In August, Facebook Trending Topics featured a story claiming Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had been fired. "BREAKING: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary," read the headline. After a brief furor, Facebook removed the content from Trending when it became clear Kelly had not been fired or anything like it.
Undeterred, the source credited with promoting the story, website Ending the Fed, kept pushing demonstrably false, unbylined articles on its Facebook page. According to a recent BuzzFeed analysis, the site was responsible for four of the 10 top-performing false election stories on Facebook in the three months before election day. Collectively, the four stories generated approximately 2,953,000 engagements. Ending the Fed's Facebook page, titled End the Fed, has 350,000 Likes.
If you didn't see the story about Kelly, maybe you read another widely circulated story claiming Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. Or one saying Hillary Clinton was selling weapons to ISIS. Or one saying Clinton was disqualified from holding federal office, or one claiming the FBI director had received millions of dollars from the Clinton Foundation.
Over in Romania, Ovidiu Drobota, the 24-year-old behind Ending the Fed, has been paying attention to the controversy over the prevalence on Facebook of fake news stories like the ones he disseminated. When I contacted him on Friday after uncovering his identity, Drobota was proud of the role he played in building support for Trump and defensive about his motives and ethics.
In essence, he conceded that Ending the Fed publishes propaganda of a sort, but believes that's no different from what mainstream news outlets do every day. He said he regrets putting out stories that turned out to be bogus and claimed he removes anything definitively debunked, like the pope endorsement story. "You can check that out," he wrote in a direct message conversation on Twitter.
Drobota didn't explicitly confirm his full name, which appears on multiple interlinked online accounts that share the same photos of him. These accounts include six Facebook profiles, his Twitter account, a Stack Exchange account, and other profiles. I found the accounts by matching the photo and username on his author profile at endingthefed.com to his first name and photos in other online profiles.
He requested that I use only his first name in this story, saying he had been harassed in private Facebook messages by users "threatening me, cursing me. One of them wished me 'cancer.' " I declined his request on the grounds of newsworthiness. (After communicating with me, he changed his author page on endingthefed.com to include his first name and last initial.)
Drobota described Ending the Fed as a "conservative news website." It received roughly 3.4 million unique visitors in the U.S. over the last 30 days, according to measurement firm Alexa. Much of that comes from Facebook, wrote Drobota. By way of comparison on traffic,The San Francisco Chronicle's website sfgate.com got 8 million uniques and The Intercept (theintercept.com) got about 2.6 million.*
Drobota calls Ending the Fed "one of the largest websites in the world." That may not be quite accurate, but his traffic is more than enough for its creator to be making substantial revenue. The false headline racket is a lucrative one. "Right now I make like $10,000 a month from [Google] AdSense," Paul Horner, who earns his living writing hoax news as satire, told the Washington Post in a recent interview. Horner said he believed his phony headlines, written to punk the far right, may have helped the Trump campaign, an outcome he regrets. "Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad]."
In an analysis of 140 Macedonia-based U.S. politics sites pushing fake headlines, most of them run by teenagers and young men, BuzzFeed reported that the creators of these sites had found that the best way to generate traffic on their sites was to get the stories shared on Facebook.
"They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a U.S. Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the U.S. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of U.S. display advertising -- a declining market for American publishers -- goes a long way in [Macedonian city] Veles," the outlet reported.
Both Facebook and Google have announced changes in their ad network policies aimed at curbing incentives to promote false, misleading, or hoax headlines. Horner said he expects Google and Facebook's moves to negatively impact his revenue.
Drobota wrote that while he has profited from his site, economic incentives weren't key to his decision to launch endingthefed.com. He said that his regular work is in SEO and web programming. "In the past I was a hacker. But not anymore. It is dangerous to be a hacker," he wrote. He described the site as a hobby stemming from his own interest in U.S. politics.
"In October 2015, I heard about Donald J. Trump and I liked him. I liked the fact that he is an outsider. I studied him and the media," he told me. "And I thought I can help him to win the presidency by creating a website. So I created http://endingthefed.com. I feel sorry for posting some 'fake' news. I removed them but at that time, I didn't really know about them being fake."
He added, "I am not related with the Trump campaign. I am just a Trump supporter. I don't like to be in public because a lot of liberals calls [sic] me a racist, which I am not. I have a lot of Facebook messages. They are harassing me. I also don't have any relation with Russia or WikiLeaks. Just to be clear."
