Editor’s note: Facebook confirmed Tuesday it will remove the “North Carolina Breaking News” group that has been posting fake news items for nearly a month.
“Satirical” Facebook site seeks to promote Trump’s re-election
When Jonathan Jones saw a Facebook post about a bodybuilder befriending a man with Down syndrome, it caught his attention because it purportedly happened at the north Durham gym he frequents.
“It said it came from ‘North Carolina Breaking News,’” Jones said. “And I’d never heard of that.”
Before he was an attorney in private practice, Jones was a newspaper reporter who taught journalism at Elon University and directed the university’s nonpartisan N.C. Open Government Coalition. It didn’t take him long to spot red flags in the stories posted by the viral Facebook group.
“The first few things I saw that had the hallmarks of being fake were a shared image, a long story, no link to an actual news site, things that seemed a little too good to be true,” Jones said. “I Googled some of those stories and found they had either been taken from other sites or were just urban legends. But they were rewritten like they had happened in North Carolina.”
Most worrying, Jones said, was the fact that both real and fake crime stories from North Carolina were shared with racist terms like “thug” and “colored,” as well as insinuations that all Latinx people in the stories were undocumented immigrants, even if that assumption was not supported by any facts in the story.
“I found it to be particularly disturbing,” Jones said. “What it looks like to me is they’re pulling people in with these kinds of sappy stories they’ll like (while) slipping in these insidious stories where they’re trying to create division on grounds of race and poverty and other things.”
It appears to be working. Since the Facebook group went live on Jan. 24, it’s attracted more than 50,000 followers – more than many of the genuine news outlets whose content they repost alongside “fake news” items.
Dozens of readers reported the site to Facebook, including, this week, the Winston-Salem Police Department, to which “North Carolina Breaking News” has attributed a few false stories.
“We want to clear the record that these stories, while positive, actually involved other law enforcement agencies and are up to 3 years old,” the city of Winston-Salem said in a Facebook post Monday.
The fact that many people appear to be having trouble telling the difference between the real and fake stories is what makes the group so dangerous, Jones said.
“This is one where on first blush it’s hard to see the deception,” Jones said. “I myself, when I read the first post, I thought ‘What a great story.’ It didn’t set off flags at first that said, ‘This isn’t real.'”
As of Tuesday, the “North Carolina Breaking News” group had more than 51,000 followers and is steadily rising.
Click on the thumbnail images below to view a sample of stories from the NC Breaking News Facebook page.
The real, the fake and the motive
Phil Napoli teaches at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He is one of the nation’s leading media regulation and policy scholars, and the author of the 2019 book, “Social Media and Public Interest: Media Regulation in the Disinformation Age.”
“North Carolina Breaking News” is one part of a larger world of fake news, he said in an interview with Policy Watch this week.
“It’s in the thousands at this point of the more locally focused either hyper-partisan, ‘click-baity’ sites masquerading as local news sites,” Napoli said. “If you look at the Pew survey data, people find their local news sources most trust-worthy. So as traditional news outlets go away, this is what is going to be filling that vacuum. A lot of car crash and mug-shot stuff in there to make it local … and then you get the partisan stuff.”
That strategy is likely how this new group grew to over 50,000 followers in less than a month, Napoli said.
“We saw this even in the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign,” Napoli said. “Some of the Russian strategy involved operating accounts on Twitter and taking the name sometimes of a defunct local newspaper and building a base by tweeting out what seems to be news items.”
Many of these sites and groups, including this one, characterize themselves on the social network as “parody” or “satire,” Napoli said, whether or not any content is satirical.
“Under Facebook’s current policies, if you label yourself satire you can post whatever the hell you want,” Napoli said. “Facebook is refusing to take down even blatantly false political ads. They’re not doing nearly what they could be on the falsity front.”
It’s unclear who operates the group, and their purported motives vary in their replies to concerned readers. Individuals who contacted the administrators through Facebook received varying and oft-insulting replies, some in Russian and some in English, with at least one offering the bizarre explanation that the group was part of a college social experiment.
When Policy Watch reached out, the reply was garbled and riddled with errors.
“We are satire and post outragelous [sic] twist on current Events to elicit emotions suc [sic] as shock joy anger and OMG,” the administrator wrote back Sunday. “We are based on Vero Beach fL [sic] but purport you be local NC news. Anything we can twist in the news we post.”
Asked the purpose of the page, the administrators indicated support for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
“We are promoting 45 to win 2020,” they said. “We gain followers to promote the Republican Party.”
Replies like that shouldn’t be taken at face value, said Alice E. Marwick, an assistant professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Communications Department who studies fake news.
“It could be two 18-year-olds with a laptop,” Marwick said. “We really don’t know. There is usually an ideological reason people do this, a financial reason or both. And the profit model for pages like this is really wildly variable.”
The people running this particular group don’t seem competent, Marwick said. They have posted a number of stories in Russian, then reposted them in English. Other posts are easily sussed out as fakes with a Google reverse image search or by searching part of the text. It’s not exactly sophisticated stuff, Marwick said.
“This is a fascinating page,” Marwick said. “I suspect as soon as people start covering this it will get shut down, but I’m glad there are people taking a look at it and keeping an eye on this because we’re going to see more of this in the next few months with Super Tuesday and the primaries coming up.”
Media literacy in the age of fake news
With experts forecasting an expensive and extensive disinformation campaign as we head into the 2020 election season, Napoli said media literacy is more important than ever.
But that’s more difficult with a fractured media landscape and social media companies that shirk their responsibility to curb the sharing of false information, he said.
“This fake stuff is cheap-to-free to produce,” Napoli said. “Real journalism costs something to produce. But this stuff rests right alongside it in peoples’ news feed and it’s easier for some of us than others to tell the difference. That’s incredibly dangerous.”
“We have dozens of examples of fake news sites that bury very deep on the page that it’s a parody or entertainment site and it shouldn’t be taken seriously,” Marwick. “But even if they weren’t trying to hide that, people aren’t even evaluating the story a lot of the time – just the headline. They see the headline, they click share.”
So how do we solve this problem?
“There’s no one fix,” Napoli said. “I don’t know if there’s any combo of fixes. My personal feeling is that these platforms should take more advantage of the rights that they absolutely have to regulate content on their sites.”
There’s a way to regulate this content, Napoli said, to preserve public trust in media without endangering free speech. But our society is just beginning to understand the problem and to talk about solutions.
“You can still have free speech, you can still post what you want on the Internet. But should everything be worthy of these social media platforms that give information the potential to go viral so quickly?”