“If I can’t convince them they’re wrong, I might as well make money from them,” says Dimitar (pseudonym). It was this thought that put Dimitar on the path to becoming an administrator of what he calls a “fake news website” in Bulgaria. The people the young man is talking about are the people who fall for misinformation online, and making money with them has proven to be easier than he ever imagined.

Seven years ago, a friend told Dimitar that he took a side job running an illegal video streaming website and was making a lot of money doing it. It was 2015 and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula a year earlier had sparked much debate in Bulgaria about the country’s relationship with the Kremlin.

Dimitar himself 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. I spent countless hours arguing with them but nothing worked, they just wouldn’t listen. During all this time, however, I was researching what makes them tick, what kind of stories they respond to. And I put two and two together: if I create a website that feeds them what they want to hear, I can earn lots of money. “

The young man 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 The money I made from it was really easy,” says Dimitar.

Everyone got what they wanted

Initially, the young man expected to be approached by political actors who would take advantage of his website and perhaps 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 comes from Google’s ad placement system.

Dimitar says he can’t speak to everyone who had a fake news site in Bulgaria, but admits he met several people who profited from spreading misinformation. He points 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 will publish this stuff even if they don’t pay them directly. That way they can have their cake and eat it too.”

Hot topic: Bulgaria caught between Russia and the West

Dimitar’s observations about what appeals to people who fall for fake news online turned out to be right. “Two or three things got the most attention. The main topic was Russia. It usually boiled down to some kind of narrative about Russia or the opposition between the West and Moscow with Bulgaria in the middle,” he said. he told DW.

He decided that he would focus on those kinds of articles as well. According to Dimitar, 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 said that Russia would make this problem disappear for Bulgarians, as long as they turned their back on the West and returned to Russia’s sphere of influence.

A nostalgia for Bulgarian-Soviet ties of the past

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 still today among the least sympathetic in the EU towards Ukraine and the least inclined to believe that Russia is responsible for the current situation. According to the survey, 10% of Bulgarians polled said they felt no sympathy for Ukraine, and only 27% were convinced that Russia was responsible for starting the war.

“Anything that elicits an emotional reaction is also a magnet for readers: the government doesn’t treat us well and, again, nostalgia for our Soviet past – we lived so much better under Soviet rule. That’s the kind articles that bring in about the most traffic,” Dimitar told DW.

Emotional responses are easier than critical thinking

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. This is when the Dimitar website got what is called a “phantom ban”, in other words, the website was not banned from Facebook, but the algorithms of the platform did not show its content to users.

“These types of websites live and die with their Facebook traffic. When this happened, I stopped making the money I used to make, so I decided to quit altogether. to do it,” says Dimitar. He goes 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 adds 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 themselves. “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 says.

Edited by: Rüdiger Rossig and Aingeal Flanagan