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PoliticsBulgaria

Troll talk: Confessions of a fake news writer in Bulgaria

Mina Kirkova
June 3, 2022

A Bulgarian man who ran a fake news website for four years tells DW why disinformation about Russia is most popular in former Soviet states like his homeland.

https://p.dw.com/p/4CF8d

"If I can't convince them they are wrong, I might as well make some money out of them," argued Dimitar, a Bulgarian man who spent years earning income from spreading disinformation and fake news at home.

It was this thought that set Dimitar, who would not give DW his real name for fear of repercussions, on the road to becoming an administrator of what he calls a "fake news website" in Bulgaria. The "them" he is talking about are people who fall for disinformation online. Making money out of them turned out to be easier than he ever imagined.

He started on this ignominious career path in 2015. Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula a year earlier had stirred up a lot of debate in Bulgaria about the country's relationship with Moscow.

Bulgaria spent 40 years in the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, and the thought patterns of some Bulgarians are strongly connected to that past. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey on the EU's response to the war in Ukraine, Bulgarians are among the least sympathetic in the EU to Ukraine and the least prone to believing that Russia is responsible for the current situation.

According to the survey, 10% of Bulgarians said that they do not feel any sympathy for Ukraine and only 27% were sure that Russia was responsible for starting the war. Back in 2015, Dimitar was spending a lot of time online, mostly arguing with people who shared fake news on social media.

5 fakes of the war in Ukraine

"The kind of people who bought that kind of outright disinformation annoyed me," he said. "I spent countless hours arguing with them, but nothing worked, they just didn't want to listen. All the while, though, I was figuring out what makes them tick, what kinds of narratives they react to. And I put two and two together. If I create a website that feeds them what they want to hear, I can make a lot of money."

He started working on his new website without any scruples about the harm he might be causing. "I am a small-town boy. I knew that it wasn't ethical but I needed the money. I had a small kid at home and I was the only one working. And the money I made out of this was really easy," said Dimitar.

Everyone got what they wanted

At first, he expected to be approached by political players who would benefit from his website and maybe even tell him what to post. To his surprise, nothing of the sort happened. As it turned out, all the money to be made from this type of website came from Google's advertisement placement system.

Dimitar said he can't talk about everyone who has a fake news website in Bulgaria but he admitted that he got to know several people who benefited from spreading disinformation. He pointed out that none of them got any money from anything other than online advertisements.

"The political players who have something to gain from fake news are well aware that people are going to post that kind of thing," he explained. "Even if they don't directly pay them for it. That way they can have their cake and eat it too."

Dimitar's observations about what appeals to people who fall for fake news online turned out to be right on the nose. "A couple of things gathered the most attention. The main topic was Russia. It usually came down to some kind of narrative about Russia or the opposition between the West and Moscow with Bulgaria in the middle," he told DW.

Turning Fake News into Hard Cash

He decided that he would focus on these kinds of articles. Writing such articles was very simple: He just took any issue that was being widely discussed in Bulgaria at any given time and wrote an article outlining how a Russian politician had said that Russia would make that problem go away for Bulgarians, as long as they turned their back on the West and moved back into Russia's sphere of influence.

Nostalgia for the past

"Anything that elicits an emotional response is also a magnet for readers," Dimitar said. "The government is not treating us well and, again, nostalgia for our Soviet past — we used to live so much better under Soviet rule — these are the kind of articles that bring about the most traffic."

Everything was running smoothly for Dimitar until 2019, when it was alleged that the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was collecting the personal data of Facebook users without their consent and using it for political advertising.
The social media platform responded by monitoring the content posted on its site more closely. That's when Dimitar's website got what is called a "shadow ban." In other words, the website was not banned from Facebook, but the platform's algorithms didn't show its content to users any more. 

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"These types of website live and die with their Facebook traffic," Dimitar said. "When that happened, I stopped making the money I used to make, so I decided to stop doing it altogether." He went on to say that the messages and disinformation narratives he spent four years spreading online are very far from his own beliefs. But that doesn't mean he is sorry for what he did. "I don't regret it," he said. "Regret is a strong word. What made me sad is that people are so gullible."

Dimitar added that even though Facebook is now doing a better job at keeping false content at bay, what's most important is that people start recognizing disinformation on their own. "Doing that is not easy. Critical thinking is hard. Responding emotionally to content online is way easier. And many people take advantage of that," he said.

Edited by: Rüdiger Rossig and Aingeal Flanagan

Mina Kirkova Autorin DW Bulgarisch
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