Future Tense

The Macedonian Fake News Racket Was Sketchier—Maybe a Lot Sketchier—Than We Initially Thought

At least 140 sensationalist news websites originated in the city of Veles.
At least 140 sensationalist news websites originated in the city of Veles. ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Macedonian fake news cottage industry, which flourished by churning out pro-Trump clickbait in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, was not established by apolitical teens and young men just looking to make a quick buck, as initial reports in 2016 suggested. Instead, these adolescents were simply following a trend launched by a Macedonian media attorney who worked extensively with two prominent American conservatives for at least six months during the election season, according to an investigation Buzzfeed published Wednesday.

News of Balkan teens operating rumor mills that profited off of America’s hyperpartisanship took the media by storm in late 2016. Reporters found that the residents of Veles, a town in Macedonia with a population of 45,000, had registered at least 140 websites with names like USConservativeToday.com and TrumpVision365.com that published sensationalist, false, and often plagiarized content catering to the American right. Some articles incorrectly claimed that the pope had endorsed Trump for president, while others propelled the conspiracy theory that Chelsea Clinton is not actually Bill Clinton’s daughter. The posts were engineered to go viral on Facebook, and were reportedly netting locals as much as $3,000 a day from millions of page views. Teens who just wanted money for cars and cell phones, and who couldn’t care less about the outcome of the election, became the face of this cottage industry as U.S. correspondents traveled to Veles.

Buzzfeed’s new investigation now reveals that Trajche Arsov, a 33-year-old attorney who made a name for himself by defending journalists against the Macedonian government, is actually the “godfather” of the racket and launched the first U.S. politics site in Veles in September, 2015. This grew into a network of half a dozen sites and Facebook pages that had more than 2 million followers until the platform’s moderators removed them this April. Before his operation fell under the ax, however, Arsov worked closely with Paris Wade, currently a Republican candidate for the Nevada State Assembly, and Ben Goldman, a conservative writer and publisher. Wade and Goldman were the founders of Liberty Writers News, a site that published hyperpartisan content and raked in tens of millions of page views during the election.

Arsov and Goldman both told Buzzfeed that they had been sharing content between their websites. Wade reportedly wrote more than 40 articles for Arsov’s site, USA Politics Today, and his brother Alex Wade wrote at least 670. Arsov recruited a number of other American bloggers, some of whom now write and contribute to the far-right website Gateway Pundit, to produce content for his websites as well. Arsov further claims he helped Liberty Writers News in a legal capacity to prevent other Macedonian sites from plagiarizing its content, though Goldman denies this assertion.

Buzzfeed also reports that Anna Bogacheva, an alleged member of the Russian troll factory who was indicted by Robert Mueller for election meddling, visited Macedonia three months before the country’s first U.S. politics site was registered. However, reporters were unable to establish any links between the Veles operations and Bogacheva, and Arsov denies any involvement with the Russians.

Macedonian security agencies are now working with at least two Western European countries to look into Arsov, Bogacheva, and others as part of multiple investigations into potential ties between U.S. citizens, fake news sites, and Russia, according to Buzzfeed. The two Liberty Writers News founders say they are unaware of any such investigations, and Goldman told Buzzfeed, “We believe that our activities and reporting were accurate and legitimate journalism.”