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Macedonian town is 'fake news' epicentre for US

Veles, Macedonia

JOVAN got a pair of Nike sneakers and went on holiday to Greece, his reward for having helped turn the small Macedonian town of Veles into an epicentre of "fake news" during the 2016 US presidential race.

"That's what the so-called fake news sites bought me," said the 20-year-old who did not want to reveal his last name. "I was earning about 200 euros (S$318) a month. Only a few earn this kind of money."

Once a thriving industrial hub, Veles, home to 50,00 people, has suffered decline since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and, like the rest of the country, now grapples with rampant youth unemployment and mass emigration.

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But two years ago, a new source of income unexpectedly opened up when investors offered money to locals for producing news stories in support of Donald Trump who was campaigning to become the 45th president of the United States.

Hundreds of websites and Facebook pages started to come out of Veles servers with the sole aim of tarnishing Mr Trump's Democrat opponents like Hillary Clinton or his predecessor Barack Obama.

The sites, many of which have since disappeared, distributed articles about Mrs Clinton's alleged racist remarks on Beyoncé or fake statements, in which she allegedly praised Mr Trump's honesty.

Jovan, a student at the Veles' Faculty of Technology, was recruited in 2016 by one of dozens of local investors engaged in a clickbait race. His work consisted of retrieving articles published mainly on right wing US websites, such as Fox News or Breitbart News, and then "adapting them, changing them a little, putting in a catchy title".

He said he's unaware if he contributed to Mr Trump's victory. "I don't care."

What mattered to him was that for the first time he made enough money to afford things. "We were writing what people wanted to read," he said.

With lower living costs than Skopje - the only other city to offer a university degree in IT studies - students started to flock to Veles in recent years and get involved in clickbait sites. Until 2016, they primarily focused on celebrities, cars and the lucrative beauty industry.

The sites helped generate income in a country where youth unemployment is a whopping 55 per cent.

"Young people understood how Google algorithm worked and they were experimenting for couple of years with ways of making money from ads," said IT expert Igor Velkovski.

But as the US presidential race heated up, politics suddenly became a new attractive target. "Trump started to mean revenue. When Trump stories turned out to be profitable, they understood that conspiracy theories will always gain an audience," added Mr Velkovski.

Web designer Borce Pejcev, 34, helped create many of the pro-Trump sites. "It became clear that the conservatives were better for making money, they like conspiracy theory stories, which are always clicked before being shared."

While Jovan has stopped producing fake news, his friend Teodor continues to work for a company that runs hundreds of lifestyle websites.

Teodor is earning 100-150 euros monthly, almost as much as his mother, a part-time worker in a textile company.

"Blame me if you like, but between that and putting stories on internet, I choose the second option," he said. AFP