The New York Times reports: Jobless and with graduation looming, a computer science student at the premier university in the nation of Georgia decided early this year that money could be made from America’s voracious appetite for passionately partisan political news. He set up a website, posted gushing stories about Hillary Clinton and waited for ad sales to soar.
“I don’t know why, but it did not work,” said the student, Beqa Latsabidze, 22, who was savvy enough to change course when he realized what did drive traffic: laudatory stories about Donald J. Trump that mixed real — and completely fake — news in a stew of anti-Clinton fervor.
More than 6,000 miles away in Vancouver, a Canadian who runs a satirical website, John Egan, had made a similar observation. Mr. Egan’s site, The Burrard Street Journal, offers sendups of the news, not fake news, and he is not trying to fool anyone. But he, too, discovered that writing about Mr. Trump was a “gold mine.” His traffic soared and his work, notably a story that President Obama would move to Canada if Mr. Trump won, was plundered by Mr. Latsabidze and other internet entrepreneurs for their own websites.
“It’s all Trump,” Mr. Egan said by telephone. “People go nuts for it.”
With Mr. Obama now warning of the corrosive threat from fake political news circulated on Facebook and other social media, the pressing question is who produces these stories, and how does this overheated, often fabricated news ecosystem work?
Some analysts worry that foreign intelligence agencies are meddling in American politics and using fake news to influence elections. But one window into how the meat in fake sausages gets ground can be found in the buccaneering internet economy, where satire produced in Canada can be taken by a recent college graduate in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and presented as real news to attract clicks from credulous readers in the United States. Mr. Latsabidze said his only incentive was to make money from Google ads by luring people off Facebook pages and onto his websites.
To gin up material, Mr. Latsabidze often simply cut and pasted, sometimes massaging headlines but mostly just copying material from elsewhere, including Mr. Egan’s prank story on Mr. Obama. Mr. Egan was not amused to see his satirical work on Mr. Latsabidze’s website and filed a copyright infringement notice to defend his intellectual property.
Yet Mr. Egan conceded a certain professional glee that Mr. Trump is here to stay. “Now that we’ve got him for four years,” he said, “I can’t believe it.”
By some estimates, bogus news stories appearing online and on social media had an even greater reach in the final months of the presidential campaign than articles by mainstream news organizations. [Continue reading…]