Owners of misinformation sites do everything in their power to both hide their identities… and how much money they make from spreading falsehoods. The Business of Misinformation project at CEU’s Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) unmasks some of the worst offenders, examining their links to each other and to political parties and institutions. One thing has already been proven: misinformation is a lucrative business.
In the run up to the Slovak presidential elections earlier this year, the website Zem a Vek published a photo of Zuzana Caputova, subsequently elected as the country’s president, edited so as to give her a hooked nose and bigger lips: the archetypal Jewish stereotype. The original picture, taken from DennikN, a Slovak news portal, was photoshopped to produce the desired effect. Both the content of the article and the modified image evoked Second World War Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.
And indeed such content brings Zem a Vek, hefty revenue. Sofian, the company that runs Zem a Vek (meaning “Earth and Age” in Slovak), generated sales revenues of more than €430,000 in 2018. In a country where the average monthly income is c €1,000, that is more than sufficient for Tibor Eliot Rostas, Sofian’s owner, to live a comfortable life.
Zem a Vek is just one of the bogus websites that have mushroomed in Slovakia during the past five years, according to data collected in the Business of Misinformation project. Most of these websites “are flogging a nationalistic, pro-Russian, anti-EU/NATO/USA and anti-immigration worldview” according to CMDS’s research. Many such websites have inundated Europe in the past few years.
Creating a database of misinformation sites – and their owners
CMDS’ Business of Misinformation project maps the companies and individuals owning, controlling or running fake news websites. The four-member project team collects data on misinformation websites, including profiles of the owners and basic financial data.
“By tracking the companies and people who operate misinformation sites, the business models and the motivations, we believe we get closer to understanding the ecosystem of misinformation, including the role social media and mainstream media play in the phenomenon. At the same time we are also able to contribute to the development of effective responses to misinformation” says Senior Program Officer and Researcher Dr. Eva Bognar of CMDS.
“The project is in its pilot phase: we are experimenting with the methodology, which requires intense, and sometimes quite difficult work from the researchers into the financial background of these sites” Bognar adds.
Spreading misinformation is a lucrative business
At an event, titled “Who Hides Behind the Liars?”, at the beginning of September at CEU, the project team examined the unique characteristics of misinformation in the region: Judit Szakacs talked about Hungary, Jozef Michal Mintal spoke about Slovakia and Semir Dzebo - joining via a video connection - presented the situation in the Western Balkans.
The Bosnian war is “low-hanging fruit" for those wanting to spread misinformation in the Balkans, Dzebo said. “This is a topic that generates a lot of attention and clicks and comments because the war continues to provoke immediate reactions from many people, making it highly popular with fake news creators.”
The unique aspect of misinformation in Hungary is that it is not confined to small misinformation sites: mainstream and public service media are spreading falsehoods as well. According to Judit Szakacs, mainstream sites such as origo.hu and popular tv channels such as TV2 frequently re-publish and curate fabricated stories. Szakacs also found that it is not only extreme-right misinformation websites that exist in Hungary; there is also a host of hyper-partisan leftist, anti-government bogus sites that operate in the country.
In Slovakia and the Czech Republic misinformation is spread by several independently run sites. Jozef Mintal referred to one of the most absurd stories he encountered during his research: Ukrainian soldiers were continuing to fight ten days after their death, becoming "zombie soldiers." This fake news was spread by the Czech version of Sputnik News, an arm of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
Follow the money!
The three researchers agreed that most of these sites make a huge profit for their owners. However, they noted that it is extremely hard to track down exactly how much money iis being generated. Most of these websites hide their ownership, and where this doesn’t happen, it is almost impossible to obtain financial data.
In Slovakia, for example, many of these sites are run by NGOs, and thus are not required to make their financial statements public. The very few sites that are run by companies that have to publish such data show that the misinformation business is indeed lucrative – as proven by the case of Tibor Eliot Rostas. Read more about misinformation in Slovakia here.
It is a similar situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina; Semir Dzebo decided to track down how much these sites charge for advertising banners: "They ask for a hefty price, which means that this must be a lucrative business," he said.
Dzebo’s research, aimed at unearthing ownership and financial data about the misinformation websites catering to Bosnian audiences, found that the majority of these websites are motivated solely by profit, predominantly generated through Google’s ad sales program. Read the report on misinformation sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina here.
The owners and financial data of Hungary’s misinformation sites is hard to track down as well, thus Judit Szakacs also looked at the advertising rates of these websites. One of these websites set the rate of a 7-day banner placement at 300 euros, is a high price in this local market.
The CMDS team’s research revealed that these websites rarely operate alone. the same business group usually has a slew of sites under control. Dzebo, for example, found one person in Bosnia and Herzegovina who owned some 40 websites.
In Hungary, Judit Szakacs found two huge groups. These groups usually share stories and content among themselves. One of the groups operating a number of websites can be linked to a network of political organizations accused of fraud in the 2014 and 2018 general elections in Hungary. Several of these ‘fake parties’ were investigated and one of them was charged with fraud by prosecutors. Read more about misinformation in Hungary here.
The project team is creating an online database of misinformation traders that they will update regularly. The area covered includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia. The CMDS team in charge of the project includes CMDS Director Marius Dragomir, Senior Program Officer and Researcher Eva Bognar and Outreach Coordinator Robert Nemeth. The researchers in the project are PhD student Semir Dzebo, CMDS Fellow Jozef Michal Mintal, MA student Alex Rusnák and CMDS Fellow Judit Szakács.