It was once known as “Tito’s Veles” in honour of the former Yugoslav leader who praised the gaily coloured porcelain tea sets its factories produced. But the small Macedonian riverside town of 44,000 is now better known for its wildly successful pro-Trump fake news websites.
More than a hundred US politics sites are run from Veles, where a handful of entrepreneurial Macedonian teenagers — apparently unconnected to American rightwing elements or alleged Russian operatives — produce hoax articles attracting millions of clicks and shares. One such article posted on December 6 said that Syrian terrorists had attacked New York. No such attack took place.
The emergence of a fake news industry in this unlikely spot in the Balkan hinterland may even have tipped the electoral balance in Donald Trump’s favour.
“No one can be sure, but it’s nice to think we could have changed the course of American history,” said Slavcho Chadiev, the town’s mayor, of the websites credited by some with helping to elect Donald Trump as US president. “Some think we should now be called ‘Trump’s Veles’,” he joked.
The hoax news creators, who decided to set up online after the success of local health websites, still make most of their money from Trump-related content. But elections next year in France and Germany offer a fresh opportunity. “I think that this model can be replicated anywhere,” said Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at Budapest’s Central European University. “I believe it will happen. Many will try as experiences elsewhere show that fake news can be monetised and that is going to prompt many to repeat the success [in Veles].”
“It wouldn’t be hard,” said one website owner in Veles. “I could take a well-known name like [German public broadcaster] ZDF, and register a new website domain name, like ‘ZDFpolitik.com’. That’s how you start.”
Germany’s political leaders are highly attuned to the fake-news threat. “Fake pages, bots, trolls can distort views,” German chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers last month. This week the party leader of her coalition colleagues in the SDP, Sigmar Gabriel, tweeted: “A fair fight! That’s how we must fight the 2017 election — not like in the US! No fake news, no bashing, no insults.” That said, Germans are less prone to joining political groups in large numbers, say the creators, limiting the multiplier effect that allowed the Veles posts to notch up six-figure viewing numbers within hours. “Germans take their politics more seriously,” adds one creator. “It’s not about entertainment for them.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, three teenagers behind some of the Veles’ websites told the FT their motivations were purely financial.
A statement from one creator’s Google AdSense account showed income of more than €7,500 in November alone — no small feat in a country where the average monthly salary is about €350. “If I make €100,000 this year, I’ll pay €10,000 in taxes — that will pay for two of my teachers’ salaries for a whole year,” said one teenager, in an interview given while he skipped history class. “So, I feel like I’m giving something back.”
Some of the websites feature lively and imaginative prose, with little apparent concern for truth. “One of my best stories said Trump had slapped a Muslim guy at a rally,” said one 17-year-old website owner. Others rely on copied articles from other news sites and clickbait polls. “Polls work best because you don’t need to write much and people always click through,” said another in broken English.
One website owner said he had created more than 10,000 fake Facebook profiles to post links across the social network and used an automated tool to schedule millions of posts. One of the Facebook groups he manages — “American Politics Today” — has more than 85,000 followers. Users click on the links, bringing them to the Veles sites, which cash in by selling advertising.
Facebook has taken steps to halt viral fake news — this month the website created a button for users to mark content they believe is false. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and chief executive, has also pledged to “disrupt fake news economics,” by removing its advertising from such websites. But while it has pledged action, the company has warned of the difficulties in recognising fake news. “We do not want to become arbiters of truth ourselves,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote in a post on Facebook in late November.
Mr Trump’s explicit argument to supporters was that they should trust no established news outlet, said Brennan Bilberry, vice-president of the Messina Group, a Washington-based political consultancy. This “equalised the playing field for fake news in an unprecedented way”, he said. “The long-term risk is that future politicians will indulge in and promote fabricated news because of the precedent Trump set.”
Back in Veles, the Macedonian teenagers are sceptical they were decisive in Trump’s election. “What about the 120m people who didn’t even vote?” asked one. Some of the cash-rich teens have frittered away their initial earnings on expensive phones, parties and tattoos. Their more successful rivals say they are reinvesting profits — buying up the town’s vacant shop buildings. Young people in Veles have few work prospects aside from low-paid jobs as waiters or work in the country’s remaining factories. “I can earn €200 a month in a café or I can do something with computers,” said one website creator.
Additional research by Tatjana Mitevska
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