Underground website selling a program that distributes content on VK public pages
Underground website selling a program that distributes content on VK public pages

A 77-page report released today by cyber-security firm Trend Micro explores the underground landscape of fake news, where anyone can buy influence and create artificial trends to serve personal interests.

An examination of Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern, and English-based underground fake news marketplaces reveals a wide range of services available on these portals.

The report explores several websites where customers can purchase services ranging from "discrediting journalists" to "promoting street protests," and from "stuffing online polls" to "manipulating a decisive course of action," such as an election.

The "fake news" price catalog

Below is a list of prices the Trend Micro team has compiled while investigating these sites:

⯌ $2,600 - Create a fake online celebrity with 300,000 fake followers

⯌ $200,000 - Help instigate a street protest via fake news articles
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $2,700 per news story with 50,000 retweets and likes
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $2,500 per YouTube video promoting the protest
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $5,000 for 20,000 comments ($250 per 1,000 comments) on the buyer's stories/groups
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $40,000 for social media groups discussing sensitive topics and ideologies
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $20,000 to run the protest’s upkeep with logistics, paraphernalia, medical support, and other provisions
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $10,000 for dispersing the protest after the instigator’s objective has been accomplished

⯌ $50,000 - Discredit a journalist
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $2,700/week to purchase fake news unfavorable to the journalist, which can be promoted by purchasing 50,000 retweets or likes and 100,000 visits.
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $2,500 per video discrediting the journalist
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $1,000 for 4,000 comments to make the fake news more believable
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $240 to poison the journalist's Twitter account with 200,000 bots, smearing his reputation
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $3,000 to post 12,000 negative comments on his stories

⯌ $400,000 - Influence decisive course of actions (elections, politics)
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $3,000 per site per week to buy a network of at least five sites publishing fake news that cross-reference each other (aka rent a fake news agency).
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $5,000 (unclear if per month or per week) for publishing fake news on this sites
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $5,000 per month is for the maintenance of these sites and the addition of new features as the service expands
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $3,000 per month to promote the fake news network via YouTube
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $10,000 to promote and distribute the stories, which will ensure they're quoted in mainstream media and referenced by other journalists
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $35,000 to promote fake news to a certain geographical area, or population group
⯎⯎⯎⯎ $10,000 to post 20 YouTube videos promoting the fake news, also targeted at filtered audiences/areas

According to researchers, the typical clients of such services are interested in warping the way others perceive reality. These services are usually used for character assassination, swaying political trends, or creating fake celebrities.

Fighting such attacks is near impossible without going after the operators of these services, who are often registered as legal companies. The only way to limit the impact of such cyber propaganda is by user education.

Some of the dead give-away signs of a fake news site are are clickbait headlines, domains that spoof legitimate news services, visibly Photoshopped photos, no article timestamps, no author name, no source or other verifiable details.

Further, Trend Micro researchers recommend "getting out of the 'filter bubble' by reading news from a broader range of reputable sources. Stories that don’t align with your own beliefs don’t necessarily mean they’re fake."

More details, case studies, and screenshots of sites peddling fake news services are available in Trend Micro's The Fake News Machine report.

Image credits: Trend Micro