Widely shared posts from a misleading and racially insensitive Facebook page recently lauded actions by Winston-Salem police. The problem: Those posts were false, at least as they pertain to Winston-Salem officers.
The police department said attempts to contact the administrators of the page were met with Russian responses.
A media researcher with the University of North Carolina says the reason for some of the racist language on the page is to leave Facebook readers with the idea that African Americans and other non-whites are dangerous.
The page includes offensive terms to describe African Americans and, in a number of instances, incorrect information in which news stories from other states are purported to have occurred in North Carolina.
One problem came to light in recent days as Winston-Salem’s police department began to get inquiries regarding posts from a page called “North Carolina Breaking News.”
A post claimed a Winston-Salem officer bought a car seat for a resident’s child who was unrestrained. That actually occurred in Westland, Mich.
Another photo showed a photo of an officer comforting a dog that had been hit by a car and, in later posts, the page claimed the Winston-Salem officer had adopted the dog. In actuality, the photo of an officer comforting a dog came from the Osceola County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office.
Jose Gomez, a spokesman for the police department, said field commanders who worked over the weekend got several calls from media outlets about the Facebook posts.
“(One) field commander looked at the information that was being provided and was immediately able to tell that the uniform was not correct, and he didn’t recognize the officer,” Gomez said. “Having as many employees as we do, it took some steps to verify that. But there were immediate red flags.”
One of the Facebook posts mentioned a WSPD officer named Josh Davis. The police department does not have an officer by that name, Gomez said.
WXII posted a story about the officer comforting the dog, which was picked up and shared by MSN.com. WXII later took down the story.
“The information was sent to the newsroom by a fellow staff member. When we recognized the nature of the source, we immediately removed the post,” Lisa Fulk, the WXII news director said in an email.
On Feb. 14, the page published a post about Susan Sarandon campaigning for Bernie Sanders at Krankie’s Coffee. It used, without permission, a photo taken by a Journal photographer, pulled excerpts from a Journal story, then made up false quotes disparaging Sarandon, attributing them to the “Mayor of Winston Salem.”
The Facebook page, which is identified as satire/parody in its “about” section, has more than 50,000 followers.
The Winston-Salem Police Department reported the page to Facebook.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported Monday that administrators of the Facebook page claimed to be N.C. State students who are conducting a social media project to see how quickly news will spread. Administrators of the page reportedly told the newspaper in a private Facebook message: “Truth is not the goal. Getting Trump re-elected is the ultimate goal.”
Alice Marwick researches media manipulation as an assistant professor of communications at UNC Chapel Hill. She reviewed the Facebook page Monday morning.
Without knowing who runs the North Carolina Breaking News, it’s hard to determine the intent of all the posts, she said.
“Generally, when you look at pages like this, they’re set up for financial or ideological reasons. And obviously, the ideology is hard right, very much pro-President Trump,” Marwick said. “These sorts of pages play on racial issues, tensions with immigration but also urban legends, the idea that there’s something dangerous about people of color, which is very much part of the hard-right discourse.”
National news outlets have reported that groups spreading disinformation will target local news this election cycle with the goal of undermining trust. Marwick said she found the hyper-local focus of North Carolina Breaking News interesting. Though North Carolina still has a fairly robust local news presence, many people now get their news from Facebook.
One post on the page said that “social justice warriors” were responsible for scattering tacks in the parking lot of the Hickory Police Department. Though the Hickory Daily Record reported that tacks were scattered in the parking lot, a culprit wasn’t identified and the term “social justice warrior” wasn’t used.
“By personalizing the news, people who are suspicious of certain groups now have this sense of urgency. This is when you get the real potential of stuff spreading wildly in local groups of people,” Marwick said.
She advised people to use caution when sharing stories.
“When you share stories from random Facebook pages, there’s no way to know whether anything is true or false,” she said.