Meeting Kosovo’s clickbait merchants

Meeting Kosovo’s clickbait merchants

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a dark bar in a small town an hour’s drive from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. In front of me, a man was nervously hunched over, his face turned away from the camera. He was a fake news merchant and he agreed – eventually – to talk about how he

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a dark bar in a small town an hour’s drive from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. In front of me, a man was nervously hunched over, his face turned away from the camera.

He was a fake news merchant and he agreed – eventually – to talk about how he earned his living.

I first came to Kosovo over a year ago when researching a book about how power was changing in the digital age.

I’d heard about shadowy Russian influence campaigns and militaries fighting warfare with information.

But the people I met there showed me there was another, very simple reason why people sent false and sensationalist news to Western audiences. It was for the money – they share it because we click on it.

Clickbait and “fake news” are terms sometimes used interchangeably to describe false or sensationalist material circulating on the web

A year ago, “Burim” showed me that misinformation was a flourishing industry. Some of what he described was political, far more of it was gore.

“Dog Groomer Who Kicked Dog till its Ribs Broke Remains Jail-Free” was one story. “Boy Comes out of Coma after 12 Years, Whispers Dark Secret to Parents ” was another.

Much of it was false. And while some of it looked like news, this was content for one reason alone: clicks.

Making money from the internet means capturing audiences and the merchant I spoke to owned about a dozen Facebook pages, dedicated to anything from evangelical Christianity to holiday destinations.

Whatever their theme, the audiences were huge: 90,000 likes; 240,000 likes; 26,000 likes.

Burim could get his content to nearly a million pairs of eyeballs and he turned those clicks into ad revenue – both within the social media platform and on external sites. He earned about 600 euros (£520) a day.

It’s far more money than any of the legitimate jobs he could take would offer him.

Since I met Burim, the tech giants have vowed to shut this industry down. Fake news is what Mark Zuckerberg calls his “personal challenge”.

In 2018, Facebook doubled its security team to 20,000 and closed down many groups and pages that shared clickbait, squeezing their content towards near invisibility.

So, last month, I went back, this time with the BBC. I wanted to see if anything had changed and what Facebook’s anti-fake news drive really looked like in the eyes of the people who peddled the stuff.

“The audience on that page is mainly UK,” the man said, grinning, hunched over his phone so that the camera couldn’t catch his face.

It is difficult to tell exactly how large this illicit economy had become in the past. But Facebook’s reforms, I heard again and again, have had some effect. Page after page had been shut down. Income had fallen from 600 euros a day to about 100.

Spreading false news, then, has become less profitable – and possibly also less political. It has apparently morphed into celebrity hype, false stories of footballers breaking legs or lurid sexual gore. The content creators were sharing trivia, not Trump.

Young ones

However, although less profitable, the practice was still widespread.

“Forty per cent of Kosovan youth are doing this,” one merchant told me. “Thousands upon thousands,” said another.

And it’s little wonder. 100 euros a day is still life-changing for someone, like him, who’d earned seven euros a day as a waiter before he started. The “why” was clear. In the face of Facebook’s reforms, the bigger surprise was “how”.

There is another side to this fake news and clickbait industry that isn’t visible to us. I learned that a network of closed groups exist, with memberships that can number from a few hundred to several thousand. To be part of such a closed group, you have to be invited.

But inside, it was clear that Facebook wasn’t just the place where they harvested audiences. It was also where the fake news merchants themselves traded with each other.

I saw Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of likes traded for thousands of dollars. Others sold fake likes, or fake accounts, or offered advice on how to get around Facebook’s enforcement.

We even found a “fake news starter pack” for a beginner, complete with a collection of Facebook pages to gather an audience, along with websites to monetise your activity. This was a service sector economy for misinformation.

It wasn’t just Facebook that was innovating, the misinformation merchants were too. Some were specialised in growing pages and selling them on. Others would sell content, and more still concentrated on getting around Facebook’s enforcement.

Even within small groups, this was happening routinely and dozens of times a day. It was industrial-scale gaming of Facebook’s policies and systems.

