The Macedonian youngsters who cashed in on conservative outrage bait are back for 2020 and this time they’ve got a new ally helping them harvest clicks. Parler, the dollar-store Twitter clone catering to right-wingers, is now proving to be a welcome host for the plagiarizing grifters from Eastern Europe.
New research published by the Stanford Internet Observatory and disinformation-tracking firm Graphika for the nonprofit Election Integrity Project shows that a handful of operators from the global clickbait capital of the Balkans have found success on the alt platform with clickbait sites like Resist the Mainstream.
“As Facebook and Twitter get better at fighting this disinformation, especially for people who are financially motivated, it's becoming less profitable to try to build an audience there. When someone finds you out, your entire work can be gone,” Jack Cable, one of the authors of the report on Resist the Mainstream, told The Daily Beast. “Because of that, we're seeing a lot of them shifting to social media platforms like Parler or Gab, where they're less likely to have enforcement actions taken against them.”
The site relies on the same formula used across a host of Macedonian clickbait political sites. Operators plagiarize or lightly rephrase content from conservative news sites like Breitbart and The Blaze without credit, slap some over-the-top partisan branding on top, and aggressively market it to U.S. conservative readers via social media. The lack of original content and writers to pay keeps overheads low and lets site operators pocket the difference in advertising revenue.
The emergence of Parler, a Twitter clone marketed to conservatives and MAGA fans as a “free-speech utopia” that lacks moderation against misinformation and hate speech, appears to have given the Macedonian clickbait industry a new angle to cash in.
Researchers say Resist the Mainstream’s operators are likely behind the “DonaldTrumpTweets” account on Parler, which shares a similar bio to the Resist the Mainstream site and posts only articles from it alongside reposted Trump tweets.
DonaldTrumpTweets racked up an impressive 400,000 followers on Parler “or approximately one in every seven Parler users,” according to the Stanford group and Graphika, and its popularity on Parler is such that the app now accounts for over a fifth of the traffic to Resist the Mainstream.
Researchers found email addresses for Resist the Mainstream’s operators, “Aleksandra” and “Viktor,” and traced them to the to the town of Veles, Macedonia, as well as separate conservative clickbait sites, Team Candace Owens and Team Dan Crenshaw. These sites act as fan pages for the conservative activist and Texas congressman without their permission.
Like Resist the Mainstream, the Team Candace Owens fan site was a smash hit on social media and racked up over 225,000 engagements on Facebook, which researchers say ranked it among “the top 30,000 most visited U.S. sites.”
The northern Macedonian town of Veles first became famous for cranking out hyper-partisan websites and fake news aimed at converting rage clicks from American readers into ad revenue. The town’s industry became an internet curiosity after the 2016 elections but Macedonian fake news sites remained profitable enough to stay in service through the 2018 midterms and up until today.
Not that Resist the Mainstream and associated sites were eager to advertise their origins. In fact, they actively tried to deceive readers into thinking they were based in the U.S.
If readers became suspicious of Resist the Mainstream’s American nationalist bona fides, the site’s operators had a U.S. mailing address in Austin, Texas, to make it appear more authentic. Researchers traced the address to a mail forwarding service run by ParcelPlus, which can relay any fan mail and queries back to Macedonia.
After the Stanford and Graphika team shared their research with Facebook, the company disabled both the Team Candace Owens and Resist the Mainstream accounts and blocked users from sharing their articles. The Team Dan Crenshaw website has since been disabled. The sites have responded to the crackdown by staying in character and casting Facebook’s crackdown against foreign spammers as an assault on conservative thought. “We are being censored by Facebook and we are going to resolve this in the upcoming days,” a popup on each site now whines.
Researchers found that Resist the Mainstream and its associated sites share a curious similarity to those run by Teodor Mircevski, a Macedonian clickbait kingpin whose work in the industry dates back to 2016. The Daily Beast first found Mircevski running fake ABC and FOX local network affiliate sites and trying to capitalize on sexual assault allegations by Tara Reade, a former aide to Joe Biden when he was in the Senate.
Conservative Forever, one of the sites linked to Resist the Mainstream operators Aleksandra and Viktor, is linked to a site run by Mircevski and is set up using the same host and registrar. Researchers, however, say that as yet “there is insufficient evidence to determine whether these resemblances are the result of the Resist the Mainstream operators copying Mircevski, or a more systematic relationship.”