Trust no one? A public service announcement from a concerned journalist

Written By Chad Nance
Edited/Researched Carissa Joines

“You don’t have to follow me
Only you can set you free…”

From Cult of Personality by William Calhoun/Corey Glover/Vernon Reid/Muzz Skillings

“The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

Steve Bannon, Former Editor of Breitbart.com, 2016 Chief Strategist for Donald Trump

This is exactly the kind of thing that sneaks up on you on a Sunday morning over that first sip of coffee. Just clearing the cobwebs and an article rolls up on the ‘ol Facebook feed about a noble Winston-Salem cop who has adopted a poor pooch who’d been hit by a car. Except in the photo, the officer isn’t wearing a WSPD uniform. On closer examination, the patch on the policeman’s shoulder has been photoshopped in a clumsy attempt to obscure it so it might look like the WSPD. This story was posted by a Facebook page named North Carolina Breaking News.

I remembered another popularly shared post about Winston-Salem that had popped up recently. It was about a cop who stopped an African American dude and then jumped all in his face because of the dark tint of his windows. After seeing that there was a baby in the car without a car seat, the policeman ended up buying the man a car seat. All of this do-goodery was reported to have happened right here in Winston-Salem. Except I hadn’t seen it from any of the local folks or outlets I follow.

A quick visit to the source page brought up a murderer’s row of hateful propaganda from the use of racial slurs and fear tactics aimed at immigrants to the outright slander of Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines. The entire thing looked exactly like part of the Trump and Russian intelligence efforts at a disinformation campaign designed to confuse, enrage, and divide Americans everywhere. They are “flooding the zone with shit” and it is up to us to push back and call them out. We are in an era where we all must be whistleblowers.

I decided to comment on one of their posts, mentioning an Atlantic article I had read about pages just like theirs. What reaction did I get from the friendly folks at the North Carolina Breaking News when I called them out? Went a little something like this:

Their ready admission of dirtbaggery is as stunning as their lack of any clear handle on the English language.

North Carolina Breaking News was exactly what The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins warned about in his recent article titled The 2020 Election Will be a Billion -Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President. Part of that effort is to create phony “local news” sources. First they will post and get traction with heartwarming stories that are so compelling that everyone will share them. This content allows them to build a network and audience quickly. (These posts alone had garnered them over 900 shares in three days. That is an incredible amount of penetration in our local information ecosystem.) Once this effort has gained them an audience, there follows insidiously racist, mysongonistic, and homophobic content.

And for anyone who went over to their page, they found just that. The flow of content peppered with positive (although stolen or mislabeled) posts were in their bulk disinformation directly targeted at their new audience with the stated purpose of making sure that Donald Trump is elected in November. They don’t even need to be believed for it to work. All North Carolina Breaking News, the Trump campaign, and the Russian government are trying to do is flood the zone with shit. Create so much noise that the signal gets lost among the static.

Well… here we go again friends & neighbors. When I was a kid in the 1980’s the adults used to run us through duck and cover drills at school. In the most child-friendly way possible teachers would tell us to get under our desks, cover our heads, and then quietly wait for the nuclear fire. We’d dutifully go head to the floor during the Cold War because that was probably all we could do. The bombs are coming, boys and girls! Put your head between your knees and kiss your life goodbye. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but times they are a-changing men and women. These days we need to stand up and raise an alarm. This ain’t the Cold War. The Cold War was a little honest. We knew who the bad guys were and had a good idea that we were on the side of right. This war is dishonest from the first steps and Ivan is behind the wire in a way the Cold Warriors could never have imagined.

Facebook is good at catching nip-slips, publicly broadcasted murders, and anyone trying to get ’round paying Facebook for their space to advertise even a local band. They don’t give two rips about propaganda operations so insidious and blatant that they’d excite Joseph Gobbells and make George Orwell’s head explode. Feel that’s hyperbole? A quick roll through the North Carolina Breaking News page is a tour through some of the most base, vile, and occasionally horrific thoughts in the American psyche.

