Jobless and with graduation looming, a computer science student at the premier university in the nation of Georgia
decided early this year that money could be made from America’s voracious appetite for passionately partisan political news. He set up a website, posted gushing stories about Hillary Clinton and waited for ad sales to soar.
“I don’t know why, but it did not work,” said the student, Beqa Latsabidze, 22, who was savvy enough to change course when he realised what did drive traffic laudatory stories about Donald J Trump that mixed real — and completely fake — news in a stew of anti-Clinton fervour.
More than 6,000 miles away in Vancouver, a Canadian who runs a satirical website, John Egan, had made a similar observation. Egan’s site, The Burrard Street Journal, offers sendups of the news, not fake news, and he is not trying to fool anyone. But he, too, discovered that writing about Trump was a “gold mine.” His traffic soared and his work, notably a story that President Obama would move to Canada if Trump won, was plundered by Latsabidze and other internet entrepreneurs for their own websites. “It’s all Trump,” Egan said by telephone. “People go nuts for it.”
With Obama now warning of the corrosive threat from fake political news circulated on Facebook
and other social media, the pressing question is who produces these stories, and how does this overheated, often fabricated news ecosystem work?
Some analysts worry that foreign intelligence agencies are meddling in American politics and using fake news to influence elections. But one window into how the meat in fake sausages gets ground can be found in the buccaneering internet economy, where satire produced in Canada can be taken by a recent college graduate in the former Soviet republic of Georgia
and presented as real news to attract clicks from credulous readers in the United States. Latsabidze said his only incentive was to make money from Google ads by luring people off Facebook
pages and onto his websites. To gin up material, Latsabidze often simply cut and pasted, sometimes massaging headlines but mostly just copying material from elsewhere, including Egan’s prank story on Obama. Egan was not amused to see his satirical work on Latsabidze’s website and filed a copyright infringement notice to defend his intellectual property.
Yet Egan conceded a certain professional glee that Trump is here to stay. “Now that we’ve got him for four years,” he said, “I can’t believe it.”
By some estimates, bogus news stories appearing online and on social media had an even greater reach in the final months of the presidential campaign than articles by mainstream news organisations. Since then, internet giants like Facebook
and Google have engaged in soul searching over their roles in disseminating false news. Google announced that it would ban websites that host fake news from using its online advertising service, while Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, outlined some of the options his company was considering, including simpler ways for users to flag suspicious content. In Tbilisi, the two-room rented apartment Latsabidze shares with his younger brother is an unlikely offshore outpost of America’s fake news industry. The two brothers, both computer experts, get help from a third young Georgian, an architect.
They say they have no keen interest in politics themselves and initially placed bets across the American political spectrum and experimented with show business news, too. They set up a pro-Clinton website,walkwithher.com, a Facebook
page cheering Bernie Sanders and a web digest of straightforward political news plagiarised from The New York Times and other mainstream news media.
But those sites, among the more than a dozen registered by Latsabidze, were busts. Then he shifted all his energy to Trump. His flagship pro-Trump website, departed.co, gained remarkable traction in a crowded field in the prelude to the November 8 election thanks to steady menu of relentlessly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton stories. (On Wednesday, a few hours after The New York Times met with Latsabidze to ask him about his activities, the site vanished along with his Facebook
“My audience likes Trump,” he said. “I don’t want to write bad things about Trump. If I write fake stories
about Trump, I lose my audience.”
Some of his Trump stories are true, some are highly slanted and others are totally false, like one this summer reporting that “the Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump
is elected President of the United States.” Data compiled by Buzzfeed showed that the story was the third most-trafficked fake story on Facebook
from May to July.
© 2016 The New York Times News Service