PolitifactNC

Facebook removing page posting fake North Carolina news

Posted February 17, 2020 7:10 p.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2020 6:59 p.m. EST

— Facebook plans to remove a page that has been posting false information and inflammatory content.

The page has a simple and unassuming name: "North Carolina Breaking News."

It features a mixture of feel-good stories, content from other news websites and posts about politically conservative issues. Many of the posts contain no attribution, and some of them are racist.

WRAL News reported on the page Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, a Facebook spokesman informed WRAL of the company's intention to remove the page.

“We’ve removed this Page after reviewing it and finding it violates our policies," the Facebook statement said.

North Carolina Breaking News Facebook page post from Feb. 15, 2020

On Monday, media experts told WRAL that they suspect the page aims to intentionally spread false information.

The page is “curating a lot of neutral local news content to obscure what appear to be their larger intentions of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt,” said Chuck Tryon, a professor of media studies at Fayetteville State University.

Jonathan Jones, a Durham-based attorney who specializes in media law and transparency, said the Facebook page “looks like a concerted disinformation campaign of some kind.”

The page already had more than 50,000 followers on Monday, when it came under scrutiny from the Winston-Salem Journal.

The page made several claims about the Winston-Salem Police Department that turned out to be false, the Journal reported. The police department went so far as to complain about the page to Facebook moderators.

The Facebook page describes itself as a “satire” or “parody” page. But there’s little to no humor like on other parody websites, such as The Onion or The Babylon Bee.

Many so-called “fake news” sites claim to be satirical even though they intend to deceive people, said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling misinformation globally.

Facebook users can easily be fooled. If one of the site’s posts is shared, the name “North Carolina Breaking News” appears, but the “satire” label doesn’t.

Jones, Wardle and Tryon together noted several red flags associated with misinformation efforts:

  • some of the posts don’t cite a source of information
  • the page already has a lot of followers, despite being less than a month old
  • there’s little information about the administrator under the site’s “page transparency” section
  • the page includes grammatical errors and racist posts
  • some of the posts incorrectly identify North Carolina cities and towns
  • at least one of the posts was in Russian

It’s unclear who operates the “North Carolina Breaking News” Facebook page.

When Jones messaged the page administrator, Jones said the administrator told him to “f--- off,” adding “don’t ever message this page again.”

On Sunday, a News & Observer sports editor accused the North Carolina Breaking News of plagiarizing the Raleigh newspaper's work.

North Carolina Breaking News -- N&O content

On Monday, a page administrator told McClatchy News that the page is run by students at North Carolina State University in Raleigh – but the administrator declined to disclose any names.

The administrator said the students are conducting a “social media project to see how fast news will spread.”

“Truth is not the goal … getting Trump re-elected is the ultimate goal,” the administrator said in a private Facebook message, according to the News & Observer.

Others on social media reported having similar interactions with administrators for the page.

WRAL attempted to reach out to the North Carolina Breaking News administrators, but the page's messaging portal was closed.

Tryon said he doesn’t believe the page is run by college students.

Indeed, the “North Carolina Breaking News” title is similar to other websites operated by Russians hoping to sow discord in America, said Ryan Thornburg, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Russian “trolls,” as Thornburg calls them, are known for creating fake news sites that mimic real news sites. Trolls used names like “Houston Top News” and San Diego Today.”

Readers should beware of more deceptive news sites as the election nears, Thornburg said.

“I think fake local news sites are the (No. 1) challenge facing journalism in 2020,” he said, citing three reasons:

  1. “Local news sites are generally so generically and poorly designed that they are easy to fake.
  2. The decline of local news outlets means that there is a vacuum that is easier to fill.
  3. People actually tend to still trust local news so fake *local* news sites may be more trusted than national or global fake sites.”
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