Before we take that particularly dark dive it should be said that pages like these hide behind a variety of tech companies from GoDaddy to Facebook itself. By labeling themselves “Satire” these agents of disinformation with clear, aggressive, and cruel intent exonerate Mark Zuckerberg of responsibility for their content. Zuckerberg adheres tightly to the Millennial Nurenberg defence of “We let the market decide”.

How does this stuff happen? The operatives behind North Carolina Breaking News started by chumming the waters a little bit with cute pictures of kitties being rescued in Greensboro. The image of a cat and a woman that was posted as being in Greensboro? When the image is searched (more on how to do that yourself later) it returns about 4,800,000 hits.

Everybody loves heartwarming stories about kitty cats, doggie-loving or baby-seat-buying cops, and happy new parents at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital (except that it was taken from Reddit, not at Baptist.)

That stuff gets shared all over the internet. What comes next? I’ll let North Carolina Breaking News, the Trump campaign, and the Russian government speak for themselves:

Notice how they took an actual post from the Cumberland County Sheriff and added in comments about Mexican drug cartels and meth labs.

If none of that bothered you please stop reading now. This isn’t for you. You’re a lost cause whom the world has passed on by.

No, that’s not North Carolina’s Governor. Yes. These dummies have no idea who the governor of North Carolina is or what his party affiliation is, but facts are 100% beside the point with the operatives as long as their fundamental message gets out or, even better for them, you stop trusting all information. Another issue that contributes to this is that many citizens don’t know who our governor is either. They have no idea what Gov. Roy Cooper looks like. That’s what the operatives behind this kind of disinformation campaign count on. They wake up in the morning planning on the rest of us not paying close attention.

Then there is the stuff like this, written to seem like they had a reporter on the ground in Winston-Salem when Susan Sarandon showed up to stump for Bernie Sanders:

To be clear, Winston-Salem’s actual mayor, Allen Joines, is a moderate Democrat who never said any of those things about Sarandon or anyone else. This is part of their attempt to look local. To mask the reality that they are sitting behind a keyboard somewhere in the former Soviet Union or in an office in Northern Virginia, they did (and will again) what they could to look like they are on the ground plying a legitimate trade in journalism.

How insidious and successful was this particular effort? Local NBC affiliate WXII got burned. This legacy, local station whose staff has spent the last fifty years establishing the exact kind of local bonafides and trust we need in a local news organization moved too fast and got caught up in the feels. This weekend the North Carolina Breaking News, with the help of a WXII staffer, managed to scramble that trust- which was the operatives everlovin’ mission.

Someone at WXII bought into this, hook line and sinker, and went real deep with the bait even crediting the doctored photo as coming from North Carolina Breaking News, and posted the story verbatim. The photo credit does the most damage, as it served to legitimize the post as having come from a real news source. A legacy news outfit suddenly handed over some of their hard earned trust… playing into part of the the mission of these operatives – to discredit real journalism and journalists like the hard working men and women at WXII.

Is this truly dangerous? WXII wasn’t where the infection stopped. MSN picked it up from the local affiliate and ran with it, again crediting North Carolina Breaking News. Another little moment of legitimacy for the operatives and another chance to destroy the public trust.

The silver lining in all of these clouds is that by Sunday afternoon hundreds of citizens had taken to the internet screaming to the rafters about North Carolina Breaking News. No kidding, pilgrims. My heart soared at all of the citizens who stood up. Media outlets like Fox 8, The Winston-Salem Journal, and the Raleigh News & Observer picked up the story outing North Carolina Breaking News for what it was. Even The BBC got in on the story.

By Monday afternoon, facing scrutiny by legit news organizations, the operatives behind North Carolina Breaking News had given several different media outlets and concerned citizens different versions of who they are. To one outlet they were out of Fayetteville. To another they were out of Florida. To the Raleigh News & Observer they lied and claimed to be NC State students conducting a social experiment. Pesky little fact: NC State never heard of this group.

