talks about Ceselkoski.]

Here’s how this business model works: You build a website with a name that looks serious, at least at first glance. Instead of USAToday.com, maybe you do USAToday.com.co. On that page, you upload articles that are copied from other websites, slightly modified and with new headlines. Then you enable Google’s online service AdSense to place advertisements on the site’s pages.

The bad guys are calm…

How does Facebook come into the picture? Website owners try to spread their links and articles as widely as possible using as many Facebook accounts as they are able to maintain. Vlatko tells me that he has control of 100 Facebook accounts, and each of those accounts is a member of 20 Facebook groups. If Vlatko’s accounts share an article in a Facebook group, some real Facebook members might click on it, bringing them to Vlatko’s websites. That’s where it all pays off; the Google AdSense platform pays you more the more views you get for its ads.

In early November, senior executives from Facebook and Google had to explain to the U.S. Congress how they intended to combat such a business model, and fake news in general, in the future. Colin Stretch, head of Facebook’s legal department, said he understands that “people expect an authentic experience when they come to our platform.” He announced that Facebook would double its review staff to 20,000 employees who will look for fake and malicious accounts. In addition, improved algorithms would also help find these “bad guys.”

The bad guys don’t seem bothered. They don’t seem concerned about these announcements. Maybe this is partly because they don’t self-identify as, and don’t seem, “bad.” Mirko Ceselkoski comes across as just a clever entrepreneur. And Vlatko, sitting in the darkest corner of this hotel bar, looks like a shy student. Vlatko is a slender young man, and his brown shirt, buttoned up to the Adam’s apple, seems like he’s had it for a long time.

Business instead of business administration

Vlatko is 25 years old and has studied business administration. But when he heard stories in 2012 about a guy from the neighboring town of Kumanovo, who made his money posting English-language health tip articles on the internet, he was done with his studies. Vlatko was only rudimentarily skilled in English, but there are many unemployed English teachers. And you don’t need much English skill; you only need to copy articles from U.S. websites, throw a catchy headline on it, and you’re done. Vlatko started small, with a site called HealthyLivingFood.com. “I earned 50 cents a day and once it was a euro a day, I was happy.”

Vlatko’s business grew slowly. But then came Trump. And with Trump came the big money. Vlatko still seems amazed at the momentum leading up to the 2016 U.S. election. “The internet has gone crazy; the Americans clicked everything put in front of them.” Things were easy: take a piece from Breitbart or some other ultra-rightwing site, like the TheRightists.com, add an angry, excited headline to it, and the dollars would start to flow.

Vlatko says he had four employees in the busy months of 2016: an English teacher who works with him to this day; a photo-taking friend; a Photoshop guy; and a woman who was responsible for sharing the articles. Vlatko said, “She has bought hundreds of Facebook accounts in Bulgaria and Serbia for me.” Vlatko claims he earned $12,000 per month, three months in a row, during this “gold rush” period. He claims to have had at one point a total of 1.2 million followers on Facebook. [Note: Ruehle said it wasn’t clear what he meant by this; whether he had his own Facebook groups set up or what.]

And Vlatko is not a big fish. Mirko Ceselkoski says some of his former students made many hundreds of thousands of euros in 2016. Ceselkoski says this with the pride of a devoted teacher. In recent years, 800 people have attended his seminars to learn how to create websites, generate traffic, and make use of Facebook. “Find an American student, give him two euros per article, let him produce 100 articles a week; it’s already worth it.”

Welcome to the hell of “modern journalism”.

Now, Ceselkoski teaches only online; his advanced course is called “Black Belt.”

It’s about “interests,” not facts

The way Ceselkoski speaks about the business is more polished, more professional than Vlatko’s; you might call it semantic greenwashing. If you ask him about fake news, he says he and his students have always “thoroughly investigated what topics are of particular interest” to his audience. In 2016, he himself was amazed at how well his former students did with all the outrageous fake news stories.

Vlatko had a million likes “with a story that is clearly fake: Rihanna sings for free when Trump wins.” [Note: Neither author or translator know what this is referring to and could find no reference to it online.] He still can’t believe that Americans click on these lies so frenetically. “It’s crystal clear that this is fake,” he says. “In my own account, I’ll click it once, then I block it, so I’ll never see it again.”

Then, shortly after the U.S. election in November 2016, came “Black Tuesday.” Google’s AdSense blocked Vlatko from using the platform, and most other Macedonian news site operators. Google is said to have frozen between $800,000 and $1 million in pending ad income — approximately as much as the Macedonian counterfeiters would have earned from their sites in November alone. Vlatko was so shocked by this suspension that he fell ill that same day.

