Fake oil or snake news?

The true story

What is actually so-called “fake news sites”? These are the sites popular among conservative pro-trump supporters, who doesn’t trust major media and looking for another source of news.

Everyone saw it, but nobody explained, what is the secret of its success. Many journalists wrote, how much fake media owners earn, but nobody analyzed how they really do it. Perhaps the most comprehensive study of advertising systems used by these sites was made by Lucia Moses from Digiday. But this is the only article. Unfortunately, nobody has done a serious analysis of fake news sites profit techniques so far, in spite of the great interest in the topic.

24 August 2016 New York Times has published one of the largest reviews of fake news “Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine” by John Herrman. Here is the NYT quotation about one of the owners of FB pages and conservative sites, who agreed to a short interview.

“Terry Littlepage, an internet marketer based in Las Cruces, N.M., has taken this model even further. He runs a collection of about 50 politically themed Facebook pages with names like The American Patriot and My Favorite Gun, which push visitors to a half-dozen external websites, stocked with content aggregated by a team of freelancers. He estimates that he spends about a thousand dollars a day advertising his pages on Facebook; as a result, they have more than 10 million followers. In a good month, Littlepage’s properties bring in $60,000”.

Let's try to get behind the scenes of false news and understand what is really going on by the example of this little empire. We would like to note that he could earn only through advertising on his websites, facebook never paid the owners of popular pages where ads displayed.

To get the right answers, the most important thing is to ask the right questions. Let's see what is really digital property owned by Terry Littlepage.

According to his Linkedin page, Terry Littlepage is professional digital media manager and web-master, working in tree companies at the same time, “Promote El Paso”, “Be First In Media” (both since 2012), Pixel8 Social Media Marketing (since 2010). He is the co-founder or the single owner of all three companies. From Linkedin, we learn that he is from El Paso, Texas, not from Las Сruces, N.M., as he told the New York Times.

Terry, as media manager and editor, has the 10 sites in his portfolio. We have checked them all. Official site of his company “Be First In Media” right now looks like this.

The original link on Befirstinmedia.com, and on the archive copy in case of something changes again.

The other site in the portfolio is Militaryvetnews.com. In February 2015 it was the themed news blog, but now it is the page with hundred links in Сhinese to online casinos. The third site has is some kind of patriotic media called Political Ears, but the title of the site has the difference with the domain. Its FB page isn’t active, it has only 70 likes.

Just one site from portfolio looks actual and suitable, but it has other problem. Сitybeat.us isn’t popular, it has no traffic at all, it ranks near nine million according to Alexa rating. None of the digital media professional does mention his website, which is ignored by people.

The other 6 sites are completely dead. This is clearly not the kind of properties that generates income of $ 60,000. For some reason, Terry has not show FB pages and sites, mentioned in the New York Times. What are Terry`s real digital assets?

The review of current Terry`s sites

According to Domainbigdata.com, Terry is the current or former owner of 82 domains. 33 of them are active at the time of 1 February 2017. Terry has one political news site in the portfolio, “Political ears” (domain familyfaithnews.com).

19 sites among the active Littlepage’s domains are made with the same WordPress template. 15 of them have the template with the red header and 4 large photo previews. The other two couples of sites have black and dark blue headers. This how these sites look in January 2017.

Every real media try to be unique with its domain, brand, and content, but it is a completely different case.

We know about the examples of content made by a content farm. We heard about primitive rewrite and SEO optimization. But here we see something quite different. This content was made by the “copy paste” farm.

All articles consist of the simply rewritten paragraph with primitive comment and large quotation from the original article. Many articles have misleading or inaccurate links to the source, with the unrelated article, links to the domain, not the quoted article. The typical article has an emotional header, and the lead typed with caps lock. Every article is a couple of sentences and copied from pro-trump or mainstream media. Sometimes repost skills may be amazing. They steal the stolen content.

For example, Familyfaithnews.com shows the article from Political Ears. Politicalears.com copied it from Young Conservatives. Youngcons.com borrowed this story from Associated Press.

