On July 6, Greece announced that it had “irrefutable evidence” that Russia was trying to undermine the Prespa agreement, by attempting to buy off officials and otherwise intervening in Greece’s internal affairs. In a pointed statement, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias accused Russia of also funding protests within Greece, and declared that his country would not be bullied. Greece has now expelled two Russian diplomats, leading Russia to cancel an upcoming visit to Athens by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and to announce the expulsion of Greek diplomats from Moscow.
.. Russian mischief has also been detected north of the Greek border. According to Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, Russia has funded anti-government protests and pushed Russian-oriented businesses in Macedonia to foment violence in the run-up to the September 30 referendum.
.. Russia has made no secret of its desire to weaken NATO. By opposing the Prespa agreement, it may be hoping to prevent Macedonia from joining the alliance. But even when pressed, Putin’s Russia will not acknowledge that it opposes Greek-Macedonian rapprochement, let alone apologize for taking active measures to interfere in Greek and Macedonian domestic affairs.
.. The irony is that Putin has long criticized the United States for overreaching and attempting to impose its values on others. In the Balkans and elsewhere, Putin has tried to present himself as a reasonable partner who will not ask questions about human rights or insist on respect for any particular set of values.
Yet it is now clear that neither friend nor foe should tolerate Russia’s foreign policy. The Kremlin has stepped up its policy of interfering secretly in other countries’ political processes. It has tracked down and attempted to murder former members of its security services inside NATO member states. And it has apparently tried to scuttle a hard-won agreement between two Balkan neighbors who are trying to overcome decades of mistrust.
.. Looking ahead, it will be important to remember that Russia’s foreign policy is motivated not just by spite and bitterness, but also by a nagging awareness of its own decline.
In particular, there’s a huge cluster of websites in English about health issues because they find that that content does really well.
And if they sign up, for example, for Google AdSense, an ad program, they can get money as people visit their sites and it’s pretty straightforward. So they tried election sites, and over time they all came to realize that the stuff that did the best was pro-Trump stuff. They got the most traffic and most traction.
.. And I think there was an element almost – in some of the people I was speaking to, there was almost an element of pride saying, you know, we’re here in this small country that most Americans probably don’t even think about, and we’re able to, you know, put stuff out and earn money and to run a business. And I think there was a bit of pride in that. One of the people that I spoke to, who was a bit older – he was in his 20s – you know, he said that yeah, I mean, people know that a lot of the content is false. But that’s what works.
.. They all said that when it came down to it, the fake stuff performed better on Facebook. And if you weren’t doing some stuff that was misleading or fake, you were going to get beat by people who were.
.. And then the other type of content that performed really well was, you know, memes, like a photo that just sort – kind of expressed a very partisan opinion. These – you know, they weren’t necessarily factually based, but they really kind of riled up the base. And for the pages that were partisan pages on the right and the left, if you had stuff that really appealed to people’s existing beliefs – really appealed to, you know, a negative perception of Hillary Clinton, a negative perception of Donald Trump – even if it, you know, completely bent the truth, that would perform much better than a sort of purely factual thing.
.. So at the core of this is – there’s two factors that are at play here. So one is a human factor and one is kind of a platform or algorithmic factor. So on the human side, there’s a lot of research out there going back a very long time that looks at sort of how humans deal with information. And one of the things that we love as humans – and this this affects all of us. We shouldn’t think of this as just being something for people who are very partisan. We love to hear things that confirm what we think and what we feel and what we already believe. It’s – it makes us feel good to get information that aligns with what we already believe or what we want to hear.
.. And on the other side of that is when we’re confronted with information that contradicts what we think and what we feel, the reaction isn’t to kind of sit back and consider it. The reaction is often to double down on our existing beliefs. So if you’re feeding people information that basically just tells them what they want to hear, they’re probably going to react strongly to that. And the other layer that these pages are very good at is they bring in emotion into it, anger or hate or surprise or, you know, joy. And so if you combine information that aligns with their beliefs, if you can make it something that strikes an emotion in them, then that gets them to react.
