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The Big Read: Money, lies and manipulation — the dark forces behind fake news

SINGAPORE — While regulators around the world rail against the spread of misinformation online and take steps to stamp it out, Mr Mirko Ceselkoski — a 37-year-old Macedonian partly responsible for the rise of fake news — remains nonchalant and unapologetic.

A screenshot from the English homepage of Mirko Ceselkoski, He became known for schooling Macedonian youth in the business of fake news and clickbait articles after the 2016 US presidential election.

A screenshot from the English homepage of Mirko Ceselkoski, He became known for schooling Macedonian youth in the business of fake news and clickbait articles after the 2016 US presidential election.

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SINGAPORE — While regulators around the world rail against the spread of misinformation online and take steps to stamp it out, Mr Mirko Ceselkoski — a 37-year-old Macedonian partly responsible for the rise of fake news — remains nonchalant and unapologetic.

Describing himself as a marketing consultant, Mr Ceselkoski is a successful and prominent “clickbait coach” in the Macedonian town of Veles, which has been dubbed the fake news capital of the world. TODAY reached out to him via email, and he was quick to respond, agreeing to a Skype interview.

“My students were being creative about making money and I couldn’t stop them. Creating fake news is a practice all around the world, even by major news agencies, albeit in a subtler way than my students did,” he said. “The money was the main motivation for all my students and friends in creating fake and altered content.”

Veles, a small town with a population of 44,000, was relatively unknown prior to the United States’ presidential election in November 2016. But it leapt to infamy after reports revealed that it was the unlikely home of some 100 pro-Donald Trump websites — sporting catchy headlines like “This is How Liberals Destroyed America, This Is Why We Need Trump in the White House” and “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought’.”

Much has been said about how the echo chamber effect of social media networks has abetted the rise of fake news, with people more susceptible to believing and spreading information aligned with their pre-existing opinions.The US presidential election was described by a University of Oxford study in 2016 as a “watershed moment” that witnessed social media manipulation at its worst.

Since then, the proliferation of fake news — ironically a term popularised by Mr Trump — has gone unchecked, with authorities at their wits’ end. In Singapore, a Select Committee was set up earlier this month to study the problem.

A Green Paper was also published by the ministries of Communication and Information, and Law, sketching out how the spread of falsehoods by state and non-state actors have influenced elections, caused public alarm, or incited divisions across the world. The paper identified two types of perpetrators: Foreign state actors who want to “engineer specific outcomes” in polls, as well as private individuals and entities, who are typically more driven by financial considerations.

Earlier, the Singapore Government has said it is reviewing existing laws that can tackle the spread of misinformation. But the government, as well as experts, have pointed out that legislation is not the panacea — not when there are bigger external forces at play, sometimes covert and hard to trace.

A MONEY SPINNER

For Mr Ceselkoski, sensational headlines and flashy images are just part of the arsenal for web advertising, which he has over the last five years imparted to some 1,000 students, half of whom hail from Veles.

Under his tutelage, many of the young creators, aged between 18 and 25 years old, made a windfall during the US presidential election by producing baseless, sensational articles that went viral online.

In return for drawing traffic to these sites, they get rewarded handsomely by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense.

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Above: An example of Mr Ceselkosk's online social media marketing course

While Mr Ceselkoski —who runs an online social media marketing course — said he does not explicitly teach students to produce fake content, neither does he advise against it.

“I didn’t advise my students to write fake news…I advise them that it has to be visual and stand out like a breaking news story. You can use (image editor) Photoshop and test out different versions,” he said.

He added: “The headline is most important, it’s the first thing people see. I teach a two-hour lesson on how to write an eye-catching title and associate a crazy, interesting image with it.”

Titled “Facebook Marketing University 2018”, the course’s website promises the “ultimate guide of building a huge and viral Facebook page” and bills Mr Ceselkoski as “the man who accidentally helped Donald Trump win US elections”.

He told TODAY that he stumbled upon the online marketing business when he was 17 and made his first US$105 (S$137.30) by selling memberships for some websites.

While reiterating that he does not advocate creating false content, Mr Ceselkoski cited a sham article by his wife — alleging that certain coloured squares at the bottom of toothpaste tubes denote toxic ingredients — as a “perfect example” of how a fake news story can be a money spinner.

The article went viral and was translated into different languages, garnering US$100,000 in clicks and advertising revenue, Mr Ceselkoski claimed.

The online space is a “gold mine” for young people to “get a good start in life”, he said, noting that some of his most successful students have made up to US$100,000 a month. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is US$436, according data from the country’s statistical office in August last year.

