From Trump to Kosovo in a few clicks — unravelling the fake news
I decided to peer out of my echo chamber today, and nervously dipped a toe into the world of Trump fanatics, the alt-right, and America’s Christian right. Within 2 minutes I fell down the rabbit hole of fake news, and found myself in a teenager’s bedroom in Kosovo.
For some reason my Facebook suggested I click on a pro-Trump Facebook group, from where I clicked through to another group called ‘Boycott Liberal Media,’ which has 14,153 members. Scrolling down through a forest of bizarre, mad, and just stupid memes and headlines, each of which was followed by dozens of matching comments (‘yes!’ or ‘Kick them out’ or ‘Lock him up!’) I reached a story with the headline “Denzel Washington Says: Barack Obama Should Get Fifteen Years In Prison. Do You Agree Him?”
Did he really say that? Really? I was curious. Clicking on this took me to a website called Science Daily, with a banal article showing some quotes by Washington from a story somewhere. There was no reference at all to the headline, to any animosity towards Obama, or any suggestion of his nefarious activities.
However, this Science Daily website actually resided at the URL www.alwaysnews.us. I fact-checked Science Daily, and found that it is actually at www.sciencedaily.com and is a reputable publication. The Denzel Washington article was on a single page website, the links on which went nowhere, and the URL of which leads to nothing else (for example when you fact check it).
So I went back to the Facebook group. The group is run by a Luigi Amaretto. His Facebook page says he is from Italy and works at Intel. Googling him only finds comments by him on other similar Facebook groups (no Linkedin, nothing relating to Intel). In fact, Googling Luigi Amaretto only brings up this:
The article about Denzel Washington was posted by Fisnik Thaqi, whose profile has very little on it and only 5 friends. He’s a good looking guy with cool shades, and his name places him somewhere around Kosovo or Albania.
One of Fisnik’s friends is Endrit Zejnullahu, the kid with the gun:
Endrit has a pretty comprehensive and real profile, with photos of his friends and family. He says he’s from Gjilan in Kosovo. Back in 2016 the BBC, and other media, reported about teenage boys in the Balkans, mainly Macedonia, who were producing click-bait social media posts, leading to fake websites in order to earn money from the click-through advertising on the sites. They would come up with inflammatory headlines, mainly aimed at the Right in America, who seemed more prone to click on them readily. They would use multiple fake Facebook profiles and Facebook groups to post the stories to an audience who would click onto the websites, and earn them their ad revenue.
Moral of the story? Well, first I’m amazed and horrified that this post alone got 29 shares and 210 likes, with comments like these, some of which must be from real American people (rather than more fake news propagators):
It is worrying that these people are not questioning any of the information they are being fed on social media. They don’t think to make a few clicks online, as I did, to see where a story comes from, or whether it even exists (the fake website didn’t make any reference to the headline they are all commenting on). Also it is worth realising that this click-bate fake news is still being created and spread, even after the story of its origin was broken at the end of last year. And consider that this was the first and only story (of many) on this one (of many) Facebook groups swirling around pro-Trump messaging.
Assuming plenty more of the posts on the group are also fake news click-bait, and that they span many more of the groups, then hundreds of thousands of people are seeing and believing the headlines, filling their heads with things that are quite literally just made-up by some clever, mischievous kids.
In this case it is teenage boys making money out of the frailty of our social media and online news culture, but the real harm is that their well crafted headlines seep into the heads of people who are willing to believe pretty well anything that enforces their existing views. Consequently, Trump is riding on a wave of support from people utterly lost down a rabbit hole of made-up click-bait, foreign State issued propaganda, and his own social media ranting. It is hard to see how these people will ever get back out of the hole into the daylight of a few solid facts. It doesn’t bode well for the next American election, and much more.
You can read more about this in a longer piece I’ve just published here on the problem with fake news, and why Facebook should do more to stop it.