Chapter 10 - Fake for profit: Non-state actors and the business of disinformation

Fake news entrepreneurs profit from click-based advertising directed at readers of sensationalist stories and those who limit their news consumption to online news aggregating web sites. These enterprises maximise their readership and clickbait potential by purchasing the pages of groups with sizeable memberships which fit the target demographic. The truth, falsehood, and subject matter of their news content are irrelevant—the singular objective is attracting readers who will view advertisements.

This paper is primarily based on a lengthy one-to-one interview with a Kosovan called Burim. Twenty-four years old, Burim (not his real name) had graduated with a degree in computer science. He had worked in IT for a private company in Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, and in advertising. Since January 2016, Burim has been the owner-operator of an online spam and disinformation operation.

Conducted in Kosovo in June 2017, the interview was part of a wider attempt to understand the phenomenon of disinformation through gaining an appreciation for the life, motivations, beliefs and anxieties of someone like Burim. The production of disinformation is a phenomenon that, doubtless, is intimately related to the technologies that allow for the publication and consumption of content. But it is also something that humans decide to do, and it is hoped that this contribution helps inform an understanding of why they do so.

The audience

The preliminary objective of Burim’s operation is to capture attention, and the sole platform he employs for this purpose is Facebook. At any time, he ‘owns’ approximately one dozen Facebook pages. One appears to be an evangelical group, with a big picture of Jesus Christ. “I bought this one” he noted. “This guy in Albania built up this page by posting authentic religious information. He managed to get 100,000 likes on the page. Then I paid him 2,000 euros, and he transferred the page over to me.” Another page is about abandoned places, and another about mobilising communities in a city in the south of the US. One he had bought just recently, originally a group dedicated to sharing tips and information about dieting and veganism. There was a group about tiny houses and another was a verified page—it had a blue tick, and a logo—that had something to do with trust. It was quite difficult to actually see what most of Burim’s pages had originally been about. But while the groups were bizarre, their audiences were huge: 90,000 likes, 240,000 likes, 26,000 likes. In Burim’s quest to develop an audience, these pages could, at least in theory, present his content to close to one million individuals.

He acquired the groups in different ways. He had a centrepiece page that he had built himself, investing 20,000 euros into targeted advertising on Facebook to build the audience of the page to just over 100,000 members. It was the most honest of any of the pages he owned, explicitly dedicated to sharing the day’s viral, trending stories. But most of the groups, he purchased. In some instances, Burim approaches the administrator of a group directly to explore if they are willing to sell it, “if I come across something interesting, I’ll try to buy it”. But most of the groups were purchased from an informal network of people who themselves bought and sold pages, predominantly also for the purpose of producing clickbait and spam.

“We don’t know if the groups will work beforehand” Burim explained, “so we post some content and wait three or four hours to see how many people are clicking on it. That’s how we know whether a page is going to be helpful.” Burim and his team test each group that they have newly acquired, checking the scale of clicks and shares that their content generates. The targeted Facebook users are “digitally illiterate, preferably Americans and usually 30 years old or older.” Deliberately avoided are groups with audiences that are too young, and any groups that are hypothesized to have too many technologically savvy members. “We need to reach people who don’t understand the digital world or clickbait.” If the content does not generate traction, the group is quickly sold onwards in order to free the capital to invest in another group.

The content

Burim employs seven people to keep the content flowing through his groups. Their job, however, is not to write any of the content themselves. There is no economic stake is creating content when it can be so easily stolen from elsewhere. Instead, they identify and appropriate content that has already been highly shared, usually from the countless other operations that are similar to theirs. Tracing the origin of most of the stories that they share is incredibly difficult. As the content moves from outlet to outlet, it often gets subtly changed, sometimes shortened, sometimes exaggerated or simplified. Burim describes it as a washing machine—both because the content is never at rest, but also because each ‘wash’ seemed to slightly change the story, sometimes shrinking, distorting, exaggerating or further warping it, until its origin becomes unknowable and irrelevant.

His target audience is not particularly interested in political content. “Stories about killing people, gore, basically, they perform best!” said Burim, cheerfully. Under his thumb, story after story flicked by. “Dog Groomer who Kicked Dog all its Ribs Broke Remains Jail-Free” was one story. ‘’Boy Comes out of Coma after 12 Years, Whispers Dark Secret to Parents [video]” was another. “Burn Bay Leaves in your Home for these 13 Amazing Health Benefits”; “The Peanut Butter test—the Easiest way to Detect early Alzeihmer’s. Everyone must watch this!” Some had been shared only hundreds of times across his groups, but many were in the thousands and a few in the tens of thousands. In Burim’s own eyes, he was giving people what they wanted to click on, content that spoke to his audience’s hopes, anxieties, guilty pleasures, and temptations: a desire to be healthy (through easy tricks and tips); to be outraged at (clearly signposted) evil. The content shared by his groups was a procession of the ridiculous, the tragic and the gory.

