Altered Facebook news headline jolts Virginia governor's race

RICHMOND, Va. -- 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 tools available to page administrators allowing them to change headlines in ways that make it look as if 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 recently was 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 is trying to have it both ways, and the changed headline reflects that.

The post was shared widely, 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.

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 visited frequently by users chiding him for not supporting Confederate monuments.His campaign complained to Facebook in mid-February the altered headline misrepresented his position. Facebook didn't remove the post then.