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After the U.S. election, the small town of Veles, in Macedonia, was identified as the source of a huge number of fake news sites and social media posts and accounts. In December 2016, the BBC and others wrote about how some boys in the town had realized they could earn thousands of dollars by posting clickbait. As the election developed, they found that Trump’s followers were more likely than Hillary’s to click on inflammatory headlines, so they switched to attacking Hillary. They said they generally had no interest in politics or who won the election; they just found Trump supporters more likely to click on their fake memes and earn them money.
When this story broke, and Trump won the election, there was much wringing of hands in Silicon Valley at Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The effect of these Macedonians—and, of course, the Russians—on the election outcome was talked about, and Facebook, Twitter, and Google tried to reign in the proliferation of fake news. Never again, we were told, this was under control. Lessons had been learned, public apologies made, and that is where the story was meant to have ended. In February, Facebook said it was acting to stop fake news from featuring in people’s feeds. But its actions seem to be about how fake news is prioritized and shared, rather than just deleted.
Back in December, after reading the BBC piece, I looked at a few pro-Trump Facebook groups out of curiosity. Consequently, Facebook’s algorithm thinks I want to see more of these. The other day, it suggested I click on a group called Boycott Liberal Media, which has 14,153 members. The group consists almost entirely of inflammatory pro-Trump memes, under which there are hundreds of comments. The memes are clearly designed to wind people up, and the responses below show how good they are at it. The American members of the group are hateful and nasty, angry and outraged. The pattern of inflammatory meme, angry comments, over and over, tells a story of average Americans being provoked and angered, like social media bear-baiting. They become and stay angry, reinforcing their hatred and extreme beliefs to each other, before the next meme sets off another cascade of hate. Here is an example of some comments under a meme post about Hillary Clinton.
One meme caught my attention. It claimed that Denzel Washington said Obama should be sent to prison. Pretty weird…did he really? I clicked on it and was taken to a fake version of Science Daily, a mainstream American website. The fake was not good—just a basic page and with a different URL. The article about Denzel Washington made no reference to Obama going to prison; it was just random text from other articles crudely pasted together. Curious, I started clicking on the people who posted this and moderated the Facebook group. Very quickly it became clear that the post had come from a made-up account originating in Kosovo. You can read the full account of how I figured this out.
I was in deep now, and Facebook was enthusiastically recommending loads more similar sites. I joined the Trump (God’s Choice) group — how could I resist! Because this one combines God with hate politics, the members are not only angry, bitter, and full of hate, but also religious nutjobs. Most of the memes posted here encourage the followers to say “Amen” after gushing statements about Trump.
It was unsettling to see the paradox of people who claim to be Christians and think their houses were saved from the last hurricane because they were praying yet also think that immigrant children should be kicked out of their country and Muslims should be killed. It was not pretty and rather stunning to see people confidently explaining ideas that were simply deranged.
Curious to know if the Boycott Liberal Media group fake post was a one-off or was in fact part of something bigger, I started digging deeper into these two groups and began to see some patterns.
A lot of the more inflammatory memes were posted by “new members.” Their profiles were clearly fake, with no other content, few friends, and, in one case, a profile photo that Google image-searched back to a beard model.
Trump (God’s Choice) had a larger-than-normal (if there is a “normal” for such things) number of profiles that consisted entirely of kitten photos. These profiles posted pictures of kittens on their walls, which got adoring comments from the same people who posted “Amen” after gushing Trump memes. Clearly the kitten profiles were there to hook in a certain type of person — someone who actively likes and comments on kitten photos on the internet, I guess, or someone who is bored and undemanding of their web content.
I followed more of Facebook’s suggestions and joined The Trump Machine, with 43,198 members. This one barely makes any effort to hide the scam, with posts from women like Цветанка Димова (yes, that’s her name in Cyrillic), from Macedonia, about Barak Obama, which leads to another simple website with right-wing memes: https://www.proudusconservative.com/.
