Facebook Just Banned Bogus NC Page. But It’s Only a Droplet in ‘Tidal Wave’ of Fakery

February 19, 2020by Zachery Eanes, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (TNS)
In less than a month's time, a Facebook page peddling false and misleading news about North Carolina was able to garner more than 50,000 followers; Facebook stepped in to shut it down on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (Steve Urquhart/Dreamstime/TNS)

RALEIGH, N.C. — A Facebook page peddling false and misleading news about North Carolina had a relatively short life: Its days are over after Facebook removed it on Tuesday afternoon.

Yet the pace at which the page was able to grow — allegedly more than 50,000 followers in less than a month — shows how easy it still is to create a widely trafficked source of false news, with the 2020 election just on the horizon.

Phil Napoli, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, said he expects a “tidal wave” of similar pages to pop up in advance of the U.S. election in November. Napoli, the author “Social Media and Public Interest: Media Regulation in the Disinformation Age,” added that despite heavy discussion about misinformation, few solutions have been found to stop its spread.

“There will be a tidal wave (of these pages),” he said in a phone interview, “because why not? If you start 20 of them only eight might get taken down. The barrier to entry is low, the content creation cost is low, because you are just recycling or making stuff up and there is very little to prevent it.”

The Facebook page, called North Carolina Breaking News, described itself as “satire/parody,” and it posted a mix of real and concocted news, often manipulating stories from real publications. Napoli said bad actors often hide behind the satire label.

The page was taken down Tuesday after it had shared scores of misleading stories, many of them embellishing claims of crimes that happened in other states. Winston-Salem police drew attention to the page, saying it shared false stories about its officers doing good deeds. Some of the page’s posts were also written in Russian, and several posts used offensive language to refer to African Americans.

“We’ve removed this page after reviewing it and finding it violates our policies,” a spokesperson for Facebook told The News & Observer on Tuesday. Facebook declined to add any specifics about why it took the page down. It has 26 community standards that include rules around spam, misrepresentation and graphic material.

When contacted on Monday, someone who claimed to be behind the page told McClatchy News the page was run by students at N.C. State University in Raleigh who were conducting a “social media project to see how fast news will spread.” They did not provide their names. An N.C. State spokesperson told The N&O they had no knowledge of “any type of ‘social media project.’”

The person who responded to McClatchy said “truth is not the goal” behind the stories they shared. Rather, “Getting Trump re-elected is the ultimate goal.”

Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit that studies digital misinformation, said it is important not to “jump to conclusions” about who might have been behind the page. She added that the page seemed deliberately trying to make journalists think Russians were behind it. “It looks like a Russian account, but it is almost too textbook to be a Russian account,” she said.

Wardle noted there are similar pages across Facebook acting similarly without being taken down.

The Facebook page had shared fictional news as well as legitimate stories published by reputable networks and newspapers — including McClatchy-owned publications such as The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Often the page added its own words and made-up quotes to the story.

Alice Marwick, an assistant professor of media and technology studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the page grew so quickly because it targeted local news, where institutions like newspapers are declining and more people get news from social media.

“It really speaks to a desire of strong coverage of their local communities,” Marwick said in a phone interview. “We know from academic research at UNC that there are large portions of the country that are … news deserts. That creates a void that bad actors can absolutely step into.”

Napoli said platforms should self-moderate their platforms, and take down false or misleading content on their own.

“My own feeling is that Facebook and Twitter have an incredible amount of autonomy that they are not willing to use,” he said. “They could apply standards of accuracy and responsibility around whether (users) should get to operate on the platform. Social media distribution is not a right and we have taken it as one.”

Both Napoli and Marwick said they were concerned that it took media coverage for Facebook to remove the page, rather than a sustainable process that targets multiple bad actors.

But Matt Perault, director of the Center for Science & Technology Policy at Duke, cautioned against that approach, saying it could create a slippery slope for what speech is allowed on social media platforms. Perault is also a former director of public policy at Facebook.

“I don’t think we want platforms making those determinations” between true and false, Perault said in an email. “It’s difficult for platforms to decide what’s true and false, and trying to do draw those lines is likely to restrict important forms of political speech.”

He said it would be preferable for government entities to make their own regulations rather than have the social media corporation decide — but that runs a danger of violating the First Amendment. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Europe this week, for example, asking politicians for customized legislation for online platforms, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“I think they are going to run into First Amendment issues, and I think for good reasons,” Perault said. “In many cases, false speech is protected speech under the First Amendment. To breeze by that fact would throw out hundreds of years of jurisprudence, and I think that is a problematic direction to go in.”

Wardle said, in practice, neither is likely to happen. There is no appetite at the moment in the U.S. for more regulation, she said, and the sheer cost of moderating these platforms will discourage companies from doing it themselves.

The best bet, Wardle said, is to educate people to spot fake and misleading news.

“Our only way forward is to make audiences more educated,” she said. “Is Betty from Greensboro ready for news like this for the next nine months?” Probably not, she said, “because no one has spent time educating her.”

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Charlotte Observer reporter Hayley Fowler contributed to this story.

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©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Visit The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) at www.newsobserver.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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