01:09 - Source: CNN
On GPS: Why disinformation sticks in our brains
CNN  — 

The Facebook page “North Carolina Breaking News” contained some posts touting good deeds by police officers in the city of Winston-Salem. But the officers named in the posts didn’t exist.

The acts of kindness actually had happened – but years earlier and in other states, when real law enforcement professionals helped an injured dog and bought a car seat for a parent who couldn’t afford one.

When the Winston-Salem Police Department reached out this week to the page’s administrator, a response came back in Russian, Lt. John Morris told CNN. Elsewhere on the page recently was a Russian translation of a story first published by a small North Carolina newspaper.

Facebook, which has faced stiff criticism for how it handles false content, removed the “Breaking News” page Tuesday for violating its “spam policy,” a spokesperson told CNN. The company did not find any evidence the page was connected to coordinated inauthentic activity or to Russia, the spokesperson said, without explaining how it reached that conclusion.

But the doctored stories, sandwiched by reposts of content from legitimate news organizations and partisan websites, raise some bewildering questions, even as public awareness has grown of online disinformation and the Russian trolls fueling some of the untruths.

Unlike fake posts obviously aimed at making money or sowing political division, the two false posts about Winston-Salem on the “Breaking News” site seemed to do little more than spread good news – with tens of thousands of users reacting to and sharing the apparent love.

The two posts weren’t trying to sell anything. They also targeted a small police agency, with no indication of why it was singled out. Meanwhile, the identity of who’s behind the account remains a mystery.

“It’s a little bit of a new twist on an old tactic,” Frank Cilluffo, director of Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security, told CNN. “As we all know now, all successful disinformation campaigns has some truth sprinkled into its roots.”

“Expect a lot more along these lines,” he warned.

Facebook’s fake news rules were already under fire

Winston-Salem police began probing the page – which gained more than 51,000 followers since it was created January 24 – after getting inquiries over the past week about the good news posts that seemed to involve their colleagues, Morris said.

They discovered that the stories had been reported accurately years ago by those officers’ departments and local media in the other states, he said.

Winston-Salem officials then reported the page to Facebook, Morris said.

Facebook removed the “Breaking News” page under its spam policy, its spokesperson said, without detailing what exactly on the page violated the policy, which itself does not define spam. The company tries to limit so-called spam because it “creates a negative user experience and detracts from people’s ability to engage authentically in online communities,” its rules say.

Though the page was taken down, Facebook has been slammed for its policy of trying to “significantly reduce” distribution of false news rather than removing it. “We want to help people stay informed without stifling productive public discourse. There is also a fine line between false news and satire or opinion,” its rules state.

It’s still not clear who is behind the page

“North Carolina Breaking News” classified itself as a “satire/parody” Facebook page. In addition to the good news posts and other content, the page on Sunday posted a Russian translation of a Fayetteville Observer article; the translation mirrored that offered by the popular Google Translate program.

No administrators were named on the page. Someone responding Monday to a CNN inquiry said it was run by North Carolina State University students working on a journalism project.

“This page is our viral Journalism project,” the respondent said. “We are a satire page and this is a project of how fast fake news will spread.”

After two more exchanges, CNN was blocked from sending further messages.

North Carolina State officials were unaware of any project of this type, university spokesman Mick Kulikowski said.

Old stories get recast with fake names

The “North Carolina Breaking News” page Saturday posted a photo of an officer it called Josh Smith, purportedly of the Winston-Salem department, comforting an injured dog after it was hit by a car. The post included this comment: “We just spoke to officer Smith. He and his family adopted the dog ‘biscuit’ and the dog couldn’t be more happy.”

The post earned more than 30,000 shares, while the comment had 6,000 reactions.

That particular good deed, however, took place in December 2018, when the Osceola County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office posted to Facebook a photo and short note about its deputy, Josh Fiorelli, caring for a hurt dog. CNN affiliate WFTV and other news agencies picked up the story.

The “Breaking News” site’s post featured the sheriff’s office’s photo, with the badge altered to read “Winston-Salem.”

Another post Friday on the “Breaking News” site featured an officer it called Joshua Johnson, also supposedly of the Winston-Salem department, who it claimed had bought a child’s car seat for a needy driver. A related comment read: “We interviewed [officer Johnson] at the Winston Salem police department yesterday. We found out he does this to help people quite often.”

That post got over 51,000 shares and 65,000 reactions on Facebook.

The officer, however, is Joshua Scaglione of the Westland Police Department in Michigan, who in April 2016 bought a car seat for the 3-year-old daughter of a driver who could not afford one, CNN affiliate WXYZ and other news agencies reported.