BuzzFeed News; Alamy
As ad dollars that used to fund journalism pour into the coffers of Facebook and Google, the information business is experiencing a trend familiar to other American industries: The product they produce is now competing with cheaper versions coming from overseas.
Content farmers in the Philippines, Pakistan, Macedonia (of course), and beyond are launching websites and Facebook pages aimed at Americans in niches such as politics, mental health, marijuana, American muscle cars, and more.
Based on Facebook engagement and other metrics, some of these overseas publishers are now beating their American counterparts. In the process they’re building an industry centered on producing and exporting cheap (and sometimes false) information targeted at the US.
“This is like all of the basic stuff happening in economics and politics today,” said Tyson Barker, a political economist with the Aspen Institute Germany who specializes in international economic policy. “It's a globalization trend and you've seen it also in manufacturing and other industries.”
Americans and others in the English-language world are used to buying clothing and other products with labels that say “Made in China” or “Made in Bangladesh.” Thanks to the rise of platforms like Facebook and Google, a growing amount of the information being served up in English is now coming from overseas, albeit without the same kind of labeling.
One surprising area where the impact of this trend is being felt is with Native American news and content.
A few weeks ago, Indian Country Today Media Network, an online and print publisher for Native Americans, announced that it was suspending operations due to the lack of a sustainable business model.
“ICTMN has faced the same challenges that other media outlets have faced,” said a letter from publisher Ray Halbritter. “It is no secret that with the rise of the Internet, traditional publishing outlets have faced unprecedented adversity.”
But while ICTMN had to stop operations, a raft of overseas-based publishers of content about Native Americans continue to forge ahead and experience growth and revenue primarily thanks to Facebook.
TheNativePeople.net, which has two associated Facebook pages with close to half a million fans between them, is run by a man in Kosovo. The website TheIndigenousAmericans.com also pumps out Native American news for visitors coming from its Indigenous People Of America Facebook page, which is approaching 1 million fans, almost twice the number of ICTMN’s. The page has experienced steady growth: It added roughly 200,000 new fans since BuzzFeed News first wrote about it in a December story that identified a slew of Native American publishers based in Kosovo and Vietnam.
A Vietnamese publisher runs WelcomeNative.com and YesWeNative.com, two sites promoted by the Yes We Native Magazine Facebook page, which has more than 350,000 fans. The page says its owner is based in San Francisco, but domain ownership records list the owner as a person named Minh Nhat Tran of Hanoi. Domain owners can list whatever name and location they want in registration records; however, the email address used for both domains has also been listed as the contact for job postings in Vietnam for graphic designers and Facebook page managers, further showing a link to Vietnam. The same person also runs an American news site called USANewToday.com.
Some of the Native American pages and websites earn money from advertising on articles. Many also operate online stores where they sell T-shirts with Native American designs, as well as clothing, mugs, and other items. As reported by BuzzFeed News, these designs are often stolen from actual Native American artists.
“These pages are taking our work and paying for the sponsored posts on Facebook and making tons of money off of us,” said Aaron Silva, the Native American cofounder of The NTVS, a clothing brand in Minnesota.
BuzzFeed News has identified other online publishers in countries including Macedonia, Pakistan, Georgia, Croatia, India, and the Philippines that produce information aimed primarily at US audiences.
“It's clear that those foreign publishers have developed avenues and methods to get their content into the American traffic flow,” said Sarah Thompson, an Indiana woman who operates the Exploiting the Niche Facebook page.
When not homeschooling her children, she hunts down scammers and clickbait artists who target niche information topics. Many of them turn out to be based overseas, she told BuzzFeed News. When asked to name some of the topics where this is the case, she rattled off a list.
“The US military and veterans are popular themes as well as police and police dogs. Anything with animals, animal abuse, wild animals, beautiful nature, flowers, Native Americans, Christianity,” she said. “Really, it could be anything. Any subject I have looked into I have found the corrupt pockets where that community is being exploited.”
Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next, an alliance of large digital publishers, told BuzzFeed News the current economics of online content often favor people who excel at gaming platforms, rather than media brands doing reporting and original content creation.
“If proper trust frameworks aren't in place to ensure consumer and advertiser trust, then the automation/farming of the content will move to the lowest cost, ethics, laws available,” he said.
Native American publishers aren’t the only ones competing with — and sometimes losing out to — overseas publishers in a niche aimed at people in the US. As previously reported by BuzzFeed News, the town of Veles, Macedonia, is home to dozens of websites targeting American conservatives which often publish fake news. A recent BuzzFeed News analysis of partisan political news websites and Facebook pages revealed that a page run by a 20-year-old in Macedonia outperforms many of the biggest conservative news Facebook pages run by Americans. BuzzFeed News has also found publishers in Kosovo and Georgia that publish (often fake) news crafted for American conservatives.
Health is another niche attracting overseas publishers. According to domain ownership records from DomainTools, a man in Pakistan named “Kashif Shahzad” owns over 200 domain names, several of which focus on mental health and related topics, including MedicalHealthRecords.us, HealthTimes.info, and GeneralHealthcare.co. Another of his sites, GreatAmericans.world, focuses on fibromyalgia and is heavily promoted from a Facebook page called US Health Care. He also owns DailyMedicalNews.co, which is promoted by a Facebook page called Depression Awareness with close to half a million fans. BuzzFeed News contacted him at the email address listed in his domain registrations but did not receive a reply.