On whether he had any concerns that his protégés were perpetuating untruths, Mr Ceselkoski said: “I am proud that these young people in Macedonia did a great job for themselves… I didn’t think that we would do that much damage (in the US elections), maybe Donald Trump was already so much more popular than we thought. ”

But he conceded that recently, technological platforms have been coming down harder on creators of bogus posts. Some of his students had gotten their Facebook profiles scrubbed and been barred access to the network, while others were denied advertising revenue from Google.

“I think that is quite sad… Only the big media agencies will dictate online discourse, the average person will not be in the equation and their voices not heard. That’s my opinion,” he said.

Closer to home, the now-defunct website The Real Singapore (TRS) — whose owners were jailed for publishing sham socio-political reports about Singapore — was reported to have made more than S$500,000 in advertising revenue in the span of 1.5 years.

Above: The duo behind The Real Singapore, Ai Takagi (right) and Yang Kaiheng (left) arriving at court on Apr 14, 2015. TODAY file photo

Prosecutors had chided its founding couple Yang Kaiheng, 29, and Ai Takagi, 25, for exploiting racist and xenophobic fault lines through blatantly fabricated articles.

But Mr Yang, who was jailed eight months for sedition, maintains that TRS was set up as a “crowd-sourced platform where the public could share their views”.

“That was the vision and purpose of the website and this was always made clear to the readers too. The very nature of crowd-sourced content platforms is that they are fluid and adapt to their audiences’ views, preferences and unavoidably their biases and emotions too,” Mr Yang told TODAY.

While unverified or misreported content can get shared on such platforms, it is important for readers to “make their own decisions about what is posted on such websites,” he said.

TRS did not have sufficient resources to review and verify each post, he said, adding that it would be onerous for all creators of online content to adhere to strict verification standards.

In addition to generating revenue via clicks, the spread of misinformation online can also move markets — giving unscrupulous opportunists another avenue to make a quick buck — as has been observed in the recent boom in initial coin offerings (ICOs).

Mr Kaspar Korjus is the managing director at Estonia’s digital “residency” programme which allows foreigners to take part in domestic services without physically living in the country.

His country has plans to launch its own digital means of exchange, known as the “estcoin”.

However, he expressed concerns about the manipulation of markets via fake news in an emerging sector: “Given that expertise might be lacking, investments can happen very fast and for huge amounts, and (because) standards or frameworks are insufficient, many people have even more interest in giving fake information, pretending their business or ICO is trusted and backed. It can push their market valuations much higher.”

A PROPAGANDA MACHINE

Apart from commercial motivations, fake news is often perpetuated by political agendas — and this may be where any proposed regulation hits its largest roadblock, said experts interviewed by TODAY.

“It is very difficult to prove that any foreign power has orchestrated a disinformation campaign, especially when the attacking state uses proxy forces, such as paid content creators,” said Dr Gulizar Haciyakupoglu, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ (RSIS) Cyber and Homeland Defence Programme.

Active fact-checking organisations in Eastern Europe have regularly identified online falsehoods as originating from Russia-backed outfits.

“But unless you are very confident of the source, it’s politically dangerous to point fingers,” added Mr Benjamin Ang, a senior fellow at the same programme.

Fake news is sometimes perpetuated by governments themselves to reinforce political ideologies or “distract” citizens from domestic affairs, among other motives, said Hungarian economist Krisztian Szabados, who co-founded the Political Capital Policy Research & Consulting Institute.

He cited as an instance how Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had launched a campaign against Hungary-born American billionaire George Soros to “distract” citizens from rife corruption, as well as the country’s distressed healthcare and education systems.

Mr Orbán, who faces elections in April, had made public statements attributed to Mr Soros which, among other things, called for the European Union (EU) to settle a million migrants a year and pay each of them thousands of euros.

Mr Soros’ Open Society Foundations has claimed that the statements “contain distortions and outright lies”. Mr Soros’ reputation in Hungary had taken a hit during the country’s 2015 migrant crisis, when his advocacy for humane treatment of refugees ran up against Hungary’s ultra-conservative government led by Mr Orbán, a right-wing nationalist.

Mr Szabados, 44, added: “Some pieces of fake news do not aim to convince readers, but to stir doubt and create uncertainty.”

His institute believes that Russia is one country that uses misinformation to waver people’s confidence of established institutions such as the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

“The purpose of Russian propaganda is to create confusion among the population and to create divisions in society… It does not want to convince the audience, it just wants to offer an alternative reality,” he said.

There is no easy solution to tackle fake news, especially in cases where the regulators are also the perpetrators, the experts noted.

