American Conservatives Tied to Pro-Trump Trolls in Macedonia
In November 2016, days before and weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, two stories about the proliferation of fake news went instantly viral. The first, published by BuzzFeed on Nov. 3, explored how teenagers in the Macedonian town of Veles had successfully duped Trump supporters by building websites with domains that include TrumpVision365.com and USConservativeToday.com. The second story, published by The Washington Post on Nov. 20, profiled a pair of 20-something writers who ran a similarly lucrative operation out of Long Beach, Calif.
What neither outlet reported at the time, and what is now becoming clear, is that these professional trolls were working in close coordination with each other for the better part of six months—right through Trump’s stunning upset victory.
A new investigative report from BuzzFeed, in conjunction with the Organized Crime and Reporting Project, finds that the bogus political outlets traced to Veles were “not started spontaneously by apolitical teens,” but by prominent Macedonian media attorney Trajche Arsov, whose American associates include Ben Goldman and Paris Wade. Goldman and Wade are the founders of a conservative website called Liberty Writers News; Wade is currently running for a seat in the Nevada Assembly on the Republican ticket.
The investigation also reveals that Arsov has employed one Alicia Powe, who currently writes for the Gateway Pundit—“a site that frequently traffics in falsehoods and conspiracy theories.” (The Trump administration granted the publication a White House press credential in February 2017).
How a tiny town in the Balkans with a population of less than 50,000 came to be a booming misinformation hub is less confounding than it might appear. As BuzzFeed observes, just under half of Macedonia’s youths face unemployment, and the lure of Google Adsense dollars has proved “transformative.” Publishing flagrantly spurious clickbait, with such headlines as “Obama’s Ex-Boyfriend Reveals Shocking Truth That He Wants to Hide From America,” allowed contributors to “[buy] new cars” and “spend wildly at local clubs.”
In Goldman and Wade, Arsov found two natural partners. After first insisting he only knew of the pair from The Washington Post’s reporting, Arsov admits that their publications shared each other’s stories on Facebook, on pages that have subsequently been deleted. Earlier this year, the social media network announced that it would be improving the integrity of the site by expunging “financially motivated ‘inauthentic’ content,” per BuzzFeed. (What, precisely, Facebook deems inauthentic remains an open question. On Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to clarify remarks about whether he intends to provide a platform for Holocaust denialism).
According to Macedonian officials, none of the Americans tied to these sites is presently under investigation, although the probes are “still in a very early phase.” At least one of the 13 Russians indicted by Mueller in February for alleged interference in the 2016 elections traveled to Macedonia in the months prior to the launch of the country’s first U.S. politics site.
“It’s not clear that anyone involved in the Veles fake news operations broke the law,” note the authors of the report. “But what is clear is that the powerful forces of Facebook, digital advertising revenue, and political partisanship gave rise to an unlikely global alliance that increased the spread of misleading and false news in the critical months before Election Day.”
Read the full story at BuzzFeed.