One way the (often plagiarized) content from this network of sites spreads is to have fake Facebook accounts share it in Facebook groups about health topics. Thompson pointed BuzzFeed News to several accounts that were part of a group of interconnected profiles that consistently share articles from the same health sites into Facebook groups. Some of the accounts are also administrators of these groups, which focus on mental health, fibromyalgia, addiction, and medical marijuana, among other topics. Along with the fake accounts, some groups, such as this one about marijuana, have administrators based in Pakistan.
One suspicious account with the name Rabia Anwar is a member of seven Facebook groups about marijuana and five dedicated to fibromyalgia. The account’s profile features a photo of a woman, but earlier photos posted on its timeline clearly show it originally belonged to a man. (The account info is also set to male.) The profile also prominently presents the photo of a Pakistani actress and her family as if it depicts the person behind the account.
Since August, the account’s public posting activity consists entirely of sharing new articles from the network of health sites run from Pakistan into Facebook groups.
Thompson was most alarmed when she identified what she believes are fake Facebook accounts that are active in Facebook groups and present themselves as recovering drug addicts. These accounts repeatedly share content from overseas publishers.
“The thought of these spamming bots infiltrating a support group of recovering addicts made me so mad,” she said. “Some clickbaiter thousands of miles away is violating the trust and privacy these communities afford to each other for mere pennies per click.”
Along with the violation of trust, Thompson is concerned that many overseas publishers in the health vertical simply copy and paste whatever information will grab attention, which can often be false claims about new cures, or misleading health warnings.
“They could be giving them bad information, distracting them from proven treatments with snake oil spam, eroding their trust in their doctor, or even giving them bad information that could harm them,” she said. “It's not a joke, it’s not harmless. The heroin epidemic in the Midwest where I live is really bad. Lots of people are dying.”
Health is also a focus for Macedonian publishers. Wired magazine reported on Aleksandar and Borce Velkovski, two brothers who got rich from HealthyFoodHouse.com, a website filled with health tips and recipes. BuzzFeed News also found dozens of health-focused domain names registered to people in Macedonia.
That country is in fact home to a cottage industry of websites focused on motorcycles, American muscle cars, horses, and other topics.
The glut of English-language publishers in Macedonia is partly thanks to a man named Mirko Ceselkoski. More than a decade ago, he figured out how to make money by running websites about cars and other niche topics aimed at Americans. When he met with BuzzFeed News in July in Skopje, Ceselkoski provided a business card that described him as “The Man Who Helped Donald Trump Win US Elections (me and my students from Veles).”
Ceselkoski claims credit for Trump’s win because many of the young publishers in Veles took a course he offers on how to make money with English-language websites. Ceselkoski charged $425, which is roughly equivalent to the average monthly salary in the country.
“I was instructing my students that they should write news aimed at American people,” Ceselkoski said.
He denies telling students to publish fake news, but does instruct them to copy a few paragraphs from a story that’s performing well on Facebook and create a new story from that. It's the content equivalent of an overseas factory pumping out knockoffs of the latest fashion trend.
ICTMN / The Indigenous American
Plagiarism is a standard tactic of low-quality overseas publishers. All of the content BuzzFeed News reviewed on the health sites run from Pakistan was stolen from other websites. (There was even one story about antidepressants stolen from BuzzFeed.)
The same is true for players in the Native American niche. TheIndigenousAmericans.com recently featured a Q&A with actor Adam Beach. That interview was stolen word-for-word from Indian Country Today Media Network.
The same plagiarism frequently occurs in the world of fake political news, too. As previously detailed by BuzzFeed News, multiple publishers in Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and Georgia plagiarize the fake articles published on a group of websites run by a man in Maine. The man, Christopher Blair, calls himself a liberal troll and claims he publishes the fake stories — such as “BREAKING: Hillary Clinton Personally Funded Antifa Terrorists With $7.1 Million Bankroll” — to expose the ignorance of American conservatives. After months of having his content stolen, he managed to get some of their websites and Facebook pages shut down.
“They will copy, paste, and post as many times in a day as they can. They steal content from pages with a lot of shares,” he said.
Sometimes overseas publishers mix their topics to puzzling effect. A website called USMedicalCouncil.com shows new visitors a pop-up message to like the Fibro & Chronic Pain Center Facebook page. That page constantly posts articles connected to health spammers in Pakistan. However, USMedicalCouncil.com recently switched topics and now posts hyperpartisan political stories. One of its most recent is a completely false story alleging incest in the Trump family.
TheNativePeople.net, which is run from Kosovo, is just as likely to publish a list of "home remedies" to help with clogged arteries, which itself is an article copied from a health site run by a Macedonian, according to domain registration records.
But not all overseas publishers working in English operate at the lowest end of the value chain. Bored Panda publishes viral content about art, design, and other topics. It frequently works with the original artists to create stories. The company was founded in Lithuania, and that’s where the majority of its staff is based. Owner Tomas Banisauskas did not respond to interview requests from BuzzFeed News, but he did publish a post on Medium titled “How we built a global media business with $5/month.” The $5 in question is the cost of his initial web hosting bill.
“I was laser-focused on profits from day one,” wrote Banisauskas, who studied business at Vilnius University. “The idea was to create content that people would share on social networks, which would bring free traffic back to my website. All this traffic then could be monetised with AdSense banners.”
He said Bored Panda succeeded by focusing on publishing a smaller number of quality posts, rather than churning out a large number each day. This, and what he said was a decision to avoid using clickbait headlines, helped his site avoid a crash in traffic that hit viral sites such as Upworthy when Facebook changed its algorithm, according to Banisauskas.