A guide to the New East

Letter from Veles

The real story of Macedonia's fake news factory

“Made in Tito’s Veles” is the trademark you may find if you turn over a dainty porcelain dish in any ex-Yugoslav country. Emblazoned alongside the initials of Yugoslavia’s chief economic planner, this was a trademark that proudly belonged to the golden era of Yugoslavia’s rapid industrialisation. It was a hallmark of reputable, tangible goods, the genuine article. Now known simply as Veles, the city that was once an industrial hub in the heart of the Republic of Macedonia recently became infamous for manufacturing a very different and pernicious product for export: the "fake news" stories being peddled by some of its digitally literate teenage population.

While older residents nostalgically recount the days when they were proud to see Ivanka (Mrs Tito) wearing silk spun in their factories, their tech-savvy grandchildren achieved a sudden notoriety last autumn, having capitalised on the lucrative media storm surrounding Donald Trump. In turn, the brief flurry of media coverage on unrepentant “adolescent kingpins” assaulting Western politics with their burgeoning empires of misinformation propagated its own distorted representations of an unfamiliar city and its inhabitants. By spotlighting the experience of disenchanted teenage boys, the media cast the whole city in the unflattering light of conventional eastern European stereotypes. Veles became a quintessentially bleak, impoverished vacuum out on the “Balkan hinterlands”, begetting amoral profiteering. Such images ignore the multifaceted reality and belong to a long tradition of Westerners seeking out what historian Larry Wolff called the “half-barbarian” at the “unpolished extremity” of the continent.

By spotlighting the experience of disenchanted teenage boys, the media cast the whole city in the unflattering light

This isn’t the first time Veles residents (veleshanec) – notoriously web-savvy as they are – have read unflattering, sensationalist coverage of themselves in the international press. German media previously christened the place the “Vice Capital of Macedonia”, and the hundreds of its inhabitants who profited from a highly effective and resilient drug trade the “Frankfurt Mafia”. People here are all too used to images of abandoned factories, war-ravaged buildings and gangsters. Ask them what they think of their portrayal in the press and they’ll meet your inquiry with the cynical shrug of someone long resigned to foreigners being entirely ignorant of their country, let alone their city.

That isn’t to say veleshanec aren’t familiar with poverty. The rubbish-strewn riverbanks, steep potholed streets and shabby concrete façades speak of a place neglected by state infrastructure. And for those who lack other forms of social security, such as the Roma children who beg on the streets and in school cafeterias, poverty is indeed a grinding, everyday reality. Yet although the average monthly salary in Veles is meagre and unemployment abounds, enterprising locals have long found means to finance lifestyles that are far from bleak. Shiny new cars and smartphones may at first seem incongruous with the city’s worn veneer, but such signs of modernity are hardly novel here, and are certainly not the result of a sudden “digital gold-rush”. What a passing visitor does not see is the myriad innovative ways people have found to fill the vacuum the state left, the legacy of highly skilled and aspirational citizens and the vibrant, highly cultivated social networks which provide community support.

What a passing visitor does not see is the myriad innovative ways people have found to fill the vacuum the state left

When Yugoslavia dissolved, Veles was left in a particularly precarious position. Its close proximity to Skopje (a quick drive down a NATO-financed road, not the “lonely, crumbling highway” portrayed by journalists) meant that prospects for long-term private investment were sucked away by the gravitational pull of the capital city. People with good educations, especially in technical fields, were forced to find other means to continue their family’s prosperity. As with many ex-Yugoslav cities, professionals like doctors and engineers migrated, and diaspora money trickled in to fill part of the void. A globalised world presented other earning opportunities: shifts on cruise ships, NATO bases and construction sites, or selling heroin. Bulgarian passports, to which many Macedonians are legally entitled, presented other geographical possibilities.

Over the last five years another way to exploit the global market has blossomed: digital advertising. As soon as a few people started making money, the idea proliferated. The locally famous Healthy Food Brothers were early digital pioneers who now harvest thousands of euros each month from adverts garnishing online articles stuffed with health and beauty tips. An incessant stream of natural remedies you might hear about from your grandmother, repackaged and amplified for the gullible millions worldwide now hungry for instant transformation.

Since then a plethora of other sites run out of Veles have been employing locals to write and publish content about healthy lifestyles, cars or politics. The internet is providing an ever-expanding supply of online jobs to a population that has long valued technical education and skills. Self-taught with the help of online tutorials, both girls and boys aspire to jobs in the tech industry: they set up their own enterprises or find crowdsourced jobs online for foreign businesses. Their interests are shaped by the globalised market they freely access online, and in turn they are fashioning hybrid roles as consumers and producers.

The internet is providing an ever-expanding supply of online jobs to a population that has long valued technical education and skills

Take Bojana, a high-school student in the same year as many of the boys who made headlines peddling fake news. She and her programmer-to-be boyfriend set up a website devoted to celebrity gossip. Thus far she hasn't made any profit, but that isn't her primary goal. Building the site, writing content and generating traffic are how she turns an ordinary teenager’s fascination with glamour and fame into a way to develop skills. She hopes to study web design at university, an aspiration shared by her classmates. Such a mature approach isn’t rare in a place where young people understand all too well that there is no security net to fall back on.

But Bojana’s example didn’t fit the newsworthy narrative – her male schoolmates’ did. One canny 18-year-old, Alex, is the manager of a cafe-turned-nightclub in a corner of the city’s sprawling, brutalist sports complex. In a room packed with young high schoolers in their best attire (the official early closing time makes it easy for local law enforcement to turn a blind eye), a bottle of vodka on a reserved table can signify a particularly profitable month’s earnings online. Under the strobe lights reputations and relationships are refined, as a new generation experiment with the process of building networks to replace the now extinct state-planned ones that supported their grandparents’ ambitions. The cover band play turbo-folk hits – already considered classics – and the young crowd nostalgically sing along.

Journalists left with matching impressions of Alex and his friends, who became unwitting and unfavourable young ambassadors of Veles. Attention was paid only to outward appearances, the flashy emblems of commercial success described with an undisguised distaste: designer watches, fast cars and “fancy cocktails” (consumables that actually evidence how little the fake news windfall touched the local economy). Adding to the unsavoury image was a general consensus on their “amoral” attitudes and “cocksure demeanours.” In turn the journalists left an impression on the teens they spoke to. A minority of chequebook journalists was derided, though their flexible code of ethics was nonetheless welcomed as added pocket money.

The colourful and idiosyncratic trajectory Veles is taking from socialist economic planning to market relations remains hidden

And so the exploits of a new generation of teenage boys proved to be the perfect breeding ground for the reproduction of old tropes, a by-product of their enterprise, exported and proliferated by mass media. Cast in the role of a desolate “rust-belt town,” the colourful and idiosyncratic trajectory Veles is taking from socialist economic planning to market relations remains hidden. What do they make in Veles? Fictions, certainly. But not all of their own design.

Text: Lalage Harris
Image: Duncan Harvey

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