Meanwhile, the First Lady Melania Trump Fans Group has a pinned post at the top by Jozko Bogataj, of Maribor Slovenia, and multiple other posts by random people from Macedonia and Kosovo. Unlike some of the more sophisticated groups, these two have inflammatory clickbait posts by people using their real profiles, complete with Cyrillic names and locations in Macedonia.
On Boycott Liberal Media, it became clear that all the memes were posted either by fake profiles or real profiles of kids and middle-aged women in Kosovo and Macedonia. I then tried posting my earlier Medium article about this group onto the group’s wall. It was immediately taken down. That suggested to me that the group itself was also run by the same group of people posting the memes. Indeed, the moderator’s profile was also clearly fake.
Back in the surreal world of Trump (God’s Choice), a genuine debate was running between real American Christian fundamentalists, venting their hatred of Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, Hillary Clinton, gays, etc., all of which was triggered by memes and fake news stories posted by what were clearly fake profiles. So this group, too, was essentially a fake echo chamber set up to attract Americans and push clickbait at them.
A year ago, I was crossing Westminster Bridge in London, which runs over to Parliament and is therefore a funnel of tourists. From one end of the bridge to the other were about a dozen people doing the three-card trick, or the one with the ball under a cup. As is always the case, there were two to three stooges around them betting £50 notes and winning back hundreds of pounds, and then eventually some poor sucker tourist would put down £20 and lose it, then another £20 and lose it. We’ve seen it before, but I had never seen it on an industrial scale. It was like a dragnet for gullible tourists. In all, there must have been around 10 to 15 people doing the tricks and another 20 to 30 stooges and lookouts. It was also, therefore, incredibly obvious what was going on, yet still the tourists were throwing their money down on the pavement.
These fake-news Facebook groups are the same. This is scamming on a massive, organized scale. They are earning tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The suckers are the Americans who join the groups and waste their day writing “Amen,” and “Send her to jail!” under the patently fake memes. Though in this case nobody is breaking the law, and the victims are not being robbed of money.
All of this raises some complicated questions.
First, who is being scammed? The gullible Trump voters are not actually losing any money, so they are not, technically, the victims. It is corporations that ultimately send money to the kids in Kosovo. Facebook should be embarrassed—it has provided a mechanism whereby its corporate clients are giving money to clever kids in the Balkans for no return.
But beyond the money, the other victims are the Americans who are lost in this informational twilight zone, and another victim is American democracy. As was already discussed when this story was first a story, the numbers are chilling. The four groups I looked at had just over 100,000 members. We can assume quite a lot of these are fake, but enough have to be real for the scam to work. Also, there are probably common members across the groups. So even if there are only 25,000 real Americans clicking on the bait, that’s 25,000 people who have spouses, kids, and friends and who chat over the water cooler at work, repost what they see on Facebook, so it, in effect, makes a transition into the real world. The entirely fake meme created in Kosovo ends up being discussed as a real thing, informing real people’s real opinions and shaping their behavior in the world around them.
Social media is designed to act as an exponential multiplier of information, so even if those 25,000 people in some way share or echo the opinion in a fake meme to five other people, it has influenced the thinking of 125,000 people. I’m totally guesstimating numbers, and in reality it’s probably a lot worse; I don’t know how many such pages there are or how many of the members are real, but it is clearly a lot. BuzzFeed found that engagement with fake stories during the election was higher than it was for real stories, which is not really surprising as fake stories aren’t burdened by reality in their drive to be click-worthy.
The second worrying thing about this is how Donald Trump has co-opted the concept of “fake news” and twisted it to mean news he does not like or that is critical of him. I saw this in action when a conservative American responded to my post about these fake memes from Kosovo by saying that the left also posts fake news. The link he used to prove this was to real memes (that is, not created by some kids as clickbait) making statements that were exaggerated, opinionated, and even offensive, but rooted in real events. They may be poor journalism, but they are not fake news. The distinction has been lost, thanks to Trump, between objectionable news and fake news. He accuses reputable media of being “fake news,” so consequently his followers don’t consider actually fake news to be fake. The line between reality and fiction is thereby lost.
