Wie langer dan een uurtje in het idyllische stadje Ohrid verblijft, aan het gelijknamige meer, ontkomt niet aan de Nederlander A. den Doolaard, pseudoniem van Cornelis ‘Bob’ Spoelstra. In de eeuwenoude Noord-Macedonische stad staat een monument voor deze schrijver-avonturier en zelfs een museum op een bijzonder centraal gelegen plek. Of eigenlijk een herdenkingskamer met foto’s en tientallen boeken in bijna evenveel talen.
In de eerste decennia na de oorlog genoot Den Doolaard, die vijfentwintig jaar geleden in Hoenderloo overleed, ook in Nederland grote bekendheid. Door zijn werk als omroeper voor Radio Oranje, de verzetszender uit Londen, maar ook door de romans die hij schreef tijdens zijn omzwervingen over de wereld in de jaren voor de oorlog. Een bijzonder populaire roman, Herberg met het hoefijzer (een dunnetje) speelt zich af in Albanië. Een andere hit, Bruiloft der zeven zigeuners (ook geen baksteen) speelt zich net over de grens van dat land af, in Ohrid.
THE FIRST ARTICLE about Donald Trump that Boris ever published described how, during a campaign rally in North Carolina, the candidate slapped a man in the audience for disagreeing with him. This never happened, of course. Boris had found the article somewhere online, and he needed to feed his website, Daily Interesting Things, so he appropriated the text, down to its last misbegotten comma. He posted the link on Facebook, seeding it within various groups devoted to American politics; to his astonishment, it was shared around 800 times. That month—February 2016—Boris made more than $150 off the Google ads on his website. Considering this to be the best possible use of his time, he stopped going to high school.
Boris isn’t his real name. He prefers the anonymity because he doesn’t want to break ranks with the other people in his town of Veles, in the Balkan nation of Macedonia. Nobody here wants to dwell on Trump anymore. Veles has the feel of a small community clamming up out of a suspicion that it’s being talked about for all the wrong reasons.
In the final weeks of the US presidential election, Veles attained a weird infamy in the most powerful nation on earth; stories in The Guardian and on BuzzFeed revealed that the Macedonian town of 55,000 was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist, utterly fake news. (The imminent criminal indictment of Hillary Clinton was a popular theme; another was the pope’s approval of Trump.) The sites’ ample traffic was rewarded handsomely by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense. An article in The New Yorker described how President Barack Obama himself spent a day in the final week of the campaign talking “almost obsessively” about Veles and its “digital gold rush.”
Within Veles itself, the young entrepreneurs behind these websites became subjects of tantalizing intrigue. Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.
Boris is 18 years old, a lean, slouching youth with gray eyes, hair mowed close to his skull, and the rudiments of a beard. When he isn’t smoking a cigarette, he’s lighting one. He listens to a lot of gangsta rap: the Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Wu-Tang Clan; after watching Notorious, the 2009 biopic of B.I.G., he decided he would like to visit Brooklyn, a New York City borough he imagines overrun more by gangsters than hipsters. He is an affable raconteur, with a droll sense of humor and a clear-eyed view of himself and his town. Someday he wants to leave Veles, because of how little there is to do. You can live with your parents and have them pay for your evenings in a bar, or you can bus tables in a café. If you’re a gym rat, you might work security. A few factories on the outskirts of town still offer regular employment, but nothing lavish. “We can’t make money here with a real job,” Boris says. “This Google AdSense work is not a real job.”
At best, Boris’ English is halting and fractured—certainly not good enough to turn out five to 10 articles about Trump and Clinton every day for weeks on end. Fortunately for him, the election summoned forth the energies of countless alt-right websites in the US, which manufactured white-label falsehoods disguised as news on an industrial scale. Across the spectrum of right-wing media—from Trump’s own concise lies on Twitter to the organized prevarication of Breitbart News and NationalReport.net—ideology beat back the truth. What Veles produced, though, was something more extreme still: an enterprise of cool, pure amorality, free not only of ideology but of any concern or feeling about the substance of the election. These Macedonians on Facebook didn’t care if Trump won or lost the White House. They only wanted pocket money to pay for things—a car, watches, better cell phones, more drinks at the bar. This is the arrhythmic, disturbing heart of the affair: that the internet made it so simple for these young men to finance their material whims and that their actions helped deliver such momentous consequences.