Can Facebook Solve Its Macedonian Fake-News Problem?

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Veles, Macedonia, the Fleet Street of fake Trump news.Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Last night, BuzzFeed, building on reports in the Guardian and an English-language Macedonian news site called Meta, described a “digital gold rush” in Veles, a small city in central Macedonia: Locals, mostly teenagers and college students, have “launched at least 140 US politics websites” with “American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com.” These sites mostly publish plagiarized conservative news and made-up conservative “news,” and sometimes, best of all, conservative “news” that is both made up and plagiarized.

The Macedonian millennials aren’t (necessarily) looking to influence the election or analyze U.S. politics — they want to draw in American visitors through Facebook and make money off of sales of display ads on their bootleg politics sites. “In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money,” one 17-year-old told BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman. “I’m a musician but I can’t afford music gear.” Put another way: Post-Tito teenagers are selling digital tabloids to gullible Americans to pay for Korg mixers. Real life always ends up being stranger than anything you can imagine.

It’s not just Macedonian media barons, either: In August, John Herrman profiled a number of Americans running similarly crude politics-themed Facebook pages (one American outsources the difficult work of copy-and-pasting other news articles to a couple in the Philippines). The business model is not particularly different from any mainstream publisher’s social-media strategy in an era where more people look at Facebook than all news outlets combined: Build a Facebook page, gather a large following, and try to draw that audience off of Facebook and onto your site, where you’re serving the ads off of which you draw revenue. If you’re a mainstream publisher, it’s a frustrating model, since the margins are extremely thin — the aggregate cost of enticing a given reader is, at best, only slightly less than the ad revenue they generate, and is often more.

But what if — spitballing here — you could eliminate all the things that make news articles expensive to produce and difficult to sell? You know: reporting, fact-checking, editing, a big office, web hosting, ad sellers, ethical objections to plagiarism, a commitment to not making shit up, etc. The difference between the New York Times and the Macedonian blog ConservativeState.com — well, uh, one difference — is that the “articles” on Conservative State (“Daily Conservative Info”) have no purpose but to induce people to click and share them, and cost almost nothing to publish. This one (“Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought’”), for example, is lifted wholesale from another traffic arbitrageur, TheRightists.com, which is shocking, except that the story itself is also completely made up. It required one person mere minutes to produce, with no overhead, and it’s vastly more engaging than actual, true news would be. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to monetize, thanks to automated ad networks like Google AdSense.

This Facebook-news arbitrage scheme is booming this election season, thanks to this confluence of Facebook (and its ability to drive an audience), Google (and its ability to seamlessly monetize any website), and this particular election (and its ability to fill people with passionate, spitting rage). Thanks to our new media landscape, hoaxes, exaggerations, and outright lies aren’t just able to propagate but are actually incentivized. And it’s not clear that there’s an easy way to fix it.

If there is any encouraging news, it’s this: The Macedonian scheme is only hugely profitable thanks to Donald Trump. A wily and unscrupulous traffic publisher can likely make money off of pages centered around right-wing (or left-wing) news more broadly, but only Trump — popular, omnipresent, engaged in a high-stakes and time-limited battle — is inflating a small bubble in Facebook traffic arbitrage. If he fades from view, a number of these pages, and their proprietors, will shut down their sites and, with any luck, find a line of work less directly mendacious.

But not all of them. The problem of fake news on Facebook may be exacerbated by this particularly charged election season and its polarizing main figure, but its roots are in the structure of how information disseminates online. So long as social media makes it easy for incorrect information to travel quickly across its networks, and so long as ad networks make it possible to make money off getting people to look at stuff, this problem will be with us.

It might seem relatively simple to demand that Facebook, the most powerful media company on the planet, start clearly marking (or even suppressing) hoax or fake news sites — to assume editorial responsibility over the content published on its site. But determining the reliability or truth of a given news outlet or story has become a political project as much as an empirical one, and political projects tend to make hugely profitable businesses with large customer bases very nervous. When it was discovered that the “editors” of Facebook’s “trending” widget were ignoring “trending topics” linked to conservative stories (mostly spurious or unnewsworthy ones), the company fired them, appeasing conservative outrage. Almost immediately, fake news — all of it conservative — started popping up intermittently in the “trending” widget. As we’ve said in the past, Facebook’s hoax-news problem is rooted in a conservative movement that has no loyalty to facts — but Facebook has no desire to reinsert itself into an argument it can’t possibly win.

More depressingly, even if we were able to convince Facebook to accept the civic responsibility associated with its power (and good luck there), where would it begin? One-quarter of the world’s population uses Facebook; hundreds of millions of links are posted to the site every day. Right now, the company contracts vast rooms of moderators in the Philippines and elsewhere to review flagged images and posts for offensive content. Imagine the kind of resources it’d take to start actively moderating links not just for offensiveness but for accuracy, especially given the current moderators’ mixed success at the complex and culturally driven process of determining which content is offensive.

But, ultimately, the problem isn’t just that Facebook doesn’t have the resources to pay for an army of well-paid, nuance-trained American editor-moderators (because, well: it does). It’s that doing so would undermine Facebook’s entire project. Facebook is built to engage its users, and to reward those users who produce engaging content. Every buzzkill debunking, every warning of caution, makes the site as a whole less engaging. This isn’t, really, Facebook’s fault, even: The bias toward news that confirms your beliefs — and the instinct to share that news — goes deep. All Facebook is doing is leveraging it. If it stops doing so, someone else will.

Correction: This article initially referred to the Macedonian teenagers maintaining hoax news sites on Facebook as “post-Soviet.” However, as many readers have pointed out, Macedonia was a federal subject of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was officially nonaligned and pointedly independent from the Soviet Union. The reference to the particular 20th-century political cosmology from which the teenagers are “post-” has been updated.