Macedonian millennials don’t have a monopoly on the fake news industry. All over the world, similar small businesses are being run. On Black Tuesday, Google AdSense blocked accounts around the world. In the U.S., a man named Jestin Coler got rich with a fake news website called DenverGuardian.com. Google also blocked him shortly after the election. [Here is Jestin Coler’s About page, where he explains his side of the story and about fake news in general.]

Two weeks later, Coler bragged in interviews that his mailbox overflowed with offers from other digital advertising platforms. “That’s the nice thing about capitalism,” says Mirko Ceselkoski. “In a successful market, there will always be other providers.” Vlatko quickly recovered.

These points raise a couple more questions:

If Google’s action didn’t make an impact, then will Facebook’s actions make a difference?

And why was Macedonia the hotspot for all this activity? Some theorize that Putin is behind it, but in Skopje everyone denies it. Others say that Macedonia has developed a fake news culture of its own under the last prime minister Nikola Gruevski, a paranoid despot.

[Later comment 1/7/18 from Rühle: “Since writing the article, I had contact with a Macedonian journalist who says there’s a Macedonian from Veles who works in Washington, D.C. for Russia Today, now known as RT, who, in the journalist’s opinion, may have a connection to this.” Perhaps related, I found a Guardian article describing Russia’s apparent longtime efforts to influence Macedonia.]

Macedonia’s historical fake news

Gruevski has surrounded himself and his country in an ethno-nationalist myth, imagining enemies everywhere around him. He’s even put architectural “fake news” at the center of his rule: in the last decade, Skopje has been inundated with new, clunky statues and Potemkin villages. The place looks as if a demented cousin of Walt Disney had constructed his own chaotic dreamscape. On the Varda river lie languid replicas of Roman galleys. In the city center, an Alexander the Great statue was erected; Gruevski claims Alexander was not Greek, but actually Macedonian.

People like Vlatko grew up with national-historical fake news. But is that enough to explain this country’s digital fake news glut? Or the near-unanimous pro-Trump aspect of that content?

When I ask such questions, Vlatko looks as if I’ve posed an insanely complicated math formula and says, “What do you want? I only helped Trump because he helped me.” The politics of the situation did not seem to matter to him. “I tried Hillary and Bernie Sanders, but by the time you had a thousand likes for a Trump post, you had five for a pro-Hillary post. Trump was pure gold.” In short: It was the economy, stupid.

And today? How is business? Vlatko currently earns less money than he did in 2016. But it’s still working. “I’ll adapt my approach for 2020.”

2020. The year beckons to him, as it does for Ceselkoski, again and again, like a bright, luminous star. Trump’s re-election. The new business goal. Both men talk about the next gold rush.

Has it become more difficult to spread obviously fake news? Mirko Ceselkoski says, “It’s a small bump on the road to success. Facebook is so big there’s room for everyone.” That still seems to be true. Facebook has said that 2–3% of all of its accounts are fake. That sounds like a small amount. But, if accurate, it means that of Facebook’s 2 billion regular visitors, 60 million are fake accounts.

The company partially relies on Facebook users to alert them to suspicious accounts.

A diverse portfolio

American Zachary Elwood tried to do that. The author of several poker books, Zachary noticed more and more suspicious Facebook posts and accounts in early 2017, many of which seemed to originate from Macedonia, some seeming to come from Pakistan or other Arab countries.

When he reported them to Facebook, he got standard, automated answers that said, essentially, “Thanks for your mail, but this account did not violate our standards.” Elwood has written extensively about this problem on Medium.com.

Even after these reports, there seems to be little happening: at the request of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Elwood sent a spreadsheet of the fake-American Facebook accounts he was tracking: 24 out of 53 of the addresses reported by him are still active. [Correction: some of those accounts in my spreadsheet were added only recently; I had reported only maybe 40 of those accounts.]

When I tell Vlatko about the Facebook announcements, he smiles like a car thief who’s been told Maserati owners have now started securing their cars with twine. For one thing, he says, he now has a more diverse Facebook portfolio, which makes him less noticeable to the site. New Facebook posts are constantly going live. The majority are taken from American sites, and the lies are not as blatant as before the election. The most successful recent post was a feel-good piece about Melania Trump’s Christmas party at the White House.

Trump’s border wall project, says Vlatko, is always good for clicks, as well as anything negative about Bernie Sanders. In addition, from time to time he posts “something international”; this has most recently been mostly about North Korea. And old-fashioned gossip column type pieces always work. Celebrity divorces. Sports stars. “So I have to become even more international, too.”

Five of Vlatko’s friends have moved to Bulgaria. He himself already has a plane ticket: during the Christmas holidays, Vlatko will go to Munich, where he has been looking for a business partner. This means that in the New Year, Vlatko’s Facebook pages will be maintained from Germany. “Since then Facebook has little chance,” he says. [Note: not very clear on last couple sentences. Will update this and other less-clear spots as I get comments/feedback.]

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).