Happy Putin

The Putin-regime must have made a fortune placing ads next to their propaganda

Misinformation campaigns aren’t just cheap – they are profitable.

Thanks to AdSense and monetization options on social media the creators of fake information and propaganda can get rich. That means that the global mental destabilization operation by Putin was not just cheap and self-financing – it might have made his regime richer.

Every click you donated to Sputnik and assorted Russian-run disinformation sites made the disinformation machine richer. Whether they were peddling the ingestion of hydrogen peroxide to cure cancer (I didn’t make this up) or that Hillary Clinton ate babies. Whether they were obviously political – or just demented quackery whose single goal was to steer you away from actual medicine. It also included porn (the great replacement theory is the same as the porn genre called “BBC” and attractive for the same users for the very same reason) and specialized propaganda, like weakening trust in western vaccines to push Putin’s autocratic prestige jab.

These operations didn’t just cost next to nothing to run. They made money for those who ran them.

In 2016, at the height of the Trump-Clinton election campaign when American was convinced it was a life or death situation, a bunch of teenagers from the Balkan were trying to run a news site and profit from ad revenues. Their chosen language was English (the biggest language market) and the best-performing market was the US (American clicks are worth a lot more to advertisers than clicks from poor countries). That much was easy to decide for anyone in the business.

But the aforementioned teens in Macedonia also ran their own market research and found that political news was the most clickable (it was a campaign with heightened, nay, hysterical emotions) and the most clicked titles were the ones that featured one Hilary Clinton, and specifically in a negative context.

The teens reacted to market demand and kept churning out content with titles like “JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money To Clinton Campaign!” and “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal To Leave White House, He Will Stay In Power!”

The politically one-sided nature of their operation came not from their bias for Trump, but from the fact that Clinton-hating folks were much more likely to click and share unchecked sources as long as they talked trash about Clinton. “Nothing can beat Trump’s supporters when it comes to social media engagement,” says 18-year-old Dimitri, who claims to have made $60,000 in the past six months from the fake news phenomenon. “So that’s why we stick with Trump.” The boy was “one of dozens of teenagers in the Macedonian town of Veles who got rich during the U.S. presidential election producing fake news for millions on social media. The articles, sensationalist and often baseless, were posted to Facebook, drawing in armies of readers and earning fake-news writers money from penny-per-click advertising.”

Sensationalist and baseless because fake information isn’t just cheap – it can be as mind-blowing and as shareable as they made it. They literally just made them up, sitting in a chair, so why could a sneeze not turn into a brain tumor?

There has always been a fatal asymmetry at the heart of the fake news vs real news battle:

  • Real news is pricey to gather and to write up – while fake news is literally free. Real news is gathered on location, with costly reportage, a traveling journalist or long weeks and months of investigations. Then it has a legal team to double-check and to defend later in court. It has editors and fact checkers.
  • Fake news doesn’t require any of the above. It is literally free to produce. A teen in a village can type up a completely made-up post about the brain tumor of Hilary Clinton and sit back and collect the ad money.

On top of that, real news is always unsatisfyingly complex, while fake news is designed to be black-and-white, red-hot outrageous and the most shareable combination of scary and “informative”. It can even be “breaking news”, who cares.

Fake news also happens to be a weapon of choice of the Russian info war (they called it that, hello) and thus it enriched the Putin-regime directly. It wasn’t just one more thing the regime spent money on next to their military. It actually brought in the dollars.

Just take a look at the revenues of Hungarian fake news operations during the pandemic.

Virus-denial and vaccine-skeptic content was highly clickable and shareable for the receptive audience because it 1) confirmed what they already believed, 2) it seemed informative and 3) it seemed to warn them of danger. And you must warn others of danger, don’t you?

Hungarian is a tiny language market and the revenues from spreading fake news in Hungarians can only be a fraction of those in English. Even so, the known Hungarian pandemic-fraudsters made 11 million euros only on click-based ad revenues according to the research done by the think tank, Political Capital. For context, that’s 150% of the annual ad revenues of the biggest Hungarian commercial TV channel.

To make it even more hypocritical, these sites collectively ride the built-in anti-corporation sentiment of half-educated or ideologically blinded people and most of their “insight” on the pandemic and vaccines was also a variation on the conspiracy theory “corporations made it all up to sell you more X”. It is a tired but well-oiled trope of simplistic minds and lends familiarity to the arguments.

Yes, you are an exploited underdog – you just suspect the wrong villain this time.

If healthcare-fraudsters could make 11 million in Hungarian, how much do you think the entire, global Russian disinformation operation has earned for those who were running it? The operation has been raging for at least a decade and also included less savory elements like porn – making it all the more profitable for the operators. Not only was it a cheap (guerilla) way of destabilizing western societies – it might have made a fortune to those who were running the operation. And ultimately to Putin’s regime.

In the meantime they succeeded in pitting one group of western societies against the other and telling them it’s a life-or-death division. That their real enemy is each other – not Putin.

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