“North Carolina Breaking News” sounds wholesome and innocuous — even somewhat authoritative, in a bland, generic way. And with feel-good stories about Winston-Salem police officers helping unfortunate people and animals, it would seem to be a very appealing click when seen on Facebook.
But as everyone should know by now, not everything is what it seems to be — especially on social media.
The Facebook page began drawing local attention last weekend after some savvy viewers noticed it contained stories about Winston-Salem police officers that didn’t quite scan correctly. One was about an officer who comforted a dog that had been hit by a car. Another showcased an officer who bought a car seat for a child. But observers noticed that the officer seen in a photo with the dog was wearing a uniform that our officers don’t wear. That was one clue. Others emerged. It turns out the stories were about officers in other places. The details had been changed by whomever was responsible for the page — information we still don’t have with any degree of certainty.
There was also a post about recent city visitor Susan Sarandon that used Journal content, adding false quotes attributed to the “Mayor of Winston-Salem.”
And it turns out that North Carolina Breaking News had an even more insidious side. Along with feel-good but altered stories, the page used racist terms to describe African Americans and attempted to make them and other non-whites appear dangerous.
Lure you in with feel-good stories of civic engagement, indoctrinate you with racism — all under a banner that seemed legit.
And the page garnered more than 50,000 followers in less than a month. That’s very troublesome.
After being notified, news organizations and the Winston-Salem Police Department began to investigate the page. The News & Observer in Raleigh reported on Monday that the page’s administrators — the people who operate it from day to day — claimed to be students at N.C. State University who were conducting a social-media project to see how quickly news would spread. They reportedly told the newspaper in a private Facebook message: “Truth is not the goal. Getting Trump re-elected is the ultimate goal.”
Those claims should be taken with a block of salt, though, considering the falsehoods they’d already spread. It doesn’t seem like such a project would require lying.
The Winston-Salem Police Department said their attempts to contact the page’s administrators were met with Russian responses — which is reminiscent of the Russian internet troll farms spreading fake news before the 2016 election.
Facebook removed the fake page, “finding it violates our policies,” a spokesman said.
Some people don’t take social media stories too seriously in the first place. They click on — and share — stories or memes that make them feel good — or, sometimes, that make them angry. They’re not particularly interested in accuracy.
But this blithe approach is how truth is eroded. Even if they seem harmless, accepting and repeating fake stories damages society; it’s analogous to the biblical parable about building a house on sand, which storms cause to fall.
Opinions about facts will always vary, but our city and our country are stronger when our facts reflect reality.
Considering the billions of Facebook pages, as well as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to allow politicians to say what they want in political ads, even if it’s objectively false, we can’t trust Facebook to self-regulate. Especially during this volatile election season, we each must take responsibility to educate ourselves and, as good citizens, refrain from accepting and passing falsehoods.