RICHMOND — Facebook users beware: that headline on the politically related news article you're reading — including this one — may not be real.
An altered Facebook headline on a newspaper story involving a statue of Robert E. Lee has blown up into a major sore point in the Virginia GOP primary for governor. 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.
They highlight Facebook's increasingly important presence in political campaigns, thanks to its vast reach and ability to target specific subgroups of voters.
Virginia's governor's race is being watched nationally as a possible early referendum on President Donald Trump. The uproar over the altered headline taps into strongly felt opposition over Charlottesville's plan to remove a longstanding statue of the Confederate general there.
Other flaps over altered headlines have erupted in at least two other states recently involving politicians or political groups close to them. The social media site has special tools available to page administrators allowing them to change headlines in ways that make it look like they were written by legitimate news organizations.
Critics complain altered headlines are a new kind of "fake news" to 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 GOP state senator drew fire for an altered headline stating Democratic Gov. Roy "Cooper flip flops on refugees."
Now a group aligned with Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Corey Stewart, a firebrand conservative Trump backer, 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 elected, staunchly supportive of Southern history. After Stewart protested before 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 Team — 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." The post makes it look as if that was the Washington Post's headline.
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. Gillespie also said it's an issue to be handled locally.
Rick Shaftan is a Republican operative who runs the Conservative Response Team's Facebook page and altered the headline. He said Gillespie's trying to have it both ways and 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 resonates with a large group of voters opposed to 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 the presidential race, Facebook was criticized for not doing enough to stop patently fake news stories on its platform. Recently it announced a slew of new countermeasures.
The altered headline rankled Gillespie, whose own Facebook page is frequently visited by users chiding him for not supporting Confederate monuments.
His campaign complained to Facebook in mid-February that the altered headline misrepresented his position. Facebook didn't remove the post then. It suggested, among other things, that Gillespie's campaign create a new page focused on debunking false stories.
But 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's disappointed with Facebook.
"We hope Facebook will work harder to stop (Stewart) and his allies from using its platform to deceive voters," Moran said via email.
Shaftan said he found out Friday the post was removed. He reposted the story with the same altered headline hours later and paid to promote the new posting. It was still online Monday morning before Facebook removed it.
And after this story was first published, Shaftan posted it to the Conservative Response Team's Facebook page but with what he said was a "slightly more accurate headline." It reads: "Gillespie Flips Out Over True Altered Headline Over Lee Statue Removal."