Meeting Kosovo’s clickbait merchants
Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a dark bar in a small town an hour’s drive from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. In front of me, a man was nervously hunched over, his face turned away from the camera.
He was a fake news merchant and he agreed – eventually – to talk about how he earned his living.
I first came to Kosovo over a year ago when researching a book about how power was changing in the digital age.
I’d heard about shadowy Russian influence campaigns and militaries fighting warfare with information.
But the people I met there showed me there was another, very simple reason why people sent false and sensationalist news to Western audiences. It was for the money – they share it because we click on it.
Clickbait and “fake news” are terms sometimes used interchangeably to describe false or sensationalist material circulating on the web.
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A year ago, “Burim” showed me that misinformation was a flourishing industry. Some of what he described was political, far more of it was gore.
“Dog Groomer Who Kicked Dog till its Ribs Broke Remains Jail-Free” was one story. “Boy Comes out of Coma after 12 Years, Whispers Dark Secret to Parents ” was another.
Much of it was false. And while some of it looked like news, this was content for one reason alone: clicks.
Making money from the internet means capturing audiences and the merchant I spoke to owned about a dozen Facebook pages, dedicated to anything from evangelical Christianity to holiday destinations.
Whatever their theme, the audiences were huge: 90,000 likes; 240,000 likes; 26,000 likes.
Burim could get his content to nearly a million pairs of eyeballs and he turned those clicks into ad revenue – both within the social media platform and on external sites. He earned about 600 euros (£520) a day.
It’s far more money than any of the legitimate jobs he could take would offer him.
Since I met Burim, the tech giants have vowed to shut this industry down. Fake news is what Mark Zuckerberg calls his “personal challenge”.
In 2018, Facebook doubled its security team to 20,000 and closed down many groups and pages that shared clickbait, squeezing their content towards near invisibility.
So, last month, I went back, this time with the BBC. I wanted to see if anything had changed and what Facebook’s anti-fake news drive really looked like in the eyes of the people who peddled the stuff.
“The audience on that page is mainly UK,” the man said, grinning, hunched over his phone so that the camera couldn’t catch his face.
It is difficult to tell exactly how large this illicit economy had become in the past. But Facebook’s reforms, I heard again and again, have had some effect. Page after page had been shut down. Income had fallen from 600 euros a day to about 100.
Spreading false news, then, has become less profitable – and possibly also less political. It has apparently morphed into celebrity hype, false stories of footballers breaking legs or lurid sexual gore. The content creators were sharing trivia, not Trump.
However, although less profitable, the practice was still widespread.
“Forty per cent of Kosovan youth are doing this,” one merchant told me. “Thousands upon thousands,” said another.
And it’s little wonder. 100 euros a day is still life-changing for someone, like him, who’d earned seven euros a day as a waiter before he started. The “why” was clear. In the face of Facebook’s reforms, the bigger surprise was “how”.
There is another side to this fake news and clickbait industry that isn’t visible to us. I learned that a network of closed groups exist, with memberships that can number from a few hundred to several thousand. To be part of such a closed group, you have to be invited.
But inside, it was clear that Facebook wasn’t just the place where they harvested audiences. It was also where the fake news merchants themselves traded with each other.
I saw Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of likes traded for thousands of dollars. Others sold fake likes, or fake accounts, or offered advice on how to get around Facebook’s enforcement.
We even found a “fake news starter pack” for a beginner, complete with a collection of Facebook pages to gather an audience, along with websites to monetise your activity. This was a service sector economy for misinformation.
It wasn’t just Facebook that was innovating, the misinformation merchants were too. Some were specialised in growing pages and selling them on. Others would sell content, and more still concentrated on getting around Facebook’s enforcement.
Even within small groups, this was happening routinely and dozens of times a day. It was industrial-scale gaming of Facebook’s policies and systems.
Around the world, there are thousands of people like those I spoke to. Usually young, male and digitally savvy, they are willing to share any content for the clicks. And in the chase for clicks online, the horrifying, shocking, exaggerated, or divisive wins out again and again.
I’ve begun to reflect on this kind of fake news, of content exported to Western markets for profit, as something akin to poppy growing. It’s a cash crop.
It’s no use to the people that make it. It doesn’t do any good to the foreign markets that consume it.
But it is – by far – the easiest and most accessible way of making money for some. If you want to stop it, you can’t just burn the fields. You also need to give people something else to grow.
This story is part of a series by the BBC on disinformation and fake news – a global problem challenging the way we share information and perceive the world around us.
To see more stories and learn more about the series visit www.bbc.co.uk/fakenews