By now we all know about how Russian trolls used partisan division and hatred to sway the election for Donald Trump. Fake pages set up to pit liberals versus conservatives, and stir up racial tensions were just a few of the weapons in their arsenal.
However, let’s not give all of the credit to Russia. America was a target-rich environment, and exploiting it wasn’t hard to do. Decades of partisan rhetoric stirred up by pundits and bloggers hoping to strike it rich, along with Facebook and Twitter, made it very easy for Russia to unleash chaos.
Both the left and the right have been plagued with fake news, blogspam, and hyperbolic blogs posing as news sources for years. The advent of social media made it easier for publishers around the world to connect with easily-duped readers, and make a lot of money doing it.
“These exploiters will use anything to make money,” said Sarah Thompson, a mother of four who homeschools her kids on a farm in Indiana. After noticing suspicious posts being shared in Facebook groups about horses, she too began investigating their origin and ended up discovering hundreds of fake Facebook profiles that were promoting websites run by people in that same Macedonian town.
Even the owner of 10 fake news websites in the US contacted BuzzFeed News to express his frustration with the onslaught of Macedonian spam in pro-Trump Facebook groups.
Thompson says the politics sites are just one part of the network of fake Facebook profiles and clickbait sites originating in the former Yugoslav Republic and in other Eastern European countries.
“The story is not the election,” she said. “It’s how Facebook is being played.” (BuzzFeed)
While a lot of attention was given to spammers in Macedonia and their contribution to the outcome of the 2016 election, this wasn’t the beginning of the fake news phenomenon.
On Facebook, sites like Occupy Democrats have more followers than MSNBC, just in case someone wants to claim that liberals are not as bad conservatives when it comes to consuming news from bad sources.
Facebook has allowed these sites to gain millions of followers and outrank legitimate news outlets like Reuters or the AP. There is little (if any) quality control on social media, and these organizations have exploited that void for maximum profit.
Just like the Macedonian spammers created thousands of fake profiles and spammed the hell out of various Facebook groups, bloggers have done the same thing for years. Behind the social media scenes, it is a cutthroat war between various website owners, all jockeying for the most web traffic, and resulting ad revenue.
Some of these people makes tens of thousands of dollars every month. For many, this is a full-time job. Many do not create their own content, and instead take content from a legitimate source, brand it as their own, and do little else than add a more hyperbolic content before slamming these links into one Facebook group after another.
This environment is easy to exploit by individuals, so imagine what a foreign government organization with a lot of funding could do? This is going to get a lot worse, before it might get better. But I’m not holding my breath.