It is not the only strangeness. All sites are full of a lot of various anomalies.

First of them are multiple mistakes in usability. Misleading site navigation and menu. Unreachable points of the menu, because of layouts conflict between the text column and ads. The mistake with automatically uploading the low resolution on the large photo preview on the top. Disappearing the dates and authors of publications. Some sites have no sharing buttons on pages with articles but have likes (all examples are in the appendix).

The advertising and recommendation systems take the 2 times much more space than the content.

Every page has 19 recommendation content units, but there is to other articles on the site and no referrals to other sites of this group. The owner does nothing to keep the attention of visitors. It is very strange, because every visit from facebook is expensive, as we know.

According to New York Times, Terry Littlepage estimates that he spends about $ 1,000 a day on advertising his pages on Facebook (NYT). It is important to note that the $ 1,000 per day, that's $ 30,000 a month, the half of the declared monthly income. In other words, Facebook is a key success factor and the main cost item (of all costs, not only the promotion).

Media has no audience, which comes directly to the site, without FB. Why loyal audience of FB pages doesn’t become loyal direct visitors? Media manager can`t build real media, that 100% depend on paid traffic and unpredictable user behavior. But in fact, traffic is unstable from month to month, split between cloned and similar sites. For some reason, traffic can`t break the “glass ceiling” above 10,000 daily pageviews.

We have tracked daily pageviews for 8 sites since July to December 2016 via Easycounter. Since July we can see decreasing of a number of daily page views for all sites. October and November were the next round of increasing of page views. It is the anomaly, that all sites become popular and unpopular synchronously among the same users.

As you can see from the above chart, traffic on sites created before January 2016, fell down in December. New ones would have to take their places. 7 December 2016 Terry has registered the four domains with the short names of old sites. Littlepage uses “Domain by proxy” service for hiding his ownership of them. All domains are the variations of existed ones. New domains were included in promotions on FB pages and got around 4,000-8,000 pageviews daily In January.

But then quite inexplicable things began to occur. Instead of stagnating, old sites continued to be updated, though rarely. And in January, the inexplicable happened. They were able to bring back their audience, despite the appearance of their own clones. Perhaps the first case of four simultaneous resurrections of abandoned sites that have moved to new domains, but the audience back to the old ones.

December 2016 all sites has got about 1,000 pageviews a day, but in January traffic rose again:

Redrocktribune.com 14,800 pageviews a day (PV/D)

Westernsentinel.com 6,500 PV/D

Freepatriotpost.com 7,100 PV/D (Disabled since 27 January)

Americanjournalreview.com 6,000 PV/D (Changed it's template 1 February).

Before the election, it was popular sites, then lost the entire audience in December, but in the second half of January began to return it rapidly.

The last and most amazing traffic anomaly. According to Alexa overlap, all sites are visited by the same couple of tens thousands of unique visitors. The majority of these sites has 1-2% of traffic from the very exotic place, Northern Mariana Islands. Traffic from exotic countries is not suspicious, but if it is constant, there is one of the signals of artificial traffic. In exotic countries, there is no enough audience for the nich political site. The detailed explanation about exotic traffic you can read in “Chapter 41. Conservative Papua fighters”.

Meanwhile, we turn to the media naming anomalies.

The brand is the key asset for any business. All real media are trying to develop it, to make it memorable, take care of its prestige. This is important everywhere, but not here. Can you imagine, that on RedBull.com site logo brand will Coca-cola, FB page will Pepsi and all articles were written by Sir Richard Branson? No? And here it's real.

For example, Viralgonzo.com has 4 different brands for different parts of it.

Domain Viralgonzo.com has media brand “Red State Pundit”, FB pages “The American Insurrection”. authors are “Liberty News Staff”.Now they have removed error with the authors, but web.archive remembers everything.

All sites have no identity, It is very easy to mix them up. All sites throughout their relatively short-lived activity of not less than 3 times changed WordPress templates.