LEGISLATION IS NO SILVER BULLET

Around the world, countries have taken steps to tackle the scourge of online falsehoods — ranging from laws that require those who put up political advertisements to declare their sources of funding, to those compelling social networks to take down defamatory content and hate speech.

Social media companies operating in Germany face fines of up to S$79.5 million if they do not take down illegal, slanderous or defamatory comments and posts within 24 hours of such content being reported. In the United States, tech companies such as Google and Facebook are required to disclose the parties purchasing online political advertising and who their target audiences are.

The new Macedonian government, which was elected in December 2016, has publicly declared war against fake news. In response to TODAY’s queries, government spokesperson Mile Boshnjakovski said: “We would not tolerate fake news in any sense… The new Government of the Republic of Macedonia is ready to take a step forward towards global coordination with all the relevant stakeholders, with the view to start a discussion and to contribute to any global initiative for resolving the problem.”

In Singapore, the authorities have also pledged to stamp out the scourge of fake news, with Members of Parliament unanimously backing the move to convene the Select Committee to study the problem.

The Green Paper cited how countries such as France and the US have introduced legislation as part of their arsenal against fake news.

Experts have suggested that new laws could be part of Singapore’s response against fake news, but they stressed that regulation is no panacea, especially when some states are seen as using falsehoods to spread propaganda both at home and abroad.

Independent fact-checking groups are more effective in debunking fake news than official government announcements, said RSIS’ Mr Ang.

Legislation is limited in that many fake news sources operate outside of the jurisdictions of the “victim countries”, said Political Capital’s Mr Szabados.

RSIS associate research fellow Eugene Tan, who specialises in cyberspace security and Singapore’s foreign policy, said combating fake news “takes more than just legislation, fact-checking, and education”. He said: “First, the government must be transparent with citizens. Second, the media must value investigative journalism and report, rather than spin, the truth. Third, we as society need to be more aware of what is happening around us and not become pawns in the game of ambition.”

Economist Hannes Grassegger, who focuses on networked technology and the information space, urged individuals to exercise discernment in media consumption.

“The spread of fake news is first and foremost a mental, and psychological phenomenon. Presenting facts will not be sufficient to combat it,” said the 37-year-old, who is based in Zurich.

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Grasegger cited the example of the radio adaptation of H G Wells’ science fiction classic “War of the Worlds” in the late 1930s, which stirred hysteria among a nationwide audience in the US who believed it to be true.

He said: “After all, that was before radio became a mass media, and people associated all broadcasts with reality… After that, they learnt to discern. Perhaps in engaging with content on social media, we should also take a step back and not let it affect us so deeply.”

Mr Szabados added: “It would be ideal if people become cautious, aware and read only reliable sources… And stop using Facebook as a news source.”

How an industry was born in the ‘fake news capital of the world’

To cash in on the fake news gold rush, the enterprising youths in Veles, Macedonia typically bought domains that resembled American news websites, with names such as USA Daily News, NewYorkTimesPolitics.com and DailyInterestingThings.com.

They then built basic sites using content management software like WordPress and peppered them with articles on sports, celebrity, health, and political news pilfered from other websites.

They also created content that were completely baseless, and peddled them as “news”.

In the run up to the United States presidential election in November 2016, they rode on Mr Donald Trump’s campaign by fabricating pro-Trump articles and headlines.

For example, one such article made up an attack by Syrian terrorists on New York, while another declared in its headline that Pope Francis had endorsed Mr Trump as president when this did not happen.

According to researchers, fake news content prior to the election was almost entirely pro-Trump, and was read and shared most voraciously by the politically-conservative electorate.

To wring money from their hoax articles, the Macedonian youths partnered with advertising networks, such as Google AdSense, which get paid by advertisers each time a reader clicks an advertisement on the websites. Such networks share some of the revenue with the publishers.

Depending on how many times they are shared, each article that goes viral could rake in up to US$100,000 (S$130,775) — a formidable amount in Macedonia where the average monthly salary is US$436.

Google, for instance, pays between 25 American cents and US$3 for every 1,000 page views received by each site, according to estimates online.

To better monetise their sites, the Macedonian youths would use sensational headlines and flashy visuals. The more outrageous, the better.

Links were shared on Facebook groups, sometimes under their own identity, but often under the guise of hoax profiles bought to facilitate the enterprise.

Pro-Trump groups seemed to have hundreds of thousands more members than groups supporting his opponent Hillary Clinton, which made them a more lucrative target audience.

Sites that drew traffic from developed countries, such as the US, tended to rake in more money as well.

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