SELLING LIES filmmaker Leslie Iwerks on disinformation in 2016 and its ramifications today

SELLING LIES filmmaker Leslie Iwerks on disinformation in 2016 and its ramifications today
SELLING LIES offers a rare glimpse inside the secret network behind websites profiting off sensationalized and misleading news stories about American politics leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Director & producer Leslie Iwerks speaks on the vast disinformation then and the continuing ramifications today with GOOD DOCS intern Madeleine Mount-Cors.


Could you briefly describe SELLING LIES

SELLING LIES is a short documentary that covers the fake news industry in Macedonia that erupted during the 2016 election. It follows one specific producer of fake news named Trajche Arsov who hired American writers to create fake news throughout the United States. It also follows some teenagers who are post-high school, post-college 20-somethings who got into the fake news world because it was just making so much money that it was far more lucrative to take on a rather amoral occupation than it was to work in any other capacity in Macedonia. It became a huge boom industry back in 2016, and it still is, actually. 


What compelled you to make a film on this subject? Was there a specific moment that called you to action?

I was reading about this story in various news articles and I found one on Wired magazine about this exact story, these teenagers. It was after the fact - it came out in the spring of 2017, and it was just reflecting on what happened. I thought wow this is so interesting, if that happened then what’s going to happen in the next election. If these kids could exploit Facebook and figure out a way to cross-promote and share them in such a wide way, what does that mean for people that are even more sophisticated? I thought it was an interesting story. I decided to go there with my DP (Director of Photography), Suki Medencevic, who is from Bosnia. He said, why don’t we meet, just fly out and we’ll get a line producer, and can set up some interviews, and let’s see what we can do. So, it was just a series of conversations, and it was him saying yes I’m in, and it was hiring a line producer who could set up some of these interviews. Finally, I said I’m just gonna go. So I got a plane ticket and went out there. That’s how it all started. 


The film refrains from making a biased judgment on the subject, even though there is a clear conflict in the film between money and morality. How did you maintain this objective tone throughout the film?

It wasn’t always easy. I’ll put it that way. For me, I felt like the audience really needed to be the decision-maker in what they felt was right and wrong. Because the subject is so polarizing, meaning whatever the content is you’re either going to like it or you’re not. If you’re pro-Trump, you’ll probably like it, you probably won’t care that they’re spreading fake news, because you like Trump, and the more fake news about him, the better. If you’re not a Trump fan, you’re going to hate it and you’re going to be angry. I decided, why would I skew it in a way that makes anybody feel one way or another? It’s really up to the audience to decide what they think is morally right, and what they agree with, and why. It’s to bring them into this world. When I interviewed Trajche, it was sitting across from him, and him telling me without one ounce of remorse why he did what he did. He felt he was actually doing the right thing and he felt he was helping Donald Trump become president by spreading fake news, that he doesn’t call fake, he calls it biased. To me, I wanted the audience to get an objective look at all the different ramifications that this world has on our own democracy, our own view of the news, and how we receive and how we believe it. That’s really why I told the story. 


How do you think being American affected your experience making this film since it concerns a subject that largely affects American politics? Was it difficult for you to maintain composure at any point?

Of course, I am coming into it as someone who is affected by it, as an American. When you look at fake news and how it is disseminated and spread like wildfire, it is information warfare. There are seventy countries with disinformation campaigns right now. They’ve doubled in the last two years. So, when you think about the growth of disinformation globally, it’s not just an American story. It’s a global story. In Nigeria, for example, they call it a “dictatorship of disinformation,” because the dictator there is spreading fake news like crazy. So you’re getting it on both sides - you’re getting it from leaders and you’re getting it from constituents. No one really knows what to believe today, but the fact of the matter is that conspiracy theories are believed so heavily now that 50% of the public in America voted for a president who spews conspiracy theories almost daily, that are flagged by Twitter. To me, as an American, this is as important a story as anything today. If we don't do something about it and create awareness around it, then we’re all just going to become this mush of bad information, and there’s not going to be any real leadership. That’s why I’m excited about the next president, who is going to focus on this and is going to put a task force together to try and combat it. The social media networks need to get involved big time, the government needs to get involved in my opinion, and there need to be rules around how this stuff gets spread and believed. 


How did you gain access to both high-profile and anonymous figures in the fake news business?

Just by asking. I think when we reach out to people we have to do it in a way that’s as honest, heartfelt, and earnest as possible. We are here to tell the truth and we want to document what is going on. I was curious that the Macedonian spokespeople for the government would be honest with me but they were. They were as concerned about this as we are here in the States. They’re horrified that this put Macedonia on the map in a bad way. We just had to spend time interviewing and asking people and having them for coffee and just talking through and then get that trust level to go on camera. 


What shocked or surprised you the most as you interviewed the subjects in the film? 

I think their level of frankness about what they did without remorse. And then also the one guy who was a former student, who did write fake news, and was writing about immigrants in a really bad way, that these immigrants that were fleeing were ISIS fighters. He’s putting on a label on them that’s not true. He started to feel this remorse around it, so he stopped writing and threw his computer away. He just got fearful. To see both sides of the spectrum, from somebody who has no remorse who’s writing and producing it and hiring people to write it to the person that actually had remorse and came full circle in their morality and stopped. I was able to be objective because I looked at them as entrepreneurs, and that’s really what this story was about in its essence. This is an entrepreneurial story about people who found a way to make money through a new technical platform, in a way that no one had figured out yet. That was the entrepreneurial story. When I looked at them like that, I was able to be truly objective and go that’s cool, how did you gain so many followers and how did you go from 5,000 to 20,000 to 200,000, tell me how you did that. I’m always interested in technology - I’ve made a lot of films about technology, and there’s also a level of creativity to this. The dark side of the story is the manipulation and the lies. 


