FAKE NEWS 'FACTORIES'

Student's aim: Make money from Google ads

A screengrab from The New York Times website showing some of the articles put up on departed.co, which features laudatory stories about Mr Trump that mixed real and fake news. Mr Latsabidze, who set up the website, said he was amazed anyone could mis
A screengrab from The New York Times website showing some of the articles put up on departed.co, which features laudatory stories about Mr Trump that mixed real and fake news. Mr Latsabidze, who set up the website, said he was amazed anyone could mistake many of the articles he posts for real news.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Internet giants like Facebook and Google have engaged in soul-searching over their roles in disseminating false news. Google has announced that it will ban websites that host fake news from using its online advertising service, while Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has outlined some of the options his company is considering, including simpler ways for users to flag suspicious content. Reports have emerged of the people behind some of these fake news sites. Here's the story of two 'factories' far removed from each other.

TBILISI (Georgia) • Jobless and with graduation looming, a computer science student at the premier university in the nation of Georgia decided early this year that money could be made from America's voracious appetite for passionately partisan political news. He set up a website, posted gushing stories about Mrs Hillary Clinton and waited for ad sales to soar.

"I don't know why, but it did not work," said the student, Mr Beqa Latsabidze, 22, who was savvy enough to change course when he realised what did drive traffic: laudatory stories about Donald Trump that mixed real and completely fake news in a stew of anti-Clinton fervour.

Mr Latsabidze said his only incentive was to make money from Google ads by luring people off Facebook pages and onto his websites.

To gin up material, he often simply cut and pasted, sometimes massaging headlines but mostly just copying material from elsewhere.

In Tbilisi, the two-room rented apartment Mr Latsabidze shares with his younger brother is an unlikely offshore outpost of the United States' fake news industry. The two brothers, both computer experts, get help from a third young Georgian, an architect.

They say they have no keen interest in politics themselves and initially placed bets across the American political spectrum, experimenting with show business news too.

His flagship pro-Trump website, departed.co, gained remarkable traction in a crowded field in the prelude to the Nov 8 election thanks to steady menu of relentlessly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton stories. (Last Wednesday, a few hours after The New York Times met Mr Latsabidze to ask him about his activities, the site vanished, along with his Facebook page.)

"My audience likes Trump," he said. "I don't want to write bad things about Trump. If I write fake stories about Trump, I lose my audience."

Some of his Trump stories are true, some are highly slanted and others are totally false, like the one reporting that "the Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States".

Data compiled by BuzzFeed showed that the story was the third most-trafficked fake story on Facebook from May to July.

So successful was the formula that others in Georgia and other faraway lands joined in, too, including Mr Nika Kurdadze, a college acquaintance of Mr Latsabidze's who set up his own pro-Trump site, newsbreakshere.com

Mr Latsabidze said he was amazed that anyone could mistake many of the articles he posts for real news, insisting they are simply a form of infotainment that should not be taken too seriously.

"I don't call it fake news; I call it satire," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Student's aim: Make money from Google ads'. Print Edition | Subscribe