This summer, just after the Democratic National Convention ended, John Mattes noticed a sudden influx of new people asking to join his San Diego Berniecrats Facebook group. Mattes approved them and soon came to regret it. The accounts started spamming his Bernie Sanders group with links to anti–Hillary Clinton articles from strange websites he’d never heard of.
“Around the time that Hillary collapsed in public, our page became increasingly populated with fake stories full of Hillary hate,” Mattes told BuzzFeed News. “People were accusing Hillary of murdering opponents. It was alleged that she utilized body doubles.”
Mattes, a lawyer, former journalist, and former investigative counsel to the US Senate, investigated the Facebook accounts and the sites they were promoting. What he found was that the websites being promoted were run by people in Veles, a town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Some of the Facebook profiles also listed that as their location.
Mattes reached out to BuzzFeed News after reading a report about 140 US politics websites based in the small Macedonian town of Veles, including sites propagating false and misleading pro–Donald Trump content. And his experience cast a light on how fake news has polluted not just the News Feeds of millions of Facebook users, but also another popular feature of the network: groups for people who share a common cause.
Two other people reached out and told the same story of how obviously fake Facebook profiles joined Facebook groups dedicated to different interests and then spammed them with links to websites operated from Macedonia.
“These exploiters will use anything to make money,” said Sarah Thompson, a mother of four who homeschools her kids on a farm in Indiana. After noticing suspicious posts being shared in Facebook groups about horses, she too began investigating their origin and ended up discovering hundreds of fake Facebook profiles that were promoting websites run by people in that same Macedonian town.
Even the owner of 10 fake news websites in the US contacted BuzzFeed News to express his frustration with the onslaught of Macedonian spam in pro-Trump Facebook groups.
Thompson says the politics sites are just one part of the network of fake Facebook profiles and clickbait sites originating in the former Yugoslav Republic and in other Eastern European countries.
“The story is not the election,” she said. “It's how Facebook is being played.”
As BuzzFeed News previously revealed, this same technique of posting links from fake accounts was used to spread hoax news articles about terrorist attacks in cities in the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere. Those sites were run by people in the Republic of Georgia. Both that scam and the sites run out of Macedonia utilize fake Facebook accounts to share their content in groups to help it get shared on Facebook. They then monetize any resulting traffic through ads on their websites, or, as was the case in Georgia, they attempt to install malware on user’s computers.
Evan Blair, the co-founder of social media security company ZeroFox, said the tactic is widely used by cybercriminals.
“The tactics that are being employed are utilized on a massive scale by very large and well-organized and well-funded cybercriminal groups,” Blair said, adding that he could not comment of the level of organization and sophistication of the people operating out of Veles.
“Misrepresenting yourself on Facebook is against our policies, and we have a dedicated team that's tasked with helping to detect and block fake accounts,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
The company also said that content it identifies as being “hoaxes or having misinformation get decreased distribution in News Feed, whether or not they originate in groups.” However, it also said that the original post to a group would remain online, unless a group administrator chose to remove it.
John Mattes said he believes the Macedonian operation focused on Bernie Sanders goes beyond a simple moneymaking scheme.
“What is most disturbing is that the Macedonia stories worked to directly help Trump,” he said. “The stories targeted Sanders supporters, creating doubts about Hillary among a key voting bloc.”
He’s concerned it was part of a concerted effort to suppress the votes of Sanders supporters in order to help Trump. Mattes says he alerted a contact at the Clinton campaign about the influx of anti-Clinton content, but no one took it seriously.
“Some [of the Sanders supporters] are newly energized democratic voters,” he said. “If you have the ability to suppress and poison the well and reduce participation, that’s a win.”
Other Sanders supporters also apparently took note of the Macedonians. Over the summer a group of them created a public spreadsheet of “Red Flag Spamsites” that highlighted the untrustworthy content coming from Macedonian sites, among others.
Mattes called it “outrageous that foreign elements would tamper with our election.”
But as of now, neither Mattes nor BuzzFeed News have unearthed any evidence that links the spammers to a coordinated campaign to suppress Clinton votes.
What we did find is a network of Facebook profiles just like Antonio Markoski’s. His page is mostly empty, except for a profile picture of a man on a horse. That image is stolen from a Daily Telegraph article about a man who was fined after drunkenly riding a horse bareback down the street.
Markowski’s account is almost certainly a fake. The same can be said for most of his nearly 200 friends on Facebook. Their profile photos consist of burly men on motorcycles, attractive young women with or without motorcycles, men with horses, women with horses, and young hipster men. Just about all of Markowski’s friends are also friends with each other. It’s a tight network of fake accounts.
Though his profile’s timeline is largely empty, Markowski has been active. Last month he shared a link to USAPoliticsForum.com in a "Hispanics for Trump" Facebook group. Later he shared a link to a Horses99.com post about show-jumping in a Facebook group about horse racing.
Domain registration records show both of those sites, along with others about fishing and motorcycles, are all owned be the same man in Veles. He often posts about creating fake Facebook profiles on an online forum dedicated to black-hat SEO practices. Also of note is that the email address used to register those sites is connected to a fake Facebook profile for a woman named Elena Nikolov. Her profile photo shows woman with a motorcycle that is in fact a picture of Venezuelan model Aida Yespica. And she is friends with many of the same people as the Markowski profile.
When contacted by BuzzFeed News, the owner of the domains declined to speak. (Only one of the Macedonians running US politics sites who previously spoke to BuzzFeed News answered questions about fake accounts, and he said he only uses his own profile to share links to his site.) But a simple search on Facebook for the domains of this man’s fishing, horses, and politics sites reveals a pattern of links being shared into groups by fake accounts. The same is true for other sites based in Veles that are owned by other people.
Sarah Thompson said her months of online research revealed a network of at least hundreds of fake profiles that promote a wide range of websites, some of which are based in other Eastern European countries.
“I reported over 250 [fake profiles] in the course of a week,” she said, estimating that Facebook removed 75% of them.
Mattes and Thompson both say the Macedonian spammers continue to wreak havoc. Mattes said his Facebook group splintered along pro- and anti-Clinton lines and lost members. “By September, Bernie supporters had left our page in droves, depressed and disgusted by the venom,” he said.
Thompson is disheartened to see so many people in her horse groups fall for fake stories and clickbait.
“I have a sense of right and wrong which is very offended by cheating,” she said. “So when I encountered the fakers on Facebook, it made me so mad that they can be getting away with what they’re getting away with.”
Thompson says her months of tracking fake accounts and clickbait sites on Facebook also resulted in an unexpected personal consequence. She believes Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is now feeding her spam-like content because it thinks that’s what she wants to read.
“I believe I am getting a lower-quality content in my feed,” she said. “I’m getting spammier and trashier shares from my friends because I’m spending so much time going to these other pages.”
Craig Silverman is a media editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Craig Silverman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lawrence Alexander is a UK-based researcher who has contributed to Bellingcat and Global Voices.
Contact Lawrence Alexander at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.