By Tuesday afternoon, North Carolina Breaking News had been pulled from Facebook. Folks started taking a victory lap right away, celebrating the demise of the operatives and their divisive content. Then they were back. This time they called themselves North Carolina Breaking News for Republicans. Same dirtbags, different dirtbag channel. Apparently they think a closed audience of Republicans are a softer target than the public at large. They turned on the ugly right away.

Not gross enough for you? They can do worse.

Seriously, y’all. There is absolutely no bottom for this filth.

I’d like to take a moment to talk just to our Republican friends & neighbors. It’s time to take your party back, y’all. This isn’t Conservatism. President Reagan would puke if he saw this kind of garbage. It is up to you to deal with this internally.

By Wednesday morning it appeared that North Carolina Breaking News for Republicans had been removed as well. We have these folks on the run, but count on them still moving in circles near you.

This isn’t over, Pilgrims. We got at least another 8 months of this stuff, and possibly years. The government can’t fix this, and Facebook won’t. Zuckerberg and his crowd are what my grandaddy would call, “Tits on a bull” in this situation. It is up to us. It isn’t up to the Liberals. It ain’t the responsibility of the Conservatives. It is only partly the responsibility of the legitimate media. This is the responsibility of all Americans.

When banks train new tellers to spot counterfeit cash they don’t show them all of the variations of phony tender. No, the banks make sure that their people understand exactly what a real bill should look like. That’s what we have to do. Ignore the noise and learn what real news looks like. Pay attention to legacy outlets (even if that means paying for a subscription.) Watch your local news. Learn who your political leaders are from Mayor to the Senate. When you see a family member or friend post some bogus nonsense, don’t be afraid to point out reality to them. Being civil doesn’t mean being silent. The only way to combat this sort of disinformation is with a clean signal.

This won’t stop with North Carolina Breaking News, folks. We have to stay vigilant. Stay on the barricades and beat them down like whack-a-mole. What we shouldn’t do is lose all trust in one another. Trust is what holds communities together. The disinformation campaigns aren’t just about winning in November. They are about destroying communities from the ground up. These operatives seek to destroy truth. They seek to destroy trust and faith and subvert all of our values turning us into an angry nation of a-holes who wear our worst instincts like a badge of honor.

Here at home some of the good people of North Carolina got a little taste of the ‘ol righteous anger. We got active. We got a result, if only temporary. If we can do it, the rest of America can. As many times as it takes.

Now get out there on the wire and never give up the struggle. Be smart, be vigilant and look out for one another. We are the answer… together.

Not sure how you can tell if something is real or not? Here are a few tips and tools you can use to check the source of any information:

Social Media page. Don’t just look at a single post, take the totality of a page’s content into account. Go to the page posting the content. Scroll through their other content, check their “about” section, see who is running the page.

Google search. Take the name mentioned in any story or post you come across and run a quick google search. See how many hits you get, where they are hosted, and compare the information in the story/post you found with the other sources of that information.

Image search. Right click on any image on the internet and then select “Search Google for Image”. Google will give you a count for the number of times it finds that image on the internet, as well as a list of other places on the internet where that image can be found. Check the list of pages where the image is located to help determine if the information associated with it in the post you found matches how it is presented in other locations. You may also use the site TinEye for a reverse image search. https://tineye.com/

Website “about” info. Found a story on a website that is unfamiliar, or seems fake? Check for the “about” info, usually found through a link at the bottom of the site in a footer. The site should be willing to tell you who they are, when they started and how you can contact them. If you can’t find this section, ignore anything you’ve found on the site. Someone who won’t put their name to their content should not be trusted.

Alignment with what you know. Does a statement seem out of character for the speaker or entity? Is every article attributed to a “local correspondent” or staff writer? Do they use proper grammar and spelling? Do you recognize the website, outlet, or call letters of the TV station? If something seems out of place, take a few extra seconds to check out the image, content and source before you hit like or share.