Investigative team Sadbottrue has own technologies for data gathering and for meta-analysis of big data. We focused on findings and explanation of anomalies that influence on the tech companies. We are fighting against the social media and advertising fraud ecosystem.
Chapter 39. The fake media. Part one. Full version
The most important topic in November became fake news. Hundreds of unique articles have been written about this, mainly in English. Tens of thousands of reprints and comments in the national media have extended this topic worldwide. Especially a lot of attention was paid to this subject in the Romanian and Macedonian press.
The audience learned a lot of facts and stories about false news, discovered dozens of people who are engaged in it. Several journalistic investigations have been carried out. But we almost did not come close to understanding this phenomenon. We see a fragmented set of facts which are not integrated into a coherent vision. To understand all this, we need to apply a scientific approach and some business intelligence technologies.
The true research
Let's start with what sources we have.
In major media first stories about political fake news sites was published by Dan Tynan on theguardian.com (posted on 24 August 2016). But the article did not contain the list of covered sites, just the description of “political related clickbait” as a moneymaking business.
The first popular in media professionals community has become the BuzzFeed’s list of 40 fake news sites. The list was created as the result of three-month monitoring of facebook trending. The list was created by Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed Founding Editor, Canada and was covered in the story “This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook” (posted on Nov. 17, 2016).
Another “list of potential false, misleading, clickbait-y, and/or satirical news sources”, was created by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication & media at Merrimack College, and this list started as a resource for students, who are learning about journalism, social media, literacy. It is the good list with highlighting of different types of media and different types of manipulation. The list includes political, economical and world news media, created 1-20 years ago and dedicated to propaganda or entertainment. While this list was created only for educational purposes, it is very useful for research. About half of the sites, mentioned in it one way or another are related to the problem of false news during the election campaign.
We merged these two lists. They have surprisingly few intersections, only 4. As a result, we got a list of 153 sites, which was the main source of the first phase of our research.
All of these sites have a different lifetime, a different type of content, audience size. The lists are sites with millions of monthly visitors and a long history, but there are also sites created several months ago and have an audience of a few thousand.
Comparing such different sites is incorrect, and include these objects in the same group for research is wrong. Each group can have its own distinctive features and characteristic signs. As a result, it may be that we are dealing with different types of sites. The first impression, due to which we have combined them into one group on the basis of false news, might be mistaken.
Because we're not just talking about abstract fake news, but in the context of the 2016 race, let’s consider the most visited sites created and widely promoted just before the start of election campaigns.
This is not a full list of currently existing such sites. We are monitoring these sites since the spring 2016 and compiled our own list. But let’s first analyze the sources, that have already received press coverage, which are already known to a wider audience.
So, we decided to define the main subject for the research. It is a set of two lists of fake news sites that meet the following requirements:
1. It was created not earlier than 2014.
2. In 2016 it reached the mark of 100,000 page views per day.
3. The main traffic comes from the US.
11 websites comply with these requirements:
4 created in 2014
3 created in 2015
4 created in 2016.
We decided to start our review with the most recent 4 sites. The first thing was 3 of them were banned by AdSense. November, 14 Google announced the update of publisher policies to prevent fake news sites from monetising through the AdSense platform. It was covered by all the national media, but nobody highlighted that this has already happened.
After this discovery, we decided to correct the research plan and analyze in detail the case, what happens to the fake news site after disabling Adsense. Google has created a unique opportunity to watch an experiment that can not be modeled. Monitoring of the main objects of our research in a critical situation may help us to understand the ongoing processes.
So, in the first part of the study, we examine in detail three cases of very popular recently created sites which have lost their advertising revenues.
We used for the study:
1. Three web analytics services: Alexa, Easy Counter, and SimilarWeb.
2. Related articles in the media about the research objects.
3. Activity Monitoring of sites during the second half of November.
We will try a little closer look at the creators of these sites, as well as to describe what happens to the media of false news after advertising systems stop working with them.
The objects of review are:
Created on April 29, 2016
Average daily visitors 105K
Avarage daily pageviews 154K
(First decade of November)
Easy Counter donaldtrumpnews.co
Donaldtrumpnews.co was not the only site of our list which was banned by AdSense and shouted down. The events took place in the following sequence.
14, November. Google AdSense has figured out to ban the site for advertising.
15, November, morning. The site was active and with AdSense on page.
16, November. The site is inactive. There are no comments on a web page.
