SKOPJE -- A town in North Macedonia that became famous for spreading "fake news" to U.S. voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election is back at it in 2020.
Internet researchers at Stanford University say "partisan clickbait" websites in Veles, North Macedonia, are once again posing as conservative U.S. news outlets in order to gather online advertising revenue.
According to a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory and their research partners at the U.S.-based social-media-analytics firm Graphika, the Macedonian website operators have altered their social-media strategies to better "target conservative Americans with partisan content copied from American outlets."
These "content farms" in Veles still "follow the tradition of copying content" from better-known right-wing-conspiracy-theory websites in the United States, the researchers say.
But Macedonian websites have "refined their tactics since 2016 to conceal their trails and exploit right-wing social-media platforms that are less likely to take down such content," they conclude.
Spreading 'Fake News'
Veles became the center of a global "fake news" scandal in 2016 after thousands of dubious stories were shared by more than 100 pro-Trump websites based in the town.
The stories influenced the public discourse in the United States ahead of the election and, some argue, may have affected the outcome.
International media organizations initially reported that the fake-news industry in Veles was run by tech-savvy teenagers.
But an investigation in 2018 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its partners revealed "secret players" behind the English-language political-news industry in Veles.
That investigative report found that the websites were "not started spontaneously by apolitical teens" with only a rudimentary grasp of English.
"It was launched by a well-known Macedonian media attorney, Trajche Arsov -- who worked closely with two high-profile American partners for at least six months during a period that overlapped with Election Day," the OCCRP reported.
The OCCRP investigation also revealed that a least one employee of Russia's infamous "troll factory," the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg, had visited North Macedonia just three months before Arsov registered the web domain in 2015 for his country's first U.S.-focused political website, Usapoliticstoday.com.
That IRA employee, Anna Bogacheva, was also among a group of Russians indicted by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Although the OCCRP investigation examined social-media posts, government records, domain-registry information, and archived versions of "fake news" sites, it did not find any evidence linking Bogacheva to the Veles websites.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Arsov also denied having any links to Bogacheva or Russia. "To this day, there is nothing," he said.
Veles's website operators quickly learned that stories with outrageous headlines and dubious claims were viewed and shared more often on social media than reputable journalism.
They began posting semi-plagiarized English-language stories filled with unsubstantiated, sensationalist claims that originally were published by right-wing-conspiracy-theory websites in the United States.
According to an investigation by Buzzfeed, the most shared stories from the Veles sites were "nearly all false or misleading."
They included a fictitious story about a nonexistent criminal indictment against Trump's Democratic rival in 2016, Hillary Clinton, as well as a fabricated claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump's candidacy.
The Veles website operators also discovered that Trump supporters were more likely than other American voters to share "fake news" and conspiracy theories without checking the veracity of the stories.
Using hundreds of fake accounts set up on Facebook and Twitter, they shared their links with conservative U.S. groups committed to American politics -- generating advertising revenue every time somebody clicked their links.
Many users of legitimate social-media accounts in the United States forwarded the clickbait links to friends, unwittingly spreading false or misleading information to millions of people and creating an amplifying effect that greatly enhanced revenue for the Macedonian websites.
Facts Vs. Fake News
The Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) -- a group of U.S. researchers that includes those at the Stanford Internet Observatory -- has been working since September to identify and lessen the impact of online misinformation and "fake news" ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
"As we observed in the United States in 2016, and in numerous other countries since, the spread of viral misleading content can diminish trust in the results of electoral contests and the integrity of democratic processes," the EIP says.
Facebook and Twitter have responded to complaints about North Macedonia's interference in U.S. elections since 2016 by removing hundreds of fake social-media accounts used by the Veles operators to draw traffic.
The Stanford researchers say that crackdown has forced North Macedonia's current crop of websites to search out new ways to attract attention and generate ad revenue.