Stories on Ending the Fed, which dates from March according to a record WHOIS, run without bylines. Drobota takes content from other websites including InfoWars, of which he is a fan, and appears to copy and paste it verbatim. Asked if Ending the Fed does any of its own reporting, he replied, "End The Fed reported WikiLeaks stories proven to be TRUE." It was unclear whether he meant he himself was writing stories based on materials released by WikiLeaks.
Drobota wrote that he's cracking down on fake news on his website by cross-checking stories against websites like InfoWars, the Daily Caller, Western Journalism, and Conservative Tribune, whose content he considers reliable. InfoWars is a website known for promoting conspiracy theories like the claim that the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged by actors.
"I intend to [do] a better job. No one is perfect. Even the Huffington Post or other liberal news websites wrote 'fake' stories," he wrote.
In addition to Ending the Fed, Drobota confirmed that he runs a Facebook page in Romanian called Chestionare Auto DRPCIV, which he said pertains to education. Chestionare translates to "questionnaire." Drobota variously lists himself as CEO, founder, and owner of the page on his six Facebook profiles identified by Inc.
His profiles don't state his connection to Ending the Fed's page. The page obscures the identity of its admin, an instance of anonymity permitted by Facebook. The company said Friday that it allows this anonymity for pages because sometimes there is reason for the admin not to be publicly connected to the page--for example, if the page is an official fan site being maintained on behalf of a celebrity. The policy sets Facebook's treatment of pages apart from its treatment of personal profiles, where the platform has been known to insist users go by real names.
There's an exception to the allowance of anonymity on pages. Facebook's Community Standards state, "We may ask Page owners to associate their name and Facebook Profile with a Page that contains cruel and insensitive content, even if that content does not violate our policies."
The terms "cruel and insensitive" appear calibrated to discourage cyberbullying, not news articles about public figures, however defamatory. A Facebook spokesperson presented with several stories from Ending the Fed said the page did not violate its guidelines.
On the other hand, Facebook confirmed that having multiple personal profiles does go against its rules, which require users to use their real identities. The company said it relies on users to help it flag violations of guidelines and take action where applicable, and that it was investigating Drobota's multiple profiles to determine which profile is correct so that the company may remove duplicates.
Drobota wrote that he has multiple profiles "because I was using a lot of Facebook groups. To post news." Two profiles, including the one he told me he uses to post on End the Fed, say he lives in Chicago. Chicago would be a nice place to live, he explained. His other profiles place him in the Romanian city of Oradea. He said he has not lived in the United States, "but maybe I will come to USA and visit some places like NASA and take a picture with Donald J. Trump. :)"
A Romanian's admiration for an American presidential candidate may seem quirky to residents of the United States, but it reflects a global trend of interest in Trump, particularly among those with right-wing nationalist politics.
Drobota wrote that his affinity with Trump as a Romanian stems from his concerns about globalization and opposition to immigration policies in Europe. "A Trump presidency will be good for the entire world. For example, fair TRADE deals. The nations having borders. Security. Here in Europe has happened a lot of bad things with the massive migration. But the press do not report the bad things," he wrote, adding that he thinks joining the European Union has not benefited Romania.
Like the president-elect he admires, Drobota is a believer in conspiracy theories. "Globalism would be a great thing IF... It wouldn't be hijacked be people like George Soros who thinks that his ideas are good for our society," he wrote. Soros was a donor to the Clinton campaign, and has been the target of dark whispers by the so-called alt-right movement, including a rumor that he attempted to rig the U.S. presidential election. Drobota sent me a link to a YouTube video titled "Soros's Formula for Killing America: A Brief Guide, for Americans."
He has an aversion to mainstream media, telling me at the beginning of our conversation, "You seem like a nice person, but I don't trust the (corporate) mainstream media. In addition, I have no faith in the reporters who works [sic] for any 'owned' mainstream press."
"End The Fed is a movement. I am not owned by anyone. It is just me. [And I] outperformed the mainstream media," Drobota wrote.
*Editor's note: The original version of this story contained a sentence saying Ending the Fed has traffic comparable to the traffic for latimes.com and usatoday.com. That sentence was based on data from Quantcast. Data from another measurement firm, Alexa, reflects much larger traffic for those sites, however. This story was edited to reflect a more apt comparison set for Ending the Fed's traffic.