This site was covered first time as fake news site in Buzzfeed on November 4, 2016 as one of “100 pro-Trump websites being run from a single town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. In the article mas mentioned 10 sites, for now 4 are dead and just 6 are on air.
By the way, the last two sites are pro-Bernie. The largest number of advertising slots are on usconservativetoday.com (three doubleclick slots per article), but the traffic is small.
The most popular site from the list was DonaldTrumpNews.co.Now the site is inactive. On web archive you can see, that it had AdSense and 230,000 FB likes.
What happens after the publication?
1. After AdSense ban, Donaldtrumpnews.co became unreachable.
2. The audience of the site did not react to it. Site editors did not respond to the incident.
3. Donaldtrumpnews.co FB page began to post the links on new site Conservativefighters.com. It was created 16 November, 2016, using the same WordPress Template. Right now Convervativefighters.com’s facebook page has just 2,5K likes and low activity.
For any real media the brand recognition is one of the key metrics and related domains are have the real value. For digital media it is critical to have the big amount of working backlinks for search and social traffic.
The anomalies during the Convervativefighters.com’s launch
1. Donaldtrumpnews.co has no redirect to new domain Convervativefighters.com
2. The facebook page was not renamed.
3. The site or facebook page Donaldtrumpnews.co has no explanation about new domain.
4. Old links from other sites
We guess, those was made for one goal, the new site Convervativefighters.com should not have any relations with Donaldtrumpnews.co. It is very strange decision for the real media, but highly logical for fake media with banned Adsense.
Let's take a closer look at the reincarnation of the missing media.
Created on November 16, 2016
Average daily visitors 26.8K
Avarage daily pageviews 50.9K
(First week of November)
Easy Counter conservativefighters.com
SimilarWeb not tracked
The very first conservativefighters.com post is about Clinton. But it is not about Hillary Clinton, as we already got used in recent 2 years. It is copy-paste-post from initial (we can`t use “original”) post from 15, November by EndingTheFed.com.The quoted tweet was posted in November,15 by user @0hours. At the moment this account is suspended.
We have checked 10 latest post on conservativefighters.com all are the copy-pasted from other media, mostly recognised as produsers of fake political news. Since launch, conservativefighters.com has uploaded 300 posts (just for 15 days). The owners installed the Wordpress script, protecting the contents of the site. It blocks ability to copy/select pictures, text, and links.
But this is not the most interesting finding in the study of the site. Look, from what countries comes traffic to it.
6 % of it comes from Papua New Guinea. We remind that the site was created two weeks ago and highlights the American political news. A Papua New Guinea is a third world country with a population of 7.2 million and a low level of urbanization. Every day in November, more than 1,500 visitors comes to the site from there. Of course, this anomaly could have happened in only one case. When buying traffic, the seller mixed the cheap traffic from Oceania with the US expensive targeted traffic.
We have met with similar facts, and even wrote about it. June 9, 2016 article “The fraud patriot” has been published. However, the traffic is from Kenya was not the only anomaly of fake media Madpatriots.com.
The first article about the fake media published by us April 14, 2016. The Feed, the Fraud and the Profit It describes the technique of the fake news site promotion through social traffic. In @pzf case traffic came from Twitter, but has also been used pro-Trump botnet.
We do not make here a detailed analysis of past cases, but if you want to learn more about the technology of creation and promotion of fake media, before moving on to the next part of the review.
Created on March 14, 2016
Average daily visitors 319K
Avarage daily pageviews 434K
(First decade of November)
Easy Counter endingthefed.com
The site was covered by Inc.com, the article “Meet the Romanian Trump Fan Behind a Major Fake News Site” by Tess Townsend. The story about romanian “hacker”, who got 4 times trending with fake stories on Facebook, was republished by different Romanian media more than 30 times.
The webmaster, and according to him, the owner of Ending The Fed, Ovidiu Drobota, for some reason did not want to mention his name on the site. He used various nicknames such as “Admin WP”, or “John Watson” for the same account ovidiu. Earlier he posted content using his real name.
His twitter Ovidiuxxxc is not popular among his followers, maybe because he posted the link to another his site imashon.com, contains only of furniture pictures without any text and 3 AdSense per page. Earlier he created site nubira.org, also placed on it AdSense units. Now the site is inactive.
Drobota is the owner of the local popular site www.expunere.com It have got more than 250,000 likes on facebook. It is an incredible amount, because the capital of the country has just 1.8M. It had 8K visits per day in July and three AdSense per page. But now the site is ‘under construction” and nobody cares. Who are those 250K “people”, who liked the page?
