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 Hillary Clinton and waited for ad sales to soar.
“I don’t know why, but it did not work,” said the student, Beqa Latsabidze, 22, who was savvy enough to change course when he realized what did drive traffic: laudatory stories about Donald J. Trump that mixed real — and completely fake — news in a stew of anti-Clinton fervor.
More than 6,000 miles away in Vancouver, a Canadian who runs a satirical website, John Egan, had made a similar observation. Mr. Egan’s site, The Burrard Street Journal, offers sendups of the news, not fake news, and he is not trying to fool anyone. But he, too, discovered that writing about Mr. Trump was a “gold mine.” His traffic soared and his work, notably a story that President Obama would move to Canada if Mr. Trump won, was plundered by Mr. Latsabidze and other internet entrepreneurs for their own websites.
“It’s all Trump,” Mr. Egan said by telephone. “People go nuts for it.”
With Mr. Obama now warning of the corrosive threat from fake political news circulated on Facebook and other social media, the pressing question is who produces these stories, and how does this overheated, often fabricated news ecosystem work?
Some analysts worry that foreign intelligence agencies are meddling in American politics and using fake news to influence elections. But one window into how the meat in fake sausages gets ground can be found in the buccaneering internet economy, where satire produced in Canada can be taken by a recent college graduate in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and presented as real news to attract clicks from credulous readers in the United States. 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, Mr. Latsabidze often simply cut and pasted, sometimes massaging headlines but mostly just copying material from elsewhere, including Mr. Egan’s prank story on Mr. Obama. Mr. Egan was not amused to see his satirical work on Mr. Latsabidze’s website and filed a copyright infringement notice to defend his intellectual property.
Yet Mr. Egan conceded a certain professional glee that Mr. Trump is here to stay. “Now that we’ve got him for four years,” he said, “I can’t believe it.”
By some estimates, bogus news stories appearing online and on social media had an even greater reach in the final months of the presidential campaign than articles by mainstream news organizations.
Since then, internet giants like Facebook and Google have engaged in soul searching over their roles in disseminating false news. Google announced that it would ban websites that host fake news from using its online advertising service, while Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, outlined some of the options his company was considering, including simpler ways for users to flag suspicious content.
In Tbilisi, the two-room rented apartment Mr. Latsabidze shares with his younger brother is an unlikely offshore outpost of America’s 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 and experimented with show business news, too. They set up a pro-Clinton website, walkwithher.com, a Facebook page cheering Bernie Sanders and a web digest of straightforward political news plagiarized from The New York Times and other mainstream news media.
But those sites, among the more than a dozen registered by Mr. Latsabidze, were busts. Then he shifted all his energy to Mr. Trump. 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. (On Wednesday, a few hours after The New York Times met with 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 one this summer 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 Nika Kurdadze, a college acquaintance of Mr. Latsabidze’s who set up his own pro-Trump site, newsbreakshere.com. Its recent offerings included a fake report headlined: “Stop it Liberals…Hillary Lost the Popular Vote by Several Million. Here’s Why.” That story, like most of Mr. Latsabidze’s work, was pilfered from the web.
Mr. Latsabidze initially ran into no problems from all his cutting and pasting of other people’s stories, and he even got ripped off himself when a rival in India hijacked a pro-Trump Facebook page he had set up to drive traffic to his websites.
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.
The New York Times