The onslaught of fake news has reached epidemic proportions, so much so that a number of social media sites are taking action. Once limited to just satire sites – and a few sites whose satire wasn’t quite witty enough to be recognized as satire – the reach of fake news websites has now fallen into two categories: those that spread unsubstantiated conspiracy theory-level posts, and those that intentionally disseminate half-truths and outright lies.
But there’s another branch of the fake news family tree that’s causing just as much concern, largely because the motivation behind it isn’t yet clear. Fake social media pages masquerading as public service outlets have cropped up, many of them sharing wholly untrue “news” stories of local crimes. While there’s no shortage of people who create phony news for the fun of it, investigators believe the goal in this case may be to get readers to follow the pages and click the gruesome news stories in order to phish or spread malware.
Recently, three different US police departments, two in Maine and one in California, had their Facebook pages spoofed. All three shared the same article about a local woman killing her three children. In each article, the address of the murders was changed to reflect that jurisdiction. One page, the spoof of the Skowhegan Police Department, is still active despite having no news articles on it (users can note the misspelling of “department” in the false page); the other two spoofed pages have finally been removed by Facebook after numerous reports of them being fake pages. In each instance, actual photos were stolen from the genuine department pages and copied to the spoofed pages.
As far back as 2012, Facebook acknowledged there were more than 80 million fake pages or profiles on its site; with numbers like that, the company can’t take all of them down in a timely fashion.
Even without the threat of scams or malware, another possibility driving the creation of these sites may have a more political slant. The stories shared so far on these spoofed pages serve a purpose in striking fear in the public, a fear which is statistically unfounded, especially in the locations that have already been spoofed. While the originator of the content may create the article and the phony social media profile to suit an agenda, those who share the content are doing so out of ignorance regarding actual crime data.
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