What do you think can be done to begin a process for accountability, restitution, healing, and forgiveness for fake news writers which addresses their direct involvement in undermining democracy?

I think that we need a lot more attention on these fake news stories. We need to make them personal, we need to make them human, and that was largely my attempt in telling the story, was to get behind the scenes and give you access into a world that you wouldn’t normally get to see because you just read a story. You just read the headline and you read the story, and that’s it. You don’t know who wrote it, you don’t know their lifestyle, you don’t know why they did it. I think that’s first and foremost what we have to do, is really- I hate to use the word vilify- but I do think we need to hold accountable people that are doing this. And also find clear lines between the grey areas. The black and white versus grey area of what is biased versus what is fake. I think that’s the problem with Trajche, is he believes everything is biased, but it’s clearly not. The other issue is copyright infringement, or not. If you copy and paste headlines from other news sites, and then manipulate them a little bit, they’re claiming that’s not copyright infringement. It’s tricky - all these grey lines that people are crossing. We need regulations in place. If you look around the world, different countries are handling this in a lot of different ways. Here, we’re probably one of the looser countries, and yet it was our country that created the platforms that are spreading it: Twitter, Facebook. It’s getting wider across Whatsapp. It’s social media. The other issue is how do we regulate social media, and how do we find ways so that people don’t believe everything they read on social media. The world of journalism has become so democratized now that anyone can write news. You just create a website, and then you share these fake news sites with other fake news writers, and you cross share, and you slowly start to build viewership, and then you get ads that bring you money, and then you start making money. The business model of that also needs to be stopped. The incentive for making money through this fake news business. 


Do you think there should be punishment for people who are directly profiting from fake news? What should that look like?

That’s a hard one to answer. I do think that there should be clear lines between what is fake and what is not. I don’t think Twitter is doing near enough to curb Donald Trump’s tweets. It’s a blue little warning that you see. I think they should not allow him to post it. Of course, the right-wing will say, well that’s crazy, that’s censorship, a lack of freedom of speech, and whatnot. Well, where does that end? Our constitutional rights of freedom of speech are being challenged… and I think it’s between freedom of expression and stable democracies now. That’s the warfare. We have to find ways to legislatively and technologically put some of the responsibility on the social media platforms that created this in the first place. They created this Frankenstein and they’re letting Frankenstein multiply itself every second and spread around the world. They’re not taking responsibility for what they created. We need to somehow cut off the proliferation of this with regulations that would not motivate them to continue to make money, both the fake news writers and the platforms. 


Do you feel encouraged by any of the actions already taken by social media platforms?

I think that Facebook’s done a lot, and Zuckerberg will tell you they’ve done a lot. I think Twitter’s probably leading the charge when it comes to putting their actions where they need to be. I appreciate that much. But then you have Parlor, these other fake news sites that are starting to come up and be competitors to Facebook, so now Parlor’s going to be the new sewer platform for fake news. All the people that want to believe that and that are in their tribe will go to that place and continue to perpetuate it. How do we stop that type of stuff from coming out of the sewer? I don’t know the answer to that. We’re America, we’re allowed to build our own businesses, we’re allowed to go public if we want. I do think that if regulation caps you at a certain point or a certain ability, that may be the way to go. A lot of people will disagree with me that regulation should ever get involved with social media. No one’s going to self-regulate; they’re all in it for the money, especially Parlor, Facebook as well. It’s all just going to be to each his own. 


Do you hope this film compels audiences to take action? If so, what action do you hope viewers take? 

I think it has already spoken to a lot of people who have seen it, who say it changed their way of looking at what they read. And now, they are more cognizant of what they read, more cognizant of fact-checking and checking the source exactly to make sure it’s accurate. I think that’s a good start. That was one goal I had for this. I think some people were completely swayed when they saw it because they did not realize this world. They did not know the extent of the story from a small little town in Macedonia to its impact on America. And more importantly, the bigger picture of fake news in general, whether it’s being created here or afar. As I said, I’m hopeful that Biden is going to launch a multi-agency digital democracy task force to develop a federal strategy to increase resilience to online threats and create stronger protections for the democratic process. It’s going to be a congressional task force on digital citizenship, to build citizen resilience to disinformation and misinformation. So, if that can be put in place, I think that’s a start too. We don’t have that right now. 


As we enter the post-Trump era, how will SELLING LIES continue to be urgent given the still widespread existence and exponential growth of false news? 

Again, it’s this disinformation campaign that’s growing globally. It isn't going to stop anytime soon, it’ll get worse, and I think we’ve seen the power of how disinformation can spread in the last four years. During covid especially, the rise of disinformation has been shocking. We have to continue to be vigilant about this, and be out front on it so that people are aware, are you safe to read whatever article you’re reading, and physically or online wherever it is you have to almost treat it like when you’re about to touch hot water. You’re gonna test it first, you don’t necessarily know whether it’s hot or not, but this is the same thing. You want to go into what you read with caution, and not believe everything you read. 


What impact do you hope your film has at this precarious point in history? Are you optimistic about the future?

The impact that I hope this film will have is it will get shown far and wide, especially in schools. It will allow kids to go to a place they’ve never been and see how other students and other 20-somethings and college students found a way to create a business that was easy because of the access, but also made money on it, and what the ramifications were. I’m hoping that the film can be a poster child for the bigger discussion around fake news.

Bring SELLING LIES to your school or community!