To improve their chances of "hiding and attracting an audience," the Stanford researchers found the Macedonians have "gone to great lengths" to disguise themselves as Americans on a new U.S.-based social-media platform called Parler that is favored by Trump supporters.
When Parler was launched in December 2018, it billed itself as a "free speech social network" -- an "unbiased social platform focused on open dialogue and user engagement."
"We allow free speech and do not censor ideas, political parties, or ideologies," Parler proclaims.
But critics say Parler has become the alternative to Twitter and Facebook for those who've been banned from mainstream platforms or who object to their content policies.
Reuters and Britain's The Independent newspaper report that posts on Parler often contain far-right extremist content, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theories.
In 2020, hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters flocked to Parler after Twitter and Facebook began to moderate and restrict some of Trump's social-media posts on grounds that they violated their policies on hate speech and civic responsibility.
The 4 million users that Parler now claims are using the platform include Republican U.S. lawmakers and Trump's high-profile, celebrity allies from Fox News.
But Politico reports that Parler now risks becoming a right-wing social-media echo chamber with few prominent users from other parts of America's political spectrum.
Stanford researchers say that has made Parler a perfect platform for a new generation of Veles-based websites trying to spread the type of clickbait links that had been most successful in the past.
They say Macedonian "fake news" sites "are gaining significant traffic, especially from what appears to be the operators' account on Parler, which is a major influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers."
'Resist The Mainstream'
The Stanford researchers focused, in particular, on one website in North Macedonia called Resist The Mainstream.
They say Resist The Mainstream appears, at first glance, to be a standard right-wing U.S. news site. It lists its mailing address in Austin, Texas, and claims that it exists to "report the news the mainstream media won't."
But cybersecurity experts at Stanford determined Resist The Mainstream is actually run by two individuals in Veles who generate viral stories and profit from advertising revenue using the InfoLink ad service and Google Analytics -- Internet tools that track the readership of stories and monetize the number of clicks they receive.
"The address of the site listed in Austin is a virtual mail forwarding service offered by ParcelPlus, which offers international mail forwarding," the Stanford experts say.
"Thus, the operators in North Macedonia can receive mail in the United States without leaving their homes -- very useful, in building the website's credibility, and for verifying their identity on social media platforms."
Meanwhile, the Stanford cybersleuths say Resist The Mainstream also appears to be running a very active Parler account called "DonaldTrumpTweets" that now has more than 400,000 followers.
Each of the thousands of posts by North Macedonia's fake DonaldTrumpTweets account receives hundreds of interactions and is displayed more than 50,000 times to Parler users.
"This account only posts content from two sources: Donald Trump's tweets and articles from Resist The Mainstream," the researchers conclude. "By drawing in users with content they are interested in, in this case Trump tweets, the website owners succeed in driving traffic to their site."
RFE/RL attempted to contact the operators of Resist The Mainstream in Veles through the e-mail addresses provided on their website, but received no reply.
Phone calls to numbers given in Resist The Mainstream's "Help Wanted" advertisements in North Macedonia were also not returned.
"I don't know these people who are mentioned in the report," Arsov, the so-called Godfather of Veles's "fake news" industry, told RFE/RL when asked about who runs Resist The Mainstream.
Nevertheless, Arsov insisted that all of Veles's English-language political websites, past and present, have been "created because they saw some financial interest" in it.
"No one in Veles knows the real politics in America to be able to create fake political news," Arsov said. "You should know the real news to create fake news. It turns out that Americans have a memory like a fish and do not know what was written in 2016 about fake news here."
"Now there is no fake news here," claims Arsov, who stopped posting stories to his Usapoliticstoday.com site in 2017 but started a new website in 2018 called Usapoliticstoday.org.
"There is only a financial interest in reposting other people's news here," Arsov maintains.
"It is a lie that we are creating fake news," Arsov said, while admitting that misleading information and conspiracy theories have been reposted by his website and others.
"It is only reposting articles from conservative websites" in the United States, and it is not breaking any laws in North Macedonia, he said.