February 1, 2017, Big Nugget News switched the pattern color from black to red. Red State Pundit and its clone Viral Gonzo completely changed its pattern. The latest article on all three sites was the same, about NASA and Aliens.

Terry uses special software to clone the sites fast. For example, the main page is “Viralgonzo.com”, but all content is from another site “Red State Pundit”. Terry has 4 pairs of clone sites.

Redrockdaily.com and Redrocktribune.com

Dailypresser.com and Dailypresser.net

Politicalyears.com and Familyfaithnews.com

Redstatepundit.com and Viralgonzo.com

The content of the new domains is the clone of content on old domains. There are no human's eyes, who can spot the mistakes. On cloned site, all links in the menu or on an article lead to the parent site. For example, any click on Viralgonzo.com leads to articles on Redstatepundit.com.

But, if you replace the domain redstatepundit.com in URL address, you will go to exactly the same article on Viralgonzo.com. The cloning site has all copied article pages with new URL, but the main page has incorrect links.

The pages on cloned sites, which has no links on FB or on the main page, but all of them has the exactly same number of likes with the original article. For FB any URL on other domain is technically new article and it will get its own counter of likes.Two pages were saved during 15 seconds, and both have 142 likes on the same article, viralgonzo.com, and redstatepundit.com.

Since we moved on to social statistics, let's look closely at Digital Assets on Facebook. NYT mentioned, that Littlepage manages 50 FB pages.

All FB pages repeatedly post links to all sites are active at the moment. It is the very strange type of cross-promotion. Sources of FB traffic to 15 sites include just six FB pages.

AmericanJournalReview 520,000 likes

RedRockTribune 330,000 likes

FreePatriotPost 185,000 likes

AmericanInsurrection 138,000 likes

TheWesternSentinel 121,000 likes

Political-Ears-882703445081566 70 likes (Just seventy likes, not seventy thousand).

All links are posted automatically with pre-scheduling. You can find even night links. The same pack is repeatedly posted on a few pages at the same time. The posting algorithm periodically changed, but it changes on all pages at the same time, redistributing active sites at that moment.

The audience is not active and engaged. For the most popular FB page AmericanJournalReview with 520,000 followers the average post got a couple of hundreds of emoji, just a few tens of shares and few simple comments. An audience engagement has anomalies too. Double posted link to the same article in same day can get the same shares, likes, and comments.

Look at the demonstrative example of FB shares and traffic mismatch. The original article was published January 23, 2017, on Foxnews. Westernsentinel.com has posted the rewritten story on the same day. According to the counter on the page, the link was shared 186,400 times. According to Similarweb, the total number of visits to the site in January was 230,000. According to Crowdangle, the link has 24,000 referral interactions. The link was posted just 100 times on different FB pages.

Most interesting is that in spite of such a runaway success, the site is not updated for two weeks. Some say it can be “Clickbait”. In fact, it cannot. Clickbait strategy - be shocking on ordinary daily news background. You can’t be successful with the shocking news repeated every day for the same audience. This is just an imitation of click-bait to justify artificial traffic to the site.

All sources of initial content are much more popular than any of Terry`s site. Who will read the copy-pasted part if they can read the whole original text? Are human can make a thousand pageviews daily without caring about links, usability, media brands, and content?

In first days of February 2016, Terry Page has changed few domains and site patterns.

For those who are still unable to answer the question of what it is, fake news or ad fraud, we offer a short overview of the advertising systems on these sites. Perhaps it will help you make the right conclusions.

Terry said, that in a good month his half-dozen sites bring him $60,000. On every Terry`s sites, there are more than 50 ads systems. The record we have found was 94. If the site does not earn much from a single ad system, no one check the quality of its audience carefully. The big amount of systems help him to earn few dollars from each, but a lot from all of them totally.

The most common ad systems on sites are DoubleClick and Adsupply, but they are only the first among equals. Ad impressions distributed between different systems are fairly evenly.

The quality of ads depends on a cookie. All sites connected with Data management platforms (DMP). DMP collect data about website visitor and collaborate with programmatic for selling more expensive advertising.

