‘Fake news’ isn’t just celebrity death hoaxes and satirical blog posts, it’s big business. With the advancement in web technologies, the news and their ads have gradually started to move into digital spaces. There are now tonnes of ad platforms which monetise web pages and the freedom of the internet has provided, the opportunistic, lucrative means of making a quick quid online. Here’s a list of some of the people that have profited from ‘fake news’:
1: Macedonian Teenagers
In early 2016, groups of entrepreneurial teenagers sought to take advantage of the divisive nature ingrained in the US Presidential elections, and many succeeded. With 100+ pro-Trump websites found registered to the small town of Veles, it became infamous as the capital of 'fake news'. Although the teenagers running these sites weren’t interested in the US Presidential Election, they were focused on the ad revenue that the election could generate through sharing false and sensationalist content.
After experimenting with left leaning and pro-Bernie Sanders content they soon realised that the big money was with the pro-Trump crowds. Some simply copied news articles and repackaged them with sensationalist headlines, others crafted imaginatively outlandish stories from scratch. Once their 'fake news' articles were ready to publish they shared them on social media platforms in groups where Trump supporters convened. They also used targeted advertising on to pick out those on the right side of the political spectrum. Many of these posts skyrocketed to virality, in turn, bringing thousands of users to their websites and generating thousands of pounds in ad revenue.
One of the teenage fake news writers claimed to earn up to $16,000 from two pro-Trump websites. Others reported that the early birds, starting in early 2016 had been earning thousands on a daily basis.
Headlines from some of the Macedonian 'fake news' websites included:
Georgia - Beqa Latsabidze
On the other side of the Black Sea a university student tried his hand at profiting from 'fake news' in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The New York Times interviewed the 22 year old university student. He too began with pro-left leaning literature before focussing his efforts on the pro-Trump crowds. The use of pro-Trump Facebook groups were also critical to his websites' success, driving traffic to pages monetised by Google. He reporting that in his best month he earned around $6000. Upon arriving on one of his most popular fake websites, a pop-up appeared inviting users to "Like and share if you love your country".
USA Christopher Blair
Dubbed "The Godfather of fake news" by the BBC. Not only does this man profit from 'fake news', he's made a living out of it; claiming to have quit his job as a construction worker in 2014. In many cases he was the source that others copied their 'fake news' stories from.
Although creating and proliferating fake news for many years before, Blair launched thelastlineofdefense.org with a group of bloggers during presidential elections in 2016, he was the mastermind behind much of the misinformation that circulated around the time. Although the website did stipulate that the articles published weren't real (in one of the fourteen disclaimers), it didn't stop the web traffic, and it didn't stop many from believing the stories, sharing them and repackaging them under the guise of legitimacy.
Take a look at some of the stories posted on thelastlineofdefence.org
Despite monetary gain, the more important aspect of this phenomena is the role that these 'fake news' concoctions play in wider society. It's difficult to tell how these pieces of content shape people's mindsets and belief systems. People act on these stories and their actions have real world consequences. This is why we need a platform to counter 'fake news' and to bring credibility back to our easily-exploitable news ecosystem.