Disinformation in Macedonia

Veles, Macedonia, August 2016

Nobody had planned for this to happen.

Veles is a Macedonian town with a population of 40,000. It has a few small nightclubs and, in the summer of 2016, young people were partying hard. The local teens had discovered this one weird trick for making money with little effort; more money than they made going to high school, that’s for sure. The clubs could barely keep up with the demand for vodka bottles and ice buckets. Some young people bought champagne, despite not liking the drink, spraying $100 bottles of Moet about the room.

Back in the 1960s, the Discordians came up with a scheme called Project Mindfuck. The idea was to use disinformation for good. Confronted with crazy ideas, people would see how flimsy was the basis for most of their beliefs. To this end, stories about the Illuminati were planted in the underground press. The problem is that, rather than the misinformation providing a revelation of reality’s true nature, people often believed what they read.

As the 2016 US election approached, the world became aware of incendiary and inaccurate news reports distributed online, particularly via Facebook. Many of these stories linked back to small WordPress blogs, a disproportionate number amount of these coming from Veles. But the sites’ owners were not propagandists. They had simply discovered that posting particular stories brought in clicks. It started with a single locally-run website called healthyfoodhouse.com which provided diet advice – not necessarily medically proven, but the sort of thing that gets shared on the web. Then other people realised the potential of politics. The articles were copied from other sites and links to the blogs shared via social media. The stories didn’t even need to be true. Lies spread faster than any retractions and they bought in clicks, even from people who didn’t believe them.

Few people in Veles cared if Trump won or not, the election merely a way of generating clicks and making money. As Wired points out, the average wage in Veles was about $371 a month, and one person claims to have made $16,000 from two pro-trump sites in 4 months. Another claimed to have brought in $27,000 in their best month. A local nightclub organised special nights to coincide with Google’s monthly payment schedule.

This isn’t even lies in the usual sense. It’s not even bullshit in the definition used by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt: “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.” There’s no desire for persuasion here. It’s just information for people to click on.

As the election approached, President Obama would apparently talk obsessively about a Buzzfeed article on what was happening in Veles. Journalists visited the town, trying to figure out how this backwater might have turned a US election. Nobody explained why it had happened here of all places.

There was no real intention behind the Veles mindfuck campaign. It just worked with a system. Writers are paid by advertisers when people click on ads; social media distributes content people like. Online news platforms had already established the best ways of persuading people to click on ads, how to craft irresistible headlines. Of course someone was going to do this. It was legal, it seemed ethically harmless, and the companies involved were willing to pay out, taking their cut along the way.

We’re living in a world out of the science-fiction of the 90s. It’s noticeable how William Gibson went from writing his futuristic Sprawl trilogy, with cyberspace and neural inputs, to a post-millennium trilogy which was set pretty much in the present day, while still maintaining the same feel. But the dangers of this new world are unpredictable.

James Bridle’s recent book, New Dark Age talks about the weirdness of how these systems are working on Youtube. Software generates potentially-lucrative titles for videos based on popular keywords; then human actors in content farms act them out. These have become increasingly weird and disturbing, and nobody seems to be stopping it.

On November 24th 2016, after the US election, Google pulled the advertising on many of the fake news sites. The gold rush in Veles was over – what Google gives it can as easily take away. Some of the teens had bought sports cars, but the more sensible ones invested in real estate. There would be fewer parties.

The problem is that we live in an information monoculture, and there is no mechanism for stopping these feedback loops. Some of these have had recent unforeseen effects including lynch mobs and sectarian violence. But the system continues to work to produce revenue, the sites becoming more addictive. As early Facebook employee Jeff Hammberbacher put it: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Project Mindfuck had a goal, just like any disinformation mission. In Veles, people were simply acting out the incentives provided by the network. There was no other aim than arbitraging attention via social media to make cash appear out of nowhere. John Higgs, inspired by the designer Amoeba talked about the need for a project Mindfix. The question is, what shape this can take.

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