News Brief

Not Just Teenagers: In Macedonia, Fake News Is a ‘Family Business’

Dutch and Belgian researchers have shown that Macedonian fake-news creators are often middle-aged, and work as families. This overturns the common perception, created during the 2016 election, that Macedonian disinformation campaigns were propagated largely by young men.

“In Macedonia, fake news is a family business,” researchers Peter Burger of Leiden University and Maarten Schenk said in an interview with Dutch news agency NOS in which they described their research into 70 fake news sites created since 2016.

Macedonian fake news creators first went mainstream in November 2016, when BuzzFeed profiled small-town Macedonian teenagers making a killing on fake news. The article helped instigate global outrage over fake news, an outrage that authoritarians have used to crack down on dissenting voices.

The interview by NOS with the two researchers revealed another striking issue: The efficacy of the 70 fake-news networks which were part of Burger and Schenk’s research may be shrinking.

“On Facebook, the reach of these articles has seriously gone down in the past six months,” Schenk told NOS.

The reduced reach of fake news stories is probably partly due to Facebook’s increased content moderation, says Burger. After the 2016 election, Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the decisive role of fake news in the vote as a “pretty crazy idea.” He later publicly recanted the comment, and Facebook has become much more active in weeding out fake content.