Around the world, there are thousands of people like those I spoke to. Usually young, male and digitally savvy, they are willing to share any content for the clicks. And in the chase for clicks online, the horrifying, shocking, exaggerated, or divisive wins out again and again.

I’ve begun to reflect on this kind of fake news, of content exported to Western markets for profit, as something akin to poppy growing. It’s a cash crop.

It’s no use to the people that make it. It doesn’t do any good to the foreign markets that consume it.

But it is – by far – the easiest and most accessible way of making money for some. If you want to stop it, you can’t just burn the fields. You also need to give people something else to grow.

BBC Click will have more on the fake news merchants of Kosovo on this weekend’s television show. Find out more at BBC.com/Click and @BBCClick.


This story is part of a series by the BBC on disinformation and fake news – a global problem challenging the way we share information and perceive the world around us.

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-46136513

 

Please follow and like us:

RSS BIDD

  • Why Are Digital Diplomacy Initiatives Short-lived? 16th Dec 2018
    Last week I had the pleasure of attending the International Communication Association’s 68th Annual Conference in Prague. My presentation focused on the digital and public diplomacy activities of the Palestinian government in the West Bank, specifically it’s Facebook Embassy to Israel. While presenting my work I mentioned that unlike other virtual Embassies, Palestine’s Facebook Embassy […]
  • EURASIAN CHAPTER’s 2018: public diplomacy, trainings and more… 14th Dec 2018
    em-a.eu This year was rich of activities, yet difficult for many reasons. Namely, the community portal has not been working since April, due to the change of EMA’s service provider, which made it mpossible for us to contact our chapter’s members and access to the mailing lists per countries or per chapter. If you are […]
  • VOA’s Turkish Service Wins Burke Award 14th Dec 2018
    via VOA email (VOA press release); see also VOA Director Amanda Bennett (center) with VOA Turkish Chief Hulya S. Polat and members of the service.Voice of America’s Turkish language service received the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award for its breaking news coverage and extensive follow-up on the attacks on peaceful protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s […]
  • Bookshelf: ‘Behold, America’ Review: Fighting Words 14th Dec 2018
    Before World War I, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed America First as a rationale for neutrality. Before World War II, members of the America First Committee included Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gerald Ford BOOKSHELF ‘Behold, America’ Review: Fighting WordsBefore World War I, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed America First as a rationale for neutrality. Before World War […]
  • Student Profile: Eugenia Blaubach, Public Relations Senior 14th Dec 2018
    jou.ufl.edu; original article contains links Eugenia Blaubach “As a communicator, my dream is to positively affect the narrative surrounding immigrants,” said University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Public Relations senior Eugenia Blaubach. Born in Venezuela, she came to the U.S. with her parents when she was seven years old. After high school, she […]

RSS Diplo Portal Belgrade

Most Viewed Posts

  • Twitter Suspends Hamas Accounts (245)
    By ROBERT MACKEYLast Updated, Sunday, Jan. 19 | Several Twitter accounts used by the military wing of Hamas have been suspended by the social network in recent days, angering the Islamist militants and delighting Israel’s military. #Twitter has suspended the official account of #Hamas, a terrorist group that uses social media to threaten #Israel http://t.co/g1UxKc9fpf
  • Brain drain in Serbia today (114)
    How does the Serbian government cope with the problem of brain drain today? The latest OECD publication, SOPEMI 2014 shows that 39 thousand persons emigrated in 2012 from Serbia to OECD countries only. (At the beginning of the global economic and financial crisis, the emigration from Serbia to OECD countries amounted to 27,000 in 2008.)
  • Humanitarian Intervention: Advantages and Disadvantages in East Timor and Kosovo (108)
    Have There Been Occasions on Which the Advantages of Humanitarian Intervention Using Armed Force have Outweighed the Disadvantages? Humanitarian intervention can be defined as the attempts of a foreign state to prevent violations of human rights in another state, often through the use of armed force. The use of armed force to protect human rights,

How Belgrade based diplomats use Digital Diplomacy and Internet 2016

Diplo Portal Belgrade

Please follow and like us:
Scroll Up

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)