TIRANA, Albania ― We know now that a river of fake news and propaganda flowed through social media during the 2016 presidential campaign. But it’s not clear in every case where it came from, or who was paying for it.
To get closer to the answer, HuffPost interviewed Hysen Alimi, a young, Albanian IT freelancer. Alimi set up at least seven websites in Albania beginning in March 2016, according to public domain registrations. The sites, which operated during the Democratic primaries and the U.S. presidential election, pushed a favorable view of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) while attacking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with fake stories.
Among the sites were Bients.com and ThePredicted.com, two professional-looking pages that fit the model of sites that U.S. intelligence services say traffic in fake news and propaganda. (For more on these sites, see HuffPost’s previous investigation into how this type of content circulates.) Alimi also created the Facebook page Bernie Sanders Lovers, which says it’s based in Burlington, Vermont. That page has more than 88,000 followers, and is still operating.
When Alimi set up his websites, 22 states had already counted their votes in the Democratic primary, and the chances of Sanders becoming the nominee were slim. But the sites continued to share fake stories on Clinton, while trying to reinforce support for Sanders. The underlying message was clear: Sanders supporters should not endorse Clinton.
Alimi’s sites distributed their content via Facebook, where it raised eyebrows but was also widely shared. The content on Alimi’s sites wasn’t original; rather, it was republished from elsewhere on the web.
Fake news stories published on the sites included an accusation that Clinton was heading a secret pedophilia ring in the United States and that her adviser Huma Abedin had ties to radical Islam. Some of the pieces published on ThePredicted carried the byline “Anthony Citron,” which Alimi removed from one piece after HuffPost asked about Citron’s identity. Alimi said in an email that Citron was “just the name of the internet account (admin) who posted it.”
John Mattes, 66, a Bernie Sanders supporter who has been a television reporter and Senate investigator, says Alimi’s sites “raise serious questions.” Citing a CIA report on Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, he noted that Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency “probably began cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election by March 2016.”
Alimi registered his sites around that time as well. But he says he was genuinely trying to get into the news business by republishing content. “Not a single article is written by us. I am not to blame; people who have worked with me on the websites have not written any articles,” he said in Albanian. “We only tried to be a serious newspaper.”
He also said he set up the Facebook page because he’s a Sanders fan. “The idea came up with one friend, when we were following the U.S. elections and the movement of Bernie Sanders,” Alimi said. “The page has been operating since March 2016. We have never been an official page of Bernie Sanders. Everyone has the right to open his own fan page to give his opinions but not to make fake news.”
Mattes isn’t convinced. “How did he set up the sites if he barely reads English?” he asked. “How did he know what to copy every day? And who fed him copy?”
Alimi said he has no connection to Russia.
“I really feel bad I am being accused of having a connection to Russia. I feel very bad some people have said we are writing fake news, that we are working for Russia and so on,” he said. “It is true that people have only been focusing on us, but all the news [on our sites] has not been written by us. We asked by email if we could republish the articles. Most said yes. Our goal was to make a serious newspaper, and if you see one story written by us you are free to judge us. Look at what sort of news other pages publish. We have nothing to do with fake news.”
But he acknowledged that when he first started out, he may have been trafficking in fake news on Bients.com. ThePredicted.com, he said, was better. “[I]n bients.com maybe can be fake sources but in thepredicted.com we check first if news is real then post,” he said in an email.
Asked about any money he made from the sites, Alimi wouldn’t go into specifics. “It was not a big sum of money,” he said. “It was not a full-time job, and we didn’t have a lot of likes. Other pages had more likes; we didn’t make fake news like the others, to get more web visitors like the Macedonians.”
Alimi said his dream is to set up an online newspaper in the U.S., but “we don’t have the money to invest or to pay American journalists. [We need them], because our English isn’t so good.”
“And by the way, if we had been for the Russians, would we have continued after the elections?” he added.
Alimi also said he thinks his sites’ impact was relatively small. He added in an email that he had voluntarily turned over the Facebook page to Sanders supporters and no longer controls it. Still, the proliferation of fake news in the run-up to the 2016 election certainly could have played a part in dividing Democrats on Clinton.
Aidan King, who set up a pro-Sanders Reddit page in 2013 and later worked for the campaign, told HuffPost last month that he noticed a shift in tone on many pro-Sanders Facebook pages after the primary.
“I’ve gone back and forth on it,” King said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying with any authority it’s a coordinated effort by trolls, but also wouldn’t feel confident saying it was exclusively pissed-off Bernie supporters.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow highlighted Alimi’s sites in a segment earlier this year, after HuffPost published a piece about them. But Alimi doesn’t want the attention. After a series of fact-checking emails for this article last week, he said he’d had enough.
“I’m not doing this anymore,” Alimi said. “I’m going to close my website.”
True to his word, he did.