My fight is not with the kids in Kosovo and Macedonia. They are gaming the system and skimming money off the huge piles the corporations are making. They live in countries where it is hard to realize talent and hard to convert hard work into any meaningful amount of money. In London or New York, they’d probably be working for ad agencies, but thanks to Brexit and Trump, that definitely won’t be happening — ironic, as they contributed to both. Still, they are making the most of a stupid situation created by corporations far away from their lives.
The problem is that the byproduct of this is causing huge social damage, which in turn is leading to global instability; a butterfly effect that they cannot understand and do not care about. Just as the Americans clicking and commenting on their fake news memes can’t see out of their bubble to the bigger picture, the kids creating them also don’t see the wider impact of their actions. We just need to look back at “Pizzagate,” where an American turned up armed and shooting at a restaurant that a fake news story claimed was part of a pedophile ring run by Hillary Clinton to see this in action.
And as for the Americans engaging with these groups, given their willingness to be duped this easily, I find myself feeling slightly sorry for them, as I did for those falling for the three-card trick on Westminster Bridge. It is stupid, but if you’re that dumb, you deserve a degree of sympathy. Their opinions and beliefs are disgusting, but how much of what they think was fed to them both by Trump to win an election and some kids in Kosovo to buy a BMW? If they are that stupid, gullible, and easily manipulated, it’s almost hard to blame them — a bit like medieval peasants drowning a witch. They have entirely lost the ability to tell what is fiction and reality. This is scary, and the basis of all sorts of futuristic dystopian movies.
Nope, my gripe is with Facebook. If the company has the technology to know who I am, where I am, what I like, what I do, what I may want to see next, then surely it has the technology to spot when a Facebook group of 45,000 people is moderated by a fake profile run out of Macedonia and contains only memes posted by profiles of kittens.
The patterns are so easy to spot that I could do it myself, manually, in three minutes. So it is totally irresponsible and unforgivable that Facebook has not done something about this. And let’s be clear about why. What the kids in Kosovo are doing is not illegal. It is vaguely immoral. It is dangerous and risks undermining American democracy. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of people are being brainwashed by a political ideology that is totally made up. They are being provoked and angered, jostled into ever greater hatred and vitriol, just like a lynch mob, and then that dark energy is being steered toward clicking on links to divert money from a corporation to a geek with a laptop so he can buy some trainers. The people caught in the middle of this are becoming little more than vessels, cogs in a big machine.
The waste product of this process will be their votes in the next election, and the midterms. That campaign of hate that Trump started became the tinder for a fire now being fanned by some Facebook scammers. Quite what conflagration it will go on to create is unknown—and of no interest at all to the kids fanning the flames.
The only people who can break this cycle are those who work at Facebook. It is their platform that’s being abused and their customers being conned. They are totally responsible for this and are making money from it. Responding by altering algorithms so fake news doesn’t proliferate quite as much is frankly pathetic. It is within their power simply to delete fake Facebook groups set up with the specific aim of promoting hatred for financial gain. It is a scam, not a political movement — this is not about freedom of speech. If this was eBay and people were setting up accounts under fake names, selling pens, and when customers bought the pens they kept the money and didn’t send them a pen, because there were no pens, eBay would shut down their accounts as fraudulent. Facebook is also a business, and these people are fraudulently profiting from Facebook’s clients. So why aren’t they shut down?
One has to wonder how many of those Swastika-carrying young men we recently saw on the streets of America spend their nights at home being inflamed and provoked by some enterprising boys in the Balkans. I wonder if you can trace a line from a boy buying new trainers in Kosovo from the profits of his fake-news business to a white supremacist punching a protestor on the other side of the world, the same way you could trace a line from someone picking a poppy in Afghanistan to a kid dying in a nightclub bathroom in Los Angeles.
We do not have time to wait and see what happened, and then react retrospectively sometime in the future. Facebook needs to act now. It needs to understand the difference between freedom of speech and abuse of that freedom to scam people. Facebook is starting to react to accusations that Russia used the platform to affect Trump’s election, because that is now the subject of official investigations, but Facebook is not shutting down the scammer accounts with the same resolve it applied to the Russian ones. The two stories are intrinsically linked and require a similar response.