Once upon a time, an economically depressed and largely forgotten town in the Balkans experienced a digital gold rush. The averagemonthly salary in Veles, Macedonia, had been $371; now young denizens were earning up to $16,000.
The year was 2016, and the gold was fake news.
The idea that fake news most likely helped Donald Trump get elected is, well, old news. An Ohio University study published in April suggested that fake news dissuaded 4 percent of President Barack Obama’s 2012 supporters from voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. But the extent to which a network of Macedonian teens remotely influenced the U.S. presidential election is still being uncovered.
“Hey, Macedonian teenagers,” yelled Stephen Colbert in a segment from The Late Show that aired on November 16, 2016. “Why can’t you just do normal teenager stuff? Knock it off!”
One teenager did knock it off, but only after he learned of the havoc his and his peers’ actions had wreaked on a democracy thousands of miles away. The filmmaker Kate Stonehill calls him “Sashko,” though that’s not his real name. Stonehill tells his story in her short documentary, Fake News Fairytale, which premieres on The Atlantic today.
The film shows the far-reaching consequences of Sashko’s ambition to make a quick buck. Although Sashko is played by an actor in the film to protect his identity, he’s a real person with a real story—and a real conscience.
“I think there’s a common misconception that people who write fake news must have a nefarious desire to influence politics one way or another,” Stonehill told The Atlantic. “I’m sure some of them undoubtedly do, but I met many people in Macedonia, including Sashko, who were writing fake news simply because they can make some money.”
The film is crafted like a fairy tale, a format Stonehill said allowed her “to explore some of the more interesting questions around fake-ness and lies in storytelling. Fairy tales are fake stories that capture our imagination and draw us in, regardless of their truth.”
Stonehill and her cinematographer, Ronnie McQuillan, shot much of the film with a VHS camera “as a playful way of questioning what makes footage appear authentic to an audience,” she said. “From the very beginning, I wanted there to be some uncertainty around the authorship of the film, in the same way that there is with fake news. Who is telling the story, and how believable is it?”
The film also features imagery of actors wearing paper-cutout faces depicting the likes of Trump, Obama, and Clinton. Even though Stonehill shot in Macedonia, she wanted to remind the viewer that the story ultimately impacts the United States. “The masks also completely flatten the politicians into two-dimensional parodies of themselves,” she added, “which is exactly what fake news does.”
While making Fake News Fairytale, Stonehill came across a particularly resonant quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”
“In the true spirit of fake news, this quote has been misattributed to lots of different authors over time,” Stonehill said. “I have no idea who the originator of the quote is, but I think it’s a very true statement and very indicative of what we’re seeing with fake news.”
Stonehill believes the first step to combatting the seductive proliferationof falsehoods is opening up an honest, critical discussion about technology, speech, and politics in order to better understand the fake-news phenomenon. “How, when, and why did the truth lose its currency?” she asked. “Who is profiting when the truth doesn’t matter? In my opinion, we’re only just beginning to unpack the answers to these questions.”