Ever wonder what makes people in a remote European country actively engage in the US elections? Dozens of young entrepreneurs in Macedonia are promoting Donald Trump’s candidacy on the internet - for a solid profit.
Donald Trump might be one of the most criticized and controversial politicians on the planet, but the profit he brings makes him very appealing to dozens of young entrepreneurs in Macedonia. The phenomenon of pro-Trump click-bait political news websites is flourishing in the Balkan country, bringing earnings of up to 30,000 euros ($33,273) per month.
Veles, a town of 40,000 in central Macedonia, is the home of the first internet entrepreneurs that capitalized on this phenomenon as early as the Republican primaries this year.
The phenomenon quickly caught the attention of the media. In August 2016, The Guardian identified more than 150 domains registered to people claiming addresses in Veles. Although not all of them were associated with active websites, most were actively supporting Trump's presidential campaign.
DW talked with the creator of one of the pro-Trump websites, who agreed to speak with us on condition of anonymity. The man, who wished to be called DD, said that he works with another associate and at the end of the month, they share the website's profits which range from 600 to 1,000 euros ($665 -$1109) - a solid income in a country where the average salary is around 300 euros ($332) per month. "1 percent of the websites in Macedonia earn up to 30,000 euros, ten percent from 1,000 to 2,000 ($1109- $2,218) and the rest up to 500 euros ($554) per month," he told DW.
"I needed something that is viral, that people like to read, that they are following. Something for which there is big interest in America. Now, the elections are a popular theme in USA. So I told myself, what else if not politics? I've been following the political scene for six years and I saw a possibility for profit," he explained.
The entrepreneur doesn't deny that part of the articles that are published contain untruthful information and that the bombastic headlines serve to attract visitors.
"In the last three months, 80-90 percent of the articles we published were original. Before that, we copied and combined content from other news websites such as Business Insider and CNN. The ones we publish right now are partly satire, around 5 percent. Those are not entirely true, but the most popular. They have unconfirmed information, something that is not true, speculations,” DD added.
Pro-Hillary articles are not popular
Political websites are not the only source of profit for internet entrepreneurs from Macedonia. "There are around 1,000 websites that are produced for the American public. Some of them are about politics and the rest are is lifestyle, fashion etc," DD explained.
But it's not the interest in US politics that drives young entrepreneurs. According to official statistics, thousands of Macedonians leave their country every year in search for a better life in Western Europe or North America. The unemployment rate among the youth is over 50 percent.
But why pro-Trump?
"95 percent of the websites produced in Macedonia are pro-Trump and with a good reason. At the beginning, I tried to produce pro-Hillary articles, but no one would read them - and actually I support Hillary's policies," he told DW.
"Hillary for prison 2016"- a Facebook page under this name is liked by over 750,000 people. It brings daily "news" on the latest developments in the US presidential race from various sources like viralliberty.com. One of its most viral posts from November 1, claiming Hillary Clinton is implicated in the murder of a whistleblower, gathered more than 7,700 reactions and 16,000 shares.
Considering the ferocity and the level of misinformation in the US presidential campaign, there is nothing unusual in this post, apart from the fact that its origins have nothing to do with the US or either of the presidential candidates. Search for usanewsflash.com, americarightnow.com, 365usanews.com, worldpoliticus.com and the narrative is the same, as is their origin: Macedonia.
Besides Veles which is home to most internet entrepreneurs, click-bait websites are produced in other cities such as Kumanovo, Skopje and Stip.
"I know people from Kumanovo who are in the website business for 4-5 years and have registered up to 15 domains. Many of them hide the domain and website information because competitors from Macedonia are reporting their accounts as fraudulent - which might lead to suspension from the advertising system.”
After the campaign
It's not hard to imagine that an American voter can be manipulated to click on a headline such as, "THIS IS THE END FOR HILLARY: FBI got a court order to investigate the new emails from Clinton." Such captions draw attention and clicks bring profit.
The owners make money from the advertisements that are shown on the websites and the tabloid-like titles help them spread fast on social media, which is the main channel of distribution. The easiest way to achieve that is through AdSense- a program that allows website owners to make money by displaying Google ads. It depends on the number of impressions and clicks that the story can generate. Parallely, by posting sensationalist stories on big social networks like Facebook, Macedonian entrepreneurs can reach much larger public and generate a lot of traffic.
But internet entrepreneurs are concerned that the end of the presidential race could mean the end of their profit run. DD is being careful: "I'm waiting to see what happens after the US elections. I will continue with my business if it still has an effect."