The text message had read, simply, “noon”. I wait in nervous silence, as noon came and passed. Another hour trickled by and eventually a man wearing a thin smile steps through the cloud of hot white dust that billowed under the enormous canopies of Radio Café, Pristina, Kosovo. The young man’s name is Burim, and he is a professional fake news merchant.
Like a proud vineyard owner, Burim takes me on a tour of his rolling digital estates. He owns one Facebook group dedicated to exploring abandoned places, another for mobilising communities in the American South. Another seemed to be about dieting and veganism, and yet another, religious evangelism. Burim grins: “This guy in Albania built up this page by posting authentic religious information. Then I paid him 2,000 euros, and he transferred the page over to me.” The groups are bizarre, but their audiences huge: 90,000 likes; 240,000 likes; 26,000 likes… The first step in Burim’s trade is to get an audience, and between them, these pages could reach close to a million pairs of eyeballs.
“Stories about killing people – gore, basically – they perform best!” says Burim, cheerfully. “Dog Groomer Who Kicked Dog all its Ribs Broke Remains Jail- Free”, was one story. “Boy Comes out of Coma after 12 Years, Whispers Dark Secret to Parents”, was another. 1,400 shares; 11,100 shares. Burim employs seven people to keep the content flowing through his groups, stealing it from an uncountable number of other operations.
This wasn’t deliberately fake news, but the truth or lies in the kind of clickbait that Burim publishes are irrelevant. Burim blinks, his face blank, “I don’t care what the content is”, he tells me, his face lit by his phone as he scrolls through the endless posts that his operation spews out. “This is the first time I’ve actually read it”, he says, “I just care about traffic.”
I’d met Burim to understand how a new order was rising. The old world, I thought, was collapsing around us. Huge high street retailers – House of Fraser, BHS, Toys R Us – were collapsing. Political parties were being squeezed by new digital movements erupting across both the radical Left and Right. And professional journalism was being toppled too – 2016 became the first year that journalists were outnumbered by those in public relations. As UK ad revenue shrank, from $4.7 billion in 2000 to about $2.6 billion in 2014, the number of journalists also shrank, by up to one third. And 181 local newspapers in the UK had shut down. The famous global titles survived the onslaught, but underneath was a bloodbath.
Click on any of Burim’s stories, and you’re taken to the moneymaking part of his operation. He maintains around a dozen websites outside of Facebook, constantly changing to avoid detection. Each looks like a crude version of an online newspaper, with the full stories hosted under sections called ‘Home’, ‘Health’, ‘DIY’, ‘Animals’, ‘Food Art’. Burim earned anything from 400 to a few thousand euros per day – good money anywhere, and a fortune in Kosovo.
A fortune, of course, that Burim made exactly because he broke every rule of journalism going. For him, the content was irrelevant, the provenance unimportant, the story recycled, the truth not even worth thinking about. Yet, whilst Burim was the nemesis of journalism, he was also, I learned, the natural product of the world it functioned within.
Burim had realised that he could make money the same way as any newspaper: programmatic advertising. Highly automated and technologically driven, real-time ad exchanges now allow advertisers to bid for advertising space in front of an audience – not within a specific publication, but wherever they travel on the Internet. When a member of a target audience lands on a part of the internet where ads are being sold, the ad is bought and served up to them instantly.
His entire enterprise showed that online advertising revenue had little to do with building a long-term reputation for quality journalism, for listening to readers or for building trust with them. In this new online economy clicks were king; and fortunes lay in one skill alone: shepherding vast numbers of people to your websites through any means necessary.
Burim is stronger, not weaker, by being outside of professional journalism. Unbounded by its rules and standards, unbounded indeed by the truth, he could capture your attention much more easily and monetise it just as readily. In the chase for clicks, some fantastical lie will usually out-click the messy, complex, mundanity of reality. People stealing content can out-earn outlets who need to pay people to write it. The people – like Burim – who are most able to grab our attention online are exactly the people who do not ask themselves those tricky, difficult questions about why they deserve to have it.
It’s easy to get nostalgic for the journalism of the past: a rose-tinted time when high-minded editors made professional decisions in the public interest, when investigative journalists had the time and resources they needed to do their jobs properly, and industrious local newspapers comprehensively covered their local patches. Yet pre-digital journalism wasn’t necessarily a pleasant world. Press barons wielded enormous influence, and still do. We, the readers, don’t need help from an algorithm to apply our own filters and distortions to the world. Bias has always existed, as has shoddy journalism.
Yet Burim is just one example of how the incentives of the clicks economy today are starkly at odds with the kind of journalism we have always needed. At its most courageous moments, the Fourth Estate is not only a source and centre of power itself, but also a critic, opponent and investigator of it. The gritty, tedious, time-consuming expensive kind of journalism that, at its best, confronts abuses of power, spotlights wrongdoing and pursues the corrupt. From Ida Tarbell’s profiles of Carnegie and Rockefeller through Watergate to Abu Ghraib; our world is shaped by the kind of journalism that pursues important truths that without it would remain hidden.
Burim, on the other hand, had the power to capture audiences, but none of the responsibilities to tell them the truth. And as I carried out the research for my new book, The Death of the Gods, I saw the same thing happening over and over: the rules governing power didn’t work. Professional standards have become increasingly absent, the regulations don’t work anymore, and ethics disappear in the free-for-all click economies that the online world has created.
Professional journalism is just one of the many institutions that are responsible for controlling and confronting power. The police struggle to enforce the law online. Regulators struggle to control the tech giants. And whether it is targeted advertising or politicised hacking, political campaigning has moved largely outside of the rules too. It is exactly these institutions that have been made most powerless by the digital revolution.
We desperately need to build new cages for power: a Royal Society of Technologists, ethics-by-design coded into every platform, digital citizenship taught in schools, a major digital literacy programme available in libraries. The whole fabric of rules, norms and laws needs to be updated, and these are some of the things that could help us to achieve that. But the real difficulty is to know how to do it quickly enough. The way power works is changing as quickly as the technology that it flows through. Ensuring the rules, laws and norms move just as fast is one of the key challenges of our generation.
As one of Burim’s webpages came up, he started laughing hard, rocking back in his chair, his chest shaking. “Look,” he said, turning his phone around so I could see. “Look who is paying us today.” The banner on the page was advertising Facebook. Still chuckling he got up to leave, and, after a few paces, hesitated, turning back to our table. “The coffee is on me”, he said, and winked.