According to Dobrota`s Linkedin profile, he is a professional web-programmer and SEO specialist. He has own simple online clone-maker company Webfrog.ro. He has no experience in media or political writing, but he made quite successful imitations for AdSense cheating.
His duty was posting per 20-30 new articles per a day. But all themes, except political got the minimum attention.
- "WORLD" 50 issues. last September posted 11, 2016
- "LIFESTYLE" 10 issues. 8 issue on 16 March. one on June, one on september.
- “SPORT” 6 issues. 5 posts on 16 march.
- “SCIENCE” 6 issue, 5 posts on 16 march one on May. Tech 5 Issues all on 16 march.
- “HEALTH” 14 issues 5 posts on 15, March the last on June.
-“POLITICS” 10472 issues. For example 16 issues on 18, March. and 45 issues on 19 March. 53 issues on 20, March, etc.
All non-political posts combined are just 0,6% in comparison with political posts. Drobota is definitely got all the content from a content farm. Ovidiu Drobota cann`t be “Hacker”, real hackers will never be public person. Hacker will never do so primitive job.
What was happened after the publication?
1. Adsense ads was removed from the site (AdSense ID was silently blocked by Google).
2. The part of the code which shows the author of the article was removed.
3. Deleted all information about authors or administrators, who have posted the article.
4. The site began to post the articles from angrypatriotmovement.com (and other fakenews sourses).
5. Site and facebook have not any information about AdSense disappearing and changes in publishing policy.
6. Site traffic has fallen by more than half.
AdSense was not the source of cash-flow anymore. So, Drobota can`t pays for original fake news to ghost-writers. He was forced to replace it by cheap slightly-modified posts from other pro-trump sources. He had stopped to buy traffic. This is typical reaction on AdSense ban of any web-manager.
Created on June 01, 2016
Average daily visitors 319K
Avarage daily pageviews 434K
(First decade of November)
Easy Counter libertywritersnews.com
This site libertywritersnews.com was mentioned at least twice. The first was the story “How Facebook powers money machines for obscure political 'news' sites” on theguardian.com by Dan Tynan. The second was the story ‘For the ‘new yellow journalists,’ opportunity comes in clicks and bucks” on Washingtonpost by Terrence McCoy, on november, 2016. Terrence spent a week with two co-founders of popular new yellow media. We strongly recommend you to read both of these articles. They have a lot of interesting about the site owners. The investigative team Sadbottrue, have picked quotations from Terrence McCoy’s article which causing a lot of questions. First set of quotation about previous work and experiences of co-founders:
“They moved to California, first Wade, then Goldman, and started an advertising business that quickly failed. But it did attract one client who ran numerous alt-right Facebook pages. He needed more writers, and in 2015 Wade and Goldman started doing stories and getting paid based on how many clicks they got.”
“Six months ago, Wade and his business partner, Ben Goldman, were unemployed restaurant workers. Now they’re at the helm of a website that gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone and say they are making so much money that they feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don’t want people to start asking for loans.”
Who are the founders of Libertywritersnews.com? Let's take a closer look at their CVs.
Paris Wade has got full advertising skills in University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2009 – 2013. He hold the Bachelor of Science in Advertising. His coursework included case study analysis, ad research, ad design, social media strategy, marketing mix, business management, business presentation, motivational psych, and statistics.
His professional carrier is the mix of ad management and ad creative, but has nothing common with press and politics. Paris had 6 years experience in advertising. He had worked in different ad projects during his study. In 2013 he had moved to California and got the experience in publishing business and video production. Benjamin Goldman has 3 year of real-life school of sale, people negotiations, and troubleshooting in local restaurant.
They have found own video production agency a25625.com focused on brandend videocontent. The last client was the owner of online newspaper X-tribune.com, the agency had got them 16 videos “The Hack The News” micro campaign which was made to maximize audience clicks.
Paris has no media or political experience, but has 5 years of work in various advertising projects and adventurous mindset. He was not jobless failed student, he was experienced young professional, looking for a project for making big money fast. This allows you to take a fresh look at the story of digital Cinderella from Tennessee.
The second set of quotation is about Liberty Writers News technologies.
“My article got banned,” Goldman says, explaining Facebook had removed a trending piece headlined: “Right After LOSING The Election, Hillary Clinton Just Humiliated Herself In Worst Way Ever!!”
“F--- Facebook,” Wade says, knowing its algorithms sometimes assume that rapidly shared articles are spam and temporarily blocks them if posted by an alternative outlet. “They had a spam filter.”
