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Feature 29 Jun 17

Macedonia’s Trump Spammers Fear Golden Age is Over

The spammers from the little Macedonian town of Veles - who gained cash and notoriety for promoting fake news about Donald Trump - fear their lucrative business is fading away.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
The clock tower in Veles. Photo: veles.gov.mk

Just 35 kilometers south-east of Macedonia's capital, Skopje, bathing in temperatures near 40 degrees Celsius, lies the seemingly dormant little town of Veles.

Its picturesque traditionally built houses and old Orthodox churches spread over two opposing hills overlooking the Vardar river beg the question of why it is featured so little on tourist maps.

Instead, Veles last year became internationally famous for another reason entirely: the lucrative online ventures of some of its younger inhabitants, who used the US presidential election to earn money by promoting fake or misleading news in support of Donald Trump.

“The job is simple. You use Facebook accounts, as many as you can maintain, to spread news content to other Facebook users. You then earn money from the traffic you have generated for the ads on the websites you promoted,” Stefan, a 22-year-old local said.

He said he is no Trump supporter, nor does he sees himself as spammer or a “bad guy”. He was in it just for the money, he said.

“This thing spread very quickly when we found out that others were making good money out of it,” he said.

“We used anything we could find related to Trump as clickbait. It is like a little magic word that hooks everyone.”

During the US presidential campaign, and shortly after it ended in Trump’s victory, Stefan says he and some of his friends used to make up to 1,000 euros per month.

It was a small fortune in a town whose residents, if they are lucky to have a job at all, rarely earn over 300 euros a month.

Not wanting to reveal his full identity, let alone pose for pictures, Stefan said that diligently maintaining his two fake Facebook profiles to direct traffic to his web page was his only source of income for a year or so.

Old house in Veles. Photo: veles.gov.mk

During the peak period, he said, his pages had some 500,000 likes.

That was until Facebook in May killed his profiles on account of what the social network called multiple terms-of-service violations.

“I knew this time would come so I was kind of prepared. We used this grey area, so to speak, and I knew it couldn’t last,” Stefan said, admitting that he knew that most of the content he used to attract readers was fake and picked up from other sites he found online.

In June 22, BuzzFeed News reported that over the past two months Facebook had killed off over 30 similar Facebook pages run from Macedonia – news that panicked the Veles publishers.

A Facebook spokesperson was cited by BuzzFeed News as saying: “These instances are part of our ongoing, global effort to detect and stop spam activity on our platform, and not isolated to Macedonia.”

Younger Veles residents speculate that up to several hundred of them who earn money this way may be affected by Facebook's efforts to counter spamming.

However, some say they are not giving up.

“I may have violated some rules in the past, as all of us did, but we are trying to work legit now,” said another publisher who did not want his name mentioned out of fear that he may suffer consequences from Facebook.

“I am now running a site dedicated to auto-motto sports. I watch very carefully now that the content I republish is not copy protected,” he added.

He said that he used to republish fake Trump-related news in the past, however, until Facebook acted on him, too.

He admitted that shifting to a site that deals with motorcycles and cars has proven far less profitable, “but at least I now know what I am doing and cars are my passion anyway”.

“Some are still running Trump sites, I don't know how many, but plenty, though I fear that this thing is over and it will slowly die away ... It was a sweet money though,” he told BIRN.

As international media outlets reported, many Macedonian-run politics websites had a habit of copying news articles straight from US sites that were notorious for producing fake news.

Some have claimed that the Kremlin backed the spamming practices originating from Macedonia in order to influence the outcome of the US Presidential elections.

But Stefan only laughed at that idea. “Yeah, right! I hear from Putin every day. I have him on my phone, see ... We spread the profit half-half,” he joked.

Meanwhile, the lucrative endeavours of the younger generation in Veles seem to pass their parents by.

Few of these middle-aged people - who were hard hit by the turbulent political transition to pluralism during the 1990s, which swept away much of the town’s industry – can explain what the fuss is all about or even knows that their town hit international fame.

BIRN’s secretive interlocutor tells one anecdote that speaks for itself.

“When my neighbours asked me what I do for a living I told them that I deal in computers,” I recalled. “A week later, the neighbor's wife comes and asks me if I could recommend a lap top configuration for her daughter who had just enrolled in faculty. ‘No’, I said, ‘I sit in front of a computer, I don't sell them.’”

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