To call this activity ‘fake news’ misses the true crux of this phenomenon. The stories are not deliberately false; they are just not deliberately true. The only thing that matters is the size of the audience that the content can harvest. “I don’t care what the group does”, he said. “I don’t even read it. This is the first time I’ve actually read it. It’s all total nonsense.” True, false, the content did not matter. “I don’t care what the content is”, he said, again, still scrolling through the endless content that his operation spews out. He pauses for a moment, his thumb hovering over a story going crazy, its shares spiking skywards, from the tens into the hundreds of thousands. “I just care about traffic.”

The money

When the audience clicks on any of the stories that this team posts, they are taken to the moneymaking part of Burim’s operation. He maintains around a dozen web sites outside of Facebook and changes the URLs to avoid detection. They look like crude versions of an online newspaper, with the full stories hosted under sections called, variously, ‘Home’, ‘Health’, ‘DIY’, ‘Animals’, ‘Food Art’ and so on.

The rise of programmatic advertising has opened up a huge opportunity for people like Burim. Programmatic advertising is an alternative to traditional brand advertising through broadcast media channels. It uses software to buy advertising space wherever a member of a target audience appears on the Internet, often identified through cookies, device IDs or by specialist ad-technology providers. The point is not to sell advertising space on a web site, let alone a newspaper, but space in front of a targeted individual, wherever they happen to be. This has meant that Burim did not have to try selling advertising space directly to agencies. He could sell it through programmatic advertising intermediaries, and just like any (legitimate) newspaper, he earned most of his money through Google AdSense, pay-per-click advertising.

Burim’s operation is earning anything from 400 to several thousand euros per day; good money anywhere, and a very substantial income in Kosovo. He brings an entrepreneurial, business mind set to the operation. The language that he uses to talk about his decisions was that of calculated risk, investment and reward. Some of his groups had been closed down, but these were losses he just shrugged off as occupational hazards.

Future trends

The business environment was becoming tougher, he said. There are at least 200 or 300 people engaged in similar enterprises across Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania. Burim saw himself as an early mover into the industry, but with the volume of competitors increasing, he is finding it more difficult to get the clicks with so many others also vying for their attention.

As in so many other areas, there has recently been a profusion of small, agile actors: fake news start-ups. A small number of players are getting bigger and others are dying out. “I expect it to consolidate”, he said. He also knows that Facebook is working to throttle the endless stream of clickbait and run him out of business. To him, this is just another occupational hazard.

Both the identification and publication of content is still predominantly a manual process, and if actors do become larger and better resourced, both will likely become more automated and data-driven. Technologies have been developed for legitimate journalistic outlets (such as BBC Trending or Buzzfeed) to identify quickly stories that are being widely shared, or even (through metrics such as ‘viral uplift’) that are likely to be widely shared in the future. It is easy to see how enterprises like Burim’s might use these technologies to seek advantage over their competitors in finding and re-publishing the most shareable, viral content.

Conclusions and counter-measures

Burim is in many ways the nemesis of good journalism. To him, the content is irrelevant, the provenance unimportant, the story recycled, and the truth not even worth thinking about. But he is also only the product of much more general forces that have swept through mainstream journalism as well as enterprises like his. Of course television is still the main source of news for those over 55, and most use a mix of different sources to understand what is happening in the world.Footnote 50 However, the Internet is now the main source of news for more people than any other medium, and for those that do use the Internet to find their news, most access it indirectly. They use a gateway, from search engines and aggregators, to social media sites and voice-controlled digital assistants. These timelines are often algorithmically curated, and these algorithms attempt to serve up calculated and specific content that the reader would be most likely to engage with. Most of all, the rise of programmatic advertising means that clicks are the way that revenue is earned. Thrown side-by-side into a feed, ranked by engagement and clicks, the risk and cost of good journalism is becoming detached from the payoff in actually doing it.

In the West, poor quality online information is seen as something that poisons political debate and undermines good journalism. However, meeting Burim illuminated another side of online disinformation. The interpreter leaned over: “His accent is from Lipjan”, she said, “rural, working class”. What Burim is doing might be injurious, even dangerous, to public life, but to him, it is also an opportunity for social mobility. It is a way out of rural poverty, the best prospect in a place where there are far too few.

It is understandable that, seen as a technical problem, technical approaches are viewed as the solutions to online disinformation. However, it is also a social and economic problem. Both technology companies and governments should consider ways to harness and re-purpose the enterprise and intelligence of people like Burim into more socially beneficial and pro-social activities.

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