Wade calls their server technician in Texas. “I don’t know what we have to do to get through these spam filters,” Wade says into the phone. “But we’ve probably lost thousands of dollars because of them.”
The only server could be implied in the conversation, it is the server of their website. According to service iplocation.net, IP 126.96.36.199 located in San Francisco (3 systems), Phonix (1), or Chicago (1). None of these cities not located in Texas. If the server is located not exactly in Texas, why did they call a specialist from there?
The question arises, why do they need a the server technician for the site? Now there are thousands of companies offering cheap hosting services. In addition, the authors of the site using a typical WordPress template with its own CMS, they don’t even need a web-developer.
What server is meant and how the technician can solve the problem “to get through these spam filters”? There are only two ways to do it.
The first is to disable or change the settings for the Facebook spam algorithm, but then you need to call CTO of Facebook, not a server technician. Of course, they can’t somehow affect the algorithm, then, it’s only the second option.
They should influence the speed of sharing articles, making it a little slower. How can it be done? Just ask users to share the this article not so fast. But it requires a server technician to solve this problem.
Apparently, there is a server which controls people on Facebook. Is there something wrong? No, it's completely sure that those who every day share the hundreds of posts with links to fake news is real people. But server technician somehow magically can affect them.
We would like to especially note that we did not want to offend the author of the article. Terrence McCoy isn’t a digital journalist, his specialty is poverty and social justice, and he writes excellent articles on these topics. And we have to give him credit for what he was able to show what’s happening behind the scenes of fake news industry.
The day after the article was published in the “Washington Post”, Adsense on this site was blocked. After November 21 the site has completely stopped updating. Traffic fall occurred immediately.
Official facebook page LibertyWritersNews was silent, why the media with 835K followers has stopped its work. Two co-founders, Parisswade and RealDannyGold, also ceased their activity. That awkward moment when your super profitable startup died in one day, and you even have nothing to say about it.
What has happened on November 30th can not be called otherwise than a miracle. The site posted 7 new articles and the entire audience went back. We archived the home page on the morning of December 1, 2016.
The last article before the break dated November, 21. The website was silent during 8 days. Its FB page LibertyWritersNews made the only post between 22 and 30 November, on Thanksgiving Day. Sudden cessation of publications not has been explained, even more unexpected return wasn’t announced. And now everything continued as if nothing had happened. Although there is one change actually happened. The team have installed the Wordpress script, blocking ability to copy/select the content . This is a primitive way to prevent simple methods of investigation. This is the same script that we have already seen earlier on conservativefighters.com
On the first day after return, the site reached 282K pageviews, according to web site own stats. The most popular article titled “BREAKING: Election Recount IS A SCAM! Jill Stein Was Just Caught Red Handed…”, it has 120K views and 3 comments at the moment.
But the amazing incident did not end there. The next day, 1 December, around 10:00 PT Adsense ads were reinstated. Now the site continues to operate in the same mode as prior to 21 November. Content type remains the same, no significant changes have occurred. Also on the site is still active recommendation system Сontent.Ad.
The main findings and conclusions
1 "Sites of fake news" is incorrect definition. It is not even fake media. This is just an imitation of media for digital advertising revenue.
2 The ban on advertising is the most effective way to counter such sites. Actually, this is the only way.
3 The ban on advertising is not censorship. None of the sites, nor their numerous audience, did not blame the advertising system in violation of the freedom of speech, on the contrary, tried to without raising a lot of noise to adjust to the new conditions to continue to monetize traffic.
The bot facts
1. All three sites were created by professionals in SEO or advertising, but not political reporters with strong relations with experts and spokesmen.
2. After these sites were highlighted by major media and AdSense banned them, all of them have changed content style, stop posting new articles or even shutdown the domain and start self-clone.
3. AdSense was reastored on Libertywritersnews.com next day after the site restored its activity.
4. All three sites are not intended to create a loyal audience of media, the main task is to make a profit using advertising systems.
5. Two not affiliated sites, libertywritersnews.com and conservativefighters.com started to use the same “right-click blocking script” after Adsense ban.
The sad questions
1. What was the official reason why the Donaldtrumpnews.co Adsense account disabled?
2. What was the official reason why the Endingthefed.com Adsense account disabled?
3. What was the official reason why the Libertywritersnews.com Adsense account disabled?
4. Why Google reactivate Liberty Writers News AdSense account the after the week of ban?
5. Why Google don't disabled AdSense on the other fake news sites?