Talking to Trolls: Confessions of a Fake News Writer in Bulgaria | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

“If I can’t convince them they’re wrong, I might as well make money off them,” said Dimitar, a Bulgarian who has spent years making money spreading misinformation and fake news. his home.

It was this thought that pushed Dimitar, who did not want to give his real name to DW for fear of repercussions, on the path to becoming an administrator of what he calls a “fake news website” in Bulgaria. The “them” he is talking about are people who fall into the trap of misinformation online. Making money with them turned out to be easier than he ever imagined.

He began this ignominious career in 2015. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula a year earlier sparked much debate in Bulgaria about the country’s relationship with Moscow.

Bulgaria spent 40 years in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, and the thought patterns of some Bulgarians are strongly linked to this 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 likely to believe that Russia is responsible for the current situation.

According to the survey, 10% of Bulgarians said they felt no sympathy for Ukraine and only 27% were convinced that Russia was responsible for starting the war.

In 2015, Dimitar spent a lot of time online, mostly arguing with people who shared fake news on social media.

“The kind of people who bought this kind of outright misinformation annoyed me,” he said. “I spent countless hours chatting with them, but nothing worked, they just wouldn’t listen. All the while, though, I was researching what made them tick, what kinds of stories they reacted. And I put two and two together. If I create a website that gives them what they want to hear, I can make a lot of money.

He started working on his new website with no qualms about the harm it might cause. “I’m a small town boy. I knew it was unethical but I needed the money. I had a little kid at home and I was the only one working. And the money I made from it was really easy,” Dimitar says.

Everyone got what they wanted

At first, he expected to be approached by political actors who would take advantage of his website and maybe even tell him what to post. To his surprise, no such thing happened. It turned out that all the money generated by this type of website came from Google’s ad placement system.

Dimitar said he could not speak to everyone who had a fake news website in Bulgaria, but he admitted he had met several people who had benefited from the spread of misinformation. He pointed out that none of them made money from anything other than online advertisements.

“Political actors who have something to gain from fake news are well aware that people are going to post this stuff,” he explained. “Even if they don’t pay them directly. 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. “A few things caught the most attention. The main topic was Russia. It usually boiled down to some sort of narrative about Russia or the opposition between the West and Moscow with Bulgaria in the middle,” he said. he told DW.

He decided to focus on this kind of articles. Writing such articles was very simple: he would take any issue that was widely discussed in Bulgaria at any given time and write an article describing how a Russian politician had said that Russia would make this problem disappear for Bulgarians, as long as they would turn their backs on the West and return to 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 doesn’t treat us well and, again, nostalgia for our Soviet past – we lived so much better under Soviet rule – these are the types of articles that get the most traffic.”

All was well for Dimitar until 2019, when it was alleged that UK consultancy Cambridge Analytica was collecting Facebook users’ personal data without their consent and using it for political advertising purposes.
The social media platform responded by monitoring the content posted on its site more closely. That’s when Dimitar’s website got what’s called a “phantom ban”. In other words, the site was not banned from Facebook, but the platform’s algorithms no longer showed its content to users.

“These types of websites live and die with their Facebook traffic,” Dimitar said. “When it 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 stories of misinformation he has spent four years spreading online are far removed from his own beliefs. But that doesn’t mean he regrets 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 while Facebook is now doing a better job of keeping fake content at bay, the most important thing is that people are starting to recognize misinformation on their own. “It’s not easy. Critical thinking is hard. Responding emotionally to online content is much easier. And a lot of people are benefiting from that,” he said.

Edited by: Rüdiger Rossig and Aingeal Flanagan

Mary I. Bruner