North Carolina Facebook page labelled fake news

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

Image source, Facebook
Image caption,
The North Carolina Breaking News page looked innocent but is a textbook example of disinformation, according to one expert

A Facebook page that seemed to be sharing local news in North Carolina is a textbook example of a disinformation campaign, BBC News has been told.

The site accumulated more than 50,000 followers in less than a month but also raised suspicions it was peddling fake news.

Administrators of the site claimed to be students at the North Carolina State University, working on a news project.

The university told BBC News that was not the case and blamed Russian bots.

Disinformation expert Dr Claire Wardle said: "It has all the hallmarks - it is labelled as 'satire' to get it past the Facebook fact-checkers, it is using genuine content but stories that are from years ago and from all over the US and not just North Carolina, it has stories that are meant to be racially divisive - it is a playbook of how to make disinformation work.

"I would be interested to know how it got so many followers so quickly but I would be nervous about saying it is a Russian account because it is difficult to verify.

"This could have been created by an American who wants to cause trouble."

Trump re-election

The administrators told the McClatchy News agency they were conducting a social-media project to see how fast news could be spread.

"Truth was not the goal," they said. They were seeking "to get President Trump re-elected".

Another reporter posted on Facebook she had been told the administrators were based in Florida and the page provided "twisted news and satire".

BBC News contacted the administrators but has yet to receive a response.

The university told BBC News: "We are not aware of any such project at NC State University.

"The site is likely run by Russian bots and not NC State students."

Facebook told BBC News it was "actively looking into" the page.

Eighteen babies

But Dr Wardle said: "There is not a lot that can be done about it, other than to educate users," she said.

"The fight in 2020 ahead of the US election is going to be at local level in battleground states such as North Carolina."

Some of the articles published on the page attracted the attention of the Winston-Salem Police department, which released a statement on its own Facebook page disavowing stories attributed to it.

"We want to clear the record that these stories, while positive, actually involved other law-enforcement agencies and are up to three years old," it said.

Other stories shared on the site included one about a woman who had given birth to 18 babies in a single pregnancy and another about cases of coronavirus in the state.

Update: After publication of this story, Facebook removed the page for violation of the company's policies.