Right here, right now, watching the world turn into a movie.
With all due respect to Jesus Jones, that’s what being alive in the here and now is beginning to feel like. A former reality TV star with no qualifications and an appallingly long list of controversies has somehow been elected the President of the United States, and has almost instantly betrayed all of his campaign promises or just flat out lied about them (so much for “Won’t Get Fooled Again”). Russia has been accused of unduly influencing the election. The engines of war are revving up in the China Sea.
It’s all so surreal, as if we’ve all been victimized by some world domination scheme hatched by a comic book or James Bond villain. It’s to the point that the people behind HBO’s Veep have repeatedly argued if they were to have written any of this business with Trump into the show’s most recent season it would have been rejected by audiences as seeming too outlandish. Our current reality is too strange for fiction.
However, the storytellers of the world have to and most definitely will eventually tackle all of this the best they can. There will be movies and documentaries attempting to shine a light on Trumpism and the Brexit, i.e., cheap biopics, compassionate portraits of regular folk feeling left and forgotten by the forces of globalism, eviscerations of the failure of the media. Michael Moore’s already made his Trump documentary. More will follow. Others will be more creative with their reactions, likely leading to even more horror films using metaphors to comment on the plight of the economically disenfranchised (Don’t Breathe) or thrillers set against the backdrop of America’s white nationalist movement (Green Room, Imperium).
Mark my words, though: Somebody somewhere is going to make a movie or several movies about what’s going on in Macedonia right now. They’ll have to; the inherent drama and irony is just so rich.
If you’ve forgotten, in the days after the election experts cited the spread of fake news, the majority of it catered to Trump supporters and spread through Facebook, as a chief culprit in the outcome. Our “informed electorate” is falling hook, line and sinker for the 21st century equivalent of digital propaganda and using it as a primary news source. Of course, there are those, like Mark Zuckerberg, who downplay the potential impact of fake news on elections, but those people don’t live in the Midwest where everyone’s uncle truly believes all of the insane fake news headlines a more sensible person would just ignore.
Tasked with discovering where all the fake news comes from, BuzzFeed and the Guardian delivered a shocker when they traced more than 100 fake news domains to the small Macedonian town of Veles. On top of that, the majority of the domains are owned by and run by teenagers. These are people living in a country most Americans can’t even locate on a map (just remember: it’s right above Greece). They couldn’t even legally drink if they lived here.
Inevitably, various legitimate news entities have since descended upon Veles (pictured above) to better understand what exactly is happening there. NBC News’ Alexander Smith filed his report from Veles this past weekend, and if the Harvey Weinstein-esque producers of the world who read and option just about everything they see as a potential movie haven’t already optioned the film rights for this story they should get on that.
Smith tracked an 18-year-old Macedonian going by Dimitri (he declined to offer his real name), and found what would otherwise seem like a triumph of capitalism as well as a model example of the downtrodden rising out of adversity and making something more of themselves. Dimitri and others like him are essentially living the American Dream by preying on Americans’ utter, utter stupidity, making them war profiteers of the disinformation age.
First, the adversity:
Once part of communist Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia has a population of 2.1 million in a landlocked area about the size Vermont. Blanketed by rugged mountains, parts of the country have enjoyed a tourism surge in recent years.
But vacationers won’t find Veles in many travel guides. The town of 50,000 is almost an hour’s drive down a lonely, crumbling highway from the capital, Skopje.
Almost a quarter of Macedonians are currently unemployed — a rate around five times higher than in the U.S.
You make the movie about one of these kids, possibly “Dimitri,” possibly a composite character. Make one of their parents unemployed, the other struggling with the stress of overwork and lack of upward mobility. Make it clear that to this kid the future looks bleak, and always has for as long as they can remember. Follow them on their way to school to illustrate just how much everyone knows each other in town, but also how times are hard everywhere you look.
Then the triumph and rationalization:
Dimitri says he’s earned at least $60,000 in the past six months — far outstripping his parents’ income and transforming his prospects in a town where the average annual wage is $4,800. He is one of the more successful fake news pushers in the area.
He says he now employs three 15-year-olds, paying them the equivalent of $10 per day. As well as buying new laptops and paying cash to boost his posts on social media, he has also invested some of his earnings into real estate — a joint venture with his parents, who are more than happy with his success.
“I didn’t force anyone to give me money,” he says. “People sell cigarettes, they sell alcohol. That’s not illegal, why is my business illegal? If you sell cigarettes, cigarettes kill people. I didn’t kill anyone.”
