The 2020 election is fast approaching, and voters are not only deciding whom to vote for, but also, what to believe. According to filmmaker Leslie Iwerks, understanding the truth in media can be “tricky.”
Iwerks has been researching fake news for her new short documentary “Selling Lies,” which is available to stream on Oct. 9, on ShortsTV, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vimeo on Demand just a few short weeks before Election Day.
In “Selling Lies,” Iwerks examines the 2016 Macedonian fake news industry operated by young people, many of whom were students from a small town of Veles, which turned into the center of a money-making, fake-news machine.
These teenagers earned substantial income by creating political articles with sensational headlines, which were then shared at high volumes across social media. Because the articles were linked to advertisement revenues, with every mouse click more money went into Macedonian pockets.
“I think these kids were having a great time just laughing at the American public, who were reading the most inane headlines,” said Iwerks. But it was not the humor of the situation that motivated these students. It was the money.
“I don't think they really cared who was going to win the election or not. It was a quick way to make money,” said Iwerks.
Lefkija Gadzoska agrees. Gadzoska is from North Macedonia and was formerly the mayor of Krushevo. She said she was surprised to hear that teenagers from her country could influence American politics. “How can someone from small Macedonia influence the great America?” said Gadzoska.
As Gadzoska learned more about the fake news industry in nearby Veles, she realized the students were tempted by the large payouts. The average salary in North Macedonia is $500 a month, but income in the fake news industry was as high as $100,000 per month.
“The motive is money,” said Gadzoska. “Young, unemployed people, but skilled in information technologies in the fake news industry, recognized easy and very fast earnings.”
Although money is an enticing motivator, for others like Trajce Arsov, the motivation goes beyond financial ambitions. In “Selling Lies” Arsov explains his intentions were to sway the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor.
“Why in the world did this guy care about our election to the point where he was putting all this money into Facebook?” questioned Iwerks. “He just felt that he had a voice and a way to steer our election here in America, and felt very strongly that Trump should win.”
The extent to which the Macedonian fake news industry affected the 2016 election is still unclear, but undoubtedly the messaging was landing in front of American eyes. “I almost look back on this time as sort of the first U.S. election to get really hacked by the laymen from foreign countries,” said Iwerks.
In “Selling Lies” Iwerks also explores the issue of morality of the Macedonian fake news industry, as well as the responsibility of social media sites and their role in the propagation of fake news.
“Facebook was not set up yet to deal with this. They are such a powerful platform, and they are not handling the trouble that's coming through that platform,” said Iwerks. “Facebook has done a lot since 2016. They haven't done enough by any means.”
Iwerks hopes audiences will examine the credibility of their news sources after watching the film. “Where my heart lies is with the journalists who are out there trying to tell the truth and whose voices are getting buried by the fake news,” said Iwerks.
“A lot of people are hiding under this blanket called freedom of speech,” explained Iwerks. “We can get away with all this negative commentary even if it's fake. That's the problem.”
Iwerks also worries about the breakdown of American democracy. “Social media is such a monster right now. And the genie is out of the bottle, and we can't put it back in. So, how do we tame this beast so that it does not really ruin our democracy?” asked Iwerks.
“If we could go back in time and be an era where we were a tad less polarized and at least able to hear each other's side and try to really understand it, we may disagree with it. But let's try to understand where everyone’s coming from, and let's try to find the truth amidst all the angst.”
As for Gadzoska, she only wishes the best for the United States. “We respect America as the ‘cradle of democracy’ and hope that the American people continue on the path to more effective and realistic democracy this November,” said Gadzoska.
FEATURING: Jay Hoffman and Vanessa Ferguson