RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – An altered Facebook headline on a news story involving a statue of Robert E. Lee has blown up into a major sore point in the Virginia GOP primary for governor. And it’s not the first time politicians or their allies have changed headlines to suit their own purposes in linking to real news articles on that platform.
Virginia’s governor’s race is being watched nationally as a possible early referendum on President Donald Trump. The altered headline is causing an online uproar that taps into strongly felt opposition over Charlottesville’s plan to remove a longstanding statue there of the Confederate general.
Other flaps over altered headlines have erupted in at least two other states recently involving politicians or political groups close to them. They highlight Facebook’s increasingly important presence in political campaigns, thanks to its broad reach and ability to target specific subgroups of voters.
Critics complain the altered headlines are a new kind of “fake news” that can fool casual readers. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was recently called out for a staff-altered newspaper headline including the words “road kill” about legislation he criticized. In North Carolina, a powerful GOP state senator drew fire for an altered newspaper headline stating Democratic Gov. Roy “Cooper flip flops on refugees.”
Now a group aligned with Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Corey Stewart, a firebrand conservative supportive of Trump, has weaponized a fake headline to attack rival Ed Gillespie, the GOP establishment’s pick for governor. At issue: Gillespie’s level of support for Virginia’s Confederate monuments.
Stewart pledged no Confederate monuments would be removed if he’s elected, staunchly supporting Southern history. After Stewart held a protest at the Lee statue in February, the Washington Post wrote a story called “Protestors mob provocative Va. governor candidate as he defends Confederate statue.”
A conservative nonprofit with ties to Stewart campaign aides – the Conservative Response Network – subsequently posted and promoted a Facebook post linking to the article but with a fake headline: “Gillespie: I’m OK with Charlottesville Taking Down the General Lee Monument.”
In fact, Gillespie has said he doesn’t support moving the statue and thinks local officials who approved moving it should be voted out of office. But Gillespie said it’s an issue to be left at the local level.
Rick Shaftan is a Republican political operative who runs the Conservative Response Network’s Facebook page and altered the headline. He said Gillespie is trying to have it both ways and that the changed headline reflects that.
“It’s all true, it’s exactly what Ed thinks,” Shaftan said.
The post was widely shared and Shaftan said it was viewed more than 400,000 times. Shaftan said his group, which doesn’t have to reveal its donors, paid a small amount to Facebook to promote the post. He said the issue is resonating with a large group of voters who are rebelling against an “elitist mindset” that dismisses the importance of preserving southern statues. He said the rebellion echoes what happened last year.
“This is kind of why Trump won,” Shaftan said.
During last year’s presidential election, Facebook was criticized for not doing enough to stop a surge of patently fake news stories on its platform. Recently it announced a slew of new measures to curb the spread of fake news. But it still offers special tools to page administrators allowing them to change headlines in ways that make it look like they were written by legitimate news organizations.
In the Virginia campaign, the altered headline has caused headaches for Gillespie, whose own Facebook page is frequently visited by users chiding him for not being supportive of Confederate monuments.
The Gillespie campaign complained to Facebook in mid-February, saying the altered headline misrepresented Gillespie’s position. Facebook didn’t remove the post then. It responded by suggesting, among other things, that the Gillespie campaign create a new page focused on debunking false stories.
However, when asked about the post Friday by an Associated Press reporter, Facebook removed it that day. Spokesman Andy Stone said it violated Facebook’s terms of not doing “anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.”
Gillespie spokesman Matthew Moran said the campaign is disappointed with Facebook’s response.
“We hope Facebook will work harder to stop (Stewart) and his allies from using its platform to deceive voters,” Moran said in an email.
Shaftan said he found out Friday that the post had been removed. He promptly reposted the story again with the same altered headline a few hours later and paid to promote the new posting. It was still online by Monday morning before Facebook removed it again.
“Ed must really hate this page,” Shaftan said.