Many of the fake news websites that sprang up during the US election campaign have been traced to a small city in Macedonia, where teenagers are pumping out sensationalist stories to earn cash from advertising.
The young man sitting in the cafe looks barely more than a boy – he hasn’t shaved for a few days, yet he’s a long way off achieving designer stubble. The hair on his chin and cheeks is still soft and his smart navy blazer and clean white shirt make him look as if he’s in school uniform.
It’s not the image that 19-year-old university student, Goran, sitting far back in his chair with one leg crossed over the other wants to portray.
“The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them,” he boasts, making sure I see the designer watch he’s fiddling with. “Who cares if they are true or false?”
Goran – not his real name by the way, he’s not confident enough to reveal that – is one of scores, or probably hundreds of Macedonian teenagers who are behind a cottage industry in the small city of Veles which churned out fake pro-Trump news during the US election campaign.
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Goran began putting up sensationalist stories, usually plagiarised from right-wing American sites, last summer.
After copying and pasting various articles, he packaged them under a catchy new headline, paid Facebook to share it with a target US audience hungry for Trump news and then when those Americans clicked on his stories and began to like and share them, he began earning revenue from advertising on the site.
Goran says he worked on the fakery for only a month and earned about 1,800 euros (£1,500) – but his mates, he claims, have been earning thousands of euros a day. When I ask him if he worries that his false news might have unfairly influenced voters in America, he scoffs.
“Teenagers in our city don’t care how Americans vote,” he laughs. “They are only satisfied that they make money and can buy expensive clothes and drinks!”
The digital gold rush has certainly provided a welcome boom for Veles where the average salary is just 350 euros a month; as we drive into the city, I notice some very new and very smart cars while the down-at-heel bars are full of excited young men drinking fancy cocktails. When it was part of the former Yugoslavia, this city was called Titov Veles after the Yugoslavian President Josip Tito – today I’m told it’s been jokingly rechristened Trump Veles.
Outside the school gates, every third sixth former admits to knowing someone involved on the sites or to running one of their own. One boy whose face is the unhealthy colour and texture of porridge tells me he works eight hours every night on his fake news and then comes to school.
The peddling of false news on lookalike American news sites is not illegal but there’s something a little underhand and dirty about the whole game of misleading readers.
Ironically, it’s open day at the town hall – so I get to meet the right-wing mayor, Slavco Chediev, who points his finger at me crossly. “There’s no dirty money in Veles,” he insists, before adding curiously that he’s rather proud if the entrepreneurs of his tiny little city, thousands of miles from the US, have in any way influenced the outcome of the American election.
Ubavka Janevska, a senior investigative journalist with her own news website, chokes when I recount this story to her although I’m not sure she isn’t just struggling to breathe through the acrid fog of cigarette smoke which permeates her office and makes my contact lenses crimp and shrivel on my eyeballs.
She tells me that she’s identified seven separate teams peddling misinformation online -and she estimates there are also hundreds of school children working individually.
“I worry for young people’s morality in Veles,” she tells me. “Since the US elections, all they think about is lies and making a fast buck from lies.” She fumbles with her cigarette packet. “We have parliamentary elections here in Macedonia in December,” she adds. “And I have traced three false domains registered in Serbia or Croatia. Those sites are already putting out lies about the opposition party which could really damage the campaign.”
Goran insists he’s given up fake news now – although he does let slip he’s just bought a rather smart laptop. As we drop him off at his parents’ house I ask him what his mum would make of his dodgy online activities. He looks at me as if I’m nuts.
“Do you think if your kid had made 30,000 euros a month you’d make a problem?” he asks incredulously. “Come on! You’d be so happy… you’d be… ” he searches for his words.
“Made up?” I offer.