The average article page has 3 recommendation units, that show 19 recommendation preview combined (the record for revcontent units was 30 units per page).

Who regularly visit a site with low-quality unoriginal content, but perfectly optimized for advertising monetization?

So we got to the main anomaly, site Extremelynewsworthy.com.

It was one of red header political sites we showed above, but in January it completely changed its style. Now you can see the list of folders with some strange names on it. All folders were created automatically 13 January 2017 at the same time. Inside the folders, there are links to the large archives.

The names of the folders can’t say anything to people who never experienced with mobile android software testing. These are the special names for professional emulators of the Android mobile phones and tablets. Toro, ToroPlus, Maguro are different Galaxy Nexus models. For most popular Sony Xperia models emulators have names Scorpion, Scorpion_windy, Castor, Castor_windy. All names you can see on the official list.

All folders and files are the same from the official source for actual versions of emulators of mobile gadgets, based on an open-source analog of Android mobile platform.

The mobile emulator is the special software which can imitate all kinds of mobile activities, including visits to the websites. You can see how it works on the online analog (this service is not affiliated with these sites), which includes Apple's gadgets too.

Initially, it was built for fast automatic testing of mobile apps or web sites. But now emulators are primarily used for imitation of the real mobile web audience. Device emulators (both desktop and mobile) is the most important part of the ad fraud infrastructure. The special server contains thousands of virtual gadgets with installed software for thousands unique users imitation.

Why the set of devices for the ad fraud appeared on a place, where it was shown a few million ads the past six months? Most likely, the whole point of negligence when a site is deleted from the server. Admin has made a mistake by setting the wrong redirect. But it is not so important. It's too specific software to be in a place like this by accident. The same folders were on the site from the Linkedin portfolio Libertyfirstnews.com (now the site is inactive).

How did it happen, The New York Times wrote about a man who makes money on advertising fraud half a year ago, and then he earned a few hundred thousand dollars more?

The answer is simple. All believe in the magic of social media huge numbers. All unquestioningly trust the digital stats. Everyone thinks that likes are really suitable to measure the audience's attention. No one doubts that it is possible to send thousands of people from social networks to the website with lots of ads every day. Although no one checked how it works in reality.

The big problem is that instead of analyzing and verifying the source, everybody is looking primarily at the content. It is not misinformation or hoax, it is not something pretend to be real, it’s just slightly rewritten copy-pasted text from mainstream media. All publisher`s part of this business is cheap and low quality, but all tech backend is sharpened for maximization of ad revenue. If the whole scheme “Imitation of media - imitation of an audience - real ads revenue” works without real humans, why do you think that real people (except journalists) ever see those sites?

Why someone thinks, the rules of the classic marketing doesn’t work in social networks?

Why was positioning, branding, conversion pipeline threw away? Humans attention is very expensive. It can't appear from anywhere. Why everyone is sure, that likes, shares, and followers can’t be made without a human? Why are all obsessed with the stereotype, that ad fraud is technically complicated and it is only “black hat’ job? This is a legal high margin business with excellent infrastructure.

There is no problem to buy traffic from any country all over the world. There is no problem to buy “AdSense safe traffic”. There is no problem to buy facebook likes, shares, and even comments. Qualitative comments may be slightly expensive, but their presence allows you to identify your audience in social networks definitely real. Does the price matter, if it allows you to earn more? You just need to use Google search, and you'll find all that has been described above on thousands of marketplaces. You need a little money for start and great desire to earn.

Get lucky and be first in media.

P.S. Two important cites from the NYT article, we could not miss.

“But there’s also a new and distinctive sort of operation that has become hard to miss: political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook uniquely positioned and cleverly engineered to reach audiences exclusively in the context of the news feed. These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook, and you’ve probably never heard of them.”

“On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media, whether corporate giants like CNN or The New York Times, or openly ideological web operations like Breitbart or Mic. And unlike traditional media organizations, which have spent years trying to figure out how to lure readers out of the Facebook ecosystem and onto their sites, these new publishers are happy to live inside the world that Facebook has created.”