.. And that’s where the kind of platform and algorithms come in. Which is that on Facebook, you know, the more you interact with certain types of content, the more its algorithms are going to feed you more of that content. So if you’re reading stuff that aligns perfectly with your political beliefs, it makes you feel really good and really excited and you share it, Facebook is going to see that as a signal that you want more of that stuff. So that’s why the false misleading stuff does really well is because it’s highly emotion-driven.
.. Whereas when you come in as the debunker, what you’re doing is actively going against information that people are probably already, you know, willing to believe and that gets them emotionally. And to tell somebody I’m sorry that thing you saw and shared is not true is you coming in in a very negative way unfortunately.
And so the reaction is often for people to get defensive and to disagree with you. And just in general you just seem like kind of a spoil sport. You’re ruining the fun or you’re getting in the way of their beliefs. And a lot of times when I put debunkings out there, you know, some of the reactions I get are people saying, well, it might as well be true. You know, he could have said that or that could have happened. Or, of course, you get accusations that, you know, you’re biased. And so the debunkings just don’t appeal as much to us on a psychological level. There’s some emotional resistance to wanting to be wrong. That’s a very natural human thing. And they’re just not as shareable because the emotion there isn’t as real and raw as something that makes you angry, for example.
.. So the one that comes to mind right away, this is a story that was on a website that is made to look like ABC News but its domain is slightly different. And the story that was published, you know, long before the election claimed that a protester had been paid $3,500 to go and protest at Trump rally. And this fed into perceptions that the people who are against Trump were being paid by big interests.
And that story did pretty well on Facebook. It got a fair amount of engagement. But it was tweeted by Eric Trump. It was tweeted by Corey Lewandowski, who was a campaign manager for Donald Trump, and it was tweeted by Kellyanne Conway, who was his campaign manager, not that long before the election. So when you have people in positions of power and influence putting out fake news – and I want to say, you know, there’s no evidence that they knew it was fake and put it out there to fool people. I think in each case they genuinely believed it was true because, as we’ve discussed, I think it fed into the message their campaign wanted to put out.
One that was really popular actually was one that falsely claimed he had given a quote to People magazine many years ago basically saying that if I ever ran for president, I would run as a Republican because conservatives are so stupid they’ll believe anything. And this was turned into a meme.
It spread a lot on Facebook. It was debunked so many times. We debunked it at BuzzFeed. Snopes has debunked it. And it just kept going and going and going because this is something I think a lot of Democrats wanted to believe.
.. But – so I think anyone who believes that fake news won Trump the election is wrong. There’s no data to support that. And I say this as somebody who’s been looking at this data in a lot of different ways. There’s no smoking gun. There’s – I don’t think we’ll ever get it.
.. 75 percent of the time, the Americans who were shown a fake news headline and had remembered it from the election believed it to be accurate.
And that’s a really shocking thing. It’s impossible to go the next step and say, well, they voted because of that. But I think one of the things this election has shown is that people will believe fake news, misinformation will spread and people will believe it and it will become part of their worldview.
Some of the people promoting these sites aren’t even conservatives; they’re foreign entrepreneurs trying to build websites that gain a large audience and thus advertising dollars.
.. Alt-right and fake news sites for some reason have emerged in particular in Macedonia, in the former Yugoslavia. BuzzFeed found more than 100 sites about U.S. politics from a single town, Veles, population 45,000, in Macedonia. “I started the site for a easy way to make money,” a 17-year-old Macedonian who runs DailyNewsPolitics.com told BuzzFeed.
.. There are also hyperpartisan left-wing websites with inaccuracies, but they are less prone to fabrication than the right-wing sites. Indeed, the Macedonian entrepreneurs originally came up with leftist websites targeting Bernie Sanders supporters but didn’t find much reader interest in them.
.. While the business model for mainstream journalism is in crisis, these alt-right websites expand as they monetize false “news” that promotes racism and undermines democracy. Worse, they have the imprimatur of the soon-to-be most powerful person in the world.