President Trump’s inane and sloppy conspiracy theories aren’t just damaging for the future of American democracy—they’re also a lucrative giveaway to the disinformation-peddlers based in Eastern Europe.
A new report written by Alethea Group in collaboration with the Global Disinformation Index as part of the joint Election Protection Project shows how clickbait conservative fake news sites run by Macedonian spammers are cashing in on the same kinds of conspiracy theories that have lined the Trump campaign’s pockets to the tune of half a billion dollars. The report also demonstrates how “alternative” social media platforms like Gab and Parler have become a haven, not just for misinformation, but for those looking to cash in on it.
“False claims of election fraud are goldmines for financially motivated purveyors of disinformation because they get high volumes of clicks and traffic,” Cindy Otis, who authored the report, told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen both foreign and domestic actors pushing disinformation increase their presence on more fringe social media platforms, such as Parler and Gab, where they both see their targets increasingly moving and where they will face essentially no moderation whatsoever.”
Alethea researchers discovered a network of at least 13 websites posing as American conservative news outlets operated out of Macedonia. Many of the sites have since become inactive or had their social media accounts on larger platforms like Facebook and Instagram suspended but two remain active and have focused their efforts on churning out fake stories about election fraud.
USA News Advice, which began publishing in October, started out as a site focused mostly on spammy health articles that flogged dubious juice cleanses and organic food advice. But as the election heated up, the turned its focus to spreading pro-Trump conspiracies about Hunter Biden and, after the election, allegations of voter fraud.
Like a number of Macedonian clickbait sites, plagiarism provides most of its content. Site operators routinely rip off articles from conservative outlets like The Daily Wire, whose articles are routinely among the most read “news” content on Facebook, according to the analytics tool CrowdTangle. But USA News Advice also rips off content from other scam fake news sites, including Independent Minute, an outlet previously identified as a hyperpartisan clickbait site by researchers at RiskIQ.
The site appears to generate some original content, albeit with a limited grasp of English. One article, “Democrat Activists (aka Enriched peoples) infiltrate voter count,” seized on a viral video of an election worker in Georgia to falsely claim that votes for Trump were being thrown in the trash. The article, which instructs readers “Look closely on the video what this guy is doing with the paper, he’s not authorized for doing that,” appears to have caught the attention of far-right British pundit Katie Hopkins, who posted the video alongside the accompanying article’s stilted English headline on her Instagram account.
The site, registered by Aleksandar Tasevski of Kumanovo, Macedonia, has social media accounts on Instagram, Parler, and Gab, which shares conservative memes and links to articles.
A Facebook account for the site was previously removed at some point in the past two months.
In the face of a crackdown on election disinformation from larger platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Macedonian fake news sites have increasingly turned to upstart conservative social media platforms like Gab and Parler, which take a more laissez-faire approach to conspiracy and misinformation. One Macedonian clickbait site, Resist the Mainstream, grew so large on Parler that at one point one of every seven Parler users was a follower on the platform.
“These platforms are increasingly being filled with not simply people fleeing what they perceive as censorship, but also for-profit scammers, troll farms, and purveyors of disinformation,” Otis said.
Most of the sites identified by Alethea researchers appear to be run by Teodor Mircevski, a Macedonian fake news kingpin previously identified by The Daily Beast as linked to a series of websites that masqueraded as local TV network affiliates, and are linked to him via an email address and web registration information. The sites launched viral fake stories about parents taking violent revenge on pedophiles and dabbled in conspiracy theories about former Biden aide Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against the president-elect. Mircevski first began his career in conservative clickbait during the 2016 election and has since grown to be one of the more prominent identifiable Macedonian fake news entrepreneurs.
Four of the Mircevski-linked sites, ConservativeFighters (.org and .com), Donald Trump News, and ConservativeMedia, remained active throughout the election and focused on spreading election misinformation.
While foreign spammers are still trying to cash in on the MAGA movement, President Trump remains the largest source—and biggest beneficiary of election conspiracies. The Trump campaign and Republican party organizations have raked in over half a billion dollars since the election as the president and his campaign have tried to overturn it and sow doubt in its legitimacy.