Basically, think of the first thirds of The Social Network and War Dogs, but with kids who look like they should be in Sing Street. The crucial moment will be the first time the kid turns a fake news story into a viral hit. You need to highlight the instance he realized this could actually work because people really are that stupid.
Then the competition:
High unemployment and a close-knit community meant that when Dimitri and others started making money, word quickly spread and everyone wanted a piece of the action.
Dimitri estimates there are now 300 locals dabbling in fake news, with at least 50 making “decent money,” and around a dozen making “a lot.” He says he’s not quite at the top of the pecking order, but not far off.
“This business updates every hour, every ten minutes, every minute,” he says. “There are always news ideas, new types of generating new visitors and that’s the thing we all want.”
So while newspapers across the globe are losing advertising revenue, Dimitri’s empire of lies is thriving.
“We stay up late and we don’t sleep that much — I haven’t slept good for a couple of months now,” he says. “I have to go to school and then at night I have to work.”
He and his colleagues see the process as an art. At first they worked on a basis of trial-and-error. Now it comes naturally.
“You see what people like and you just give it to them,” he explains. “You see they like water, you give water, they like wine, you give wine. It’s really simple.”
Montage will be the filmmaker’s friend during this part of the story, jumping from one house to another to show person after person setting up websites while jaunty music plays and possibly the lead character’s voice-over describes everything if you want to go full Scorsese with it. Nailing the juxtaposition for the main character, going to high school during the day, writing fake stories into the early morning hours, will be key.
The party montage:
The influx of money has created a thriving party culture in Veles.
On Saturday, one local nightclub was barely keeping up with demand, as dozens of teens and young adults ordered ice buckets filled with large $35 bottles of vodka.
Possibly use Nerve-like editing to showcase the teenagers sharing all of their partying through social media.
The sex and lavish spending:
In this new era, the purveyors of fake news are the coolest kids in the schoolyard.
“Since fake news started, girls are more interested in geeks than macho guys,” says one 17-year-old girl standing at the bar.
The most successful fake-news publishers have “bought themselves houses, apartments, maybe invested in some real estate or in some businesses,” according to Dimitri. “They have bought themselves cars, they have bought … their girlfriends better cars, better places to live,” he says.
There will need to be a girl or girls who didn’t give the main kid the time of day at the start of the movie but are now very available to him.
The embrace of the community:
Most people are cagey about admitting any direct involvement in fake news. But Tony, a 40-year-old taxi driver, says that every young person he knows — including his own son — is in on the act.
“I’ve been doing this job for 18 years and I know everyone in the city,” he says. “I know kids who are minors, 16 or 17 years old, and they bought BMWs after running these websites.”
Is he worried about his son making money from selling hoaxes online? “It’s better to do this job than to go into the drug business,” he says.
Also unperturbed is Veles’ mayor, Slavcho Chadiev.
“Is it criminal activity? Not according to the law of Macedonia,” he says during an interview in his office. “All that money went through the state system and everyone paid their taxes.”
Like many Macedonians, he blames recent Democratic administrations in Washington for not doing more to help their country’s attempts to join the European Union and NATO. (Greece has blocked these efforts in a dispute over Macedonia’s name — the country’s official title at the United Nations is the cumbersome Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.)
What would he do if he encountered one of these fake news tycoons?
“I would ask him, ‘Are you looking for a job?’ Because I have a lack of IT guys,” he says, before admitting that the salary of less than $400 might not be attractive.
Dimitri says his goal is to earn $1 million, and it’s no surprise the young entrepreneur sees Trump as “a small role model.”
The problem now is there’s no ending. The third act twist is Donald Trump winning the election, and the world suddenly becoming aware of Veles. But what happens next? Do the sites all whither away after Facebook and Google crack down on them? Do these suddenly wealthy teenagers return to their prior lives? Will car and house payments be defaulted upon? Will this be a rags to riches back to rags story? Or does that enterprising 18-year-old from Macedonia turn into the next iteration of the man he possibly helped elect?
Perhaps it seems crass to already be plotting this out as a movie. It’s the kind of thinking I’ve been driven to in this world where we all might be living in The Matrix anyway. To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure how it would work if someone optioned this specific article. I just know War Dogs started off as a non-fiction article, and that there will some day be a movie made about these Macedonian teenagers, a true coming of age story set to the backdrop of the world re-entering the dark ages.