Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A hyperpartisan website with ties to foreign actors spread divisive and misleading news about the US election and built a formidable audience online, exploiting existing fractures in American politics to attract attention and ad revenue.
It sounds like old news. In 2016, we heard about Macedonian teens who created hundreds of pro-Trump Facebook pages. Later, the federal government revealed that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US presidential election using social media.
But in the intervening years, tech giants have poured billions into combating misinformation—especially foreign misinformation—on their services. Although their enforcement was uneven at times, the measures largely worked. The misinformation that spread during the 2020 election cycle mostly came from within the US.
That’s why a new incident is so unusual, and troubling. A website linked to a Macedonian native was quickly reported in 2020, and kicked off the major platforms. But now it’s back, and it has built a massive following on so-called alt tech spaces—platforms like Truth Social, Gettr, Gab and Rumble. Hyperbolic and partisan headlines from the new version of the site have circulated on mainstream social media services like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.
The site, called Resist the Mainstream, was first exposed by the Election Integrity Partnership in October 2020 for spreading hyperpartisan news while hiding its foreign origins. Its founder, Rumen Naumovski, is reportedly a contemporary of the group of teenagers from Veles, North Macedonia, who created hundreds of Facebook pages, often favorable to Donald Trump, during the 2016 US presidential election—with many of those pages spreading false information. Resist the Mainstream became temporarily defunct after the Election Integrity Partnership report, but according to new research reviewed by Bloomberg News from open source researcher Nathan Doctor, it tweaked its website design, changed its domain to resistthemainstream.org (instead of .com) in February 2021, and is still live today.
The rise of the conspiracy-laden website created by this young Macedonian is a cautionary tale. It’s also an indication of just how intractable the misinformation problem on social media will be, especially ahead of the 2022 US midterm elections. Even as the biggest tech companies make strides on the issue, the players, their tactics and the loopholes they exploit are always shifting under their feet.