As if 2016 wasn’t bad enough, here’s some new developments to close it out – bogus public safety Facebook pages. Although the incidents reported so far have been law enforcement, it should raise concern across the board. How is your agency positioned to combat this new method of disinformation?
The item was a shocker to residents of Skowhegan, a town of fewer than 10,000 people in central Maine: Police were investigating a triple homicide in which a mother was accused of killing her three sons, then stashing their bodies in a closet.
It should have set the community on edge – but not a word of the Facebook posting was true. Also fake was the Skowhegan police Facebook page where it was posted. Instead of Skowhegan Police Department, the fake page’s name was slightly misspelled, listed as the “Skowhegan Police DepartAment.”
Whoever set up the fake page grabbed real items and photos from the actual town police site to make it look genuine. Then another fake site was set up for Augusta police, adding the post about the fictional Skowhegan homicidal mother along with an equally made-up report about the tragic deaths of a family of five killed in a car crash.
Frustrated by the fake sites, police in both communities are investigating, although no crime appears to have been committed. For organizations that work hard to establish trust in their communities, the existence of the phony Web pages just makes their jobs harder.
“Social media is an important and valuable means of communication to the community and these types of fraudulent pages detract from that,” said Sgt. Kyle Willette of the Maine State Police’s Computer Crimes Task Force. “It certainly frustrates legitimate police agencies and efforts on the agencies’ part to engage in a meaningful way with the community.”
The Skowhegan department’s real site has photos of officers, links to stories about the fake site and links to real news reports of a Skowhegan officer who rescued a mother and child from a burning mobile home.
The real Skowhegan Police Department Facebook page has information about the fake site along with posts about local events and reminders for motorists who may get stranded on central Maine’s roadways.
Police speculate that whoever set up the sites hoped to download viruses on the computers of the people who clicked on the crime reports, or may have been phishing to gather personal material from computer users duped into visiting the sites.
Facebook was notified in both cases, but it can take a couple of weeks for fake sites to be removed. The Skowhegan fake site was still live last week, although the fake crime reports were gone and several visitors’ posts pointed out – some in capital letters, the online equivalent of shouting – that the page was a sham. As of Monday night, both fake sites had been removed.
FAKE SITES, REAL IMPACT
Police worry that the fake sites could scare residents into thinking their communities are more dangerous than they are. They also worry about the sites tarnishing the image of the local police, as well as hampering the departments’ outreach to residents to encourage them to learn more about what police are doing and to report crimes.
Adding to that frustration is knowing that there may be little police can do. Libel and slander laws provide some protection in cyberspace for individuals, but a person can’t be charged for just putting up a copycat Facebook page.
“As of right now, it’s not an actual crime to make a fake Facebook page,” said Detective Katelyn Nichols, the Skowhegan officer who’s looking into that department’s fake page.
If someone sets up a fake police site and then uses that to solicit donations, “the creators/administrators of the site could be on the hook for charges of larceny or identity theft,” said Stephanie Lacambra, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to monitor laws that police the internet with an eye toward encouraging freedom of expression.
But in the absence of that kind of criminal activity, Lacambra said the foundation is worried about investigations of people who put up fake sites.
“EFF is always concerned about protecting free speech and fair use online,” she said. “If law enforcement were to act to stifle free speech by users, EFF would certainly investigate and intervene, if necessary, to protect users’ civil liberties in the digital world.”
Augusta Deputy Chief Jared Mills said lawmakers might want to consider changing the law because while it doesn’t appear that the two fake sites in Maine broke any laws, they caused a lot of consternation and worry among residents.
“That’s the conundrum and perhaps something that can be part of legislation going forward,” he said. “But right now, if we are able to find the person who did it, I’m not sure we could charge them with anything.”
Facebook says it does what it can when someone reports a fake page. The California company said it’s “developed several techniques to help detect suspicious accounts, and we remove accounts that are fake,” a spokesman said by email.
The spokesman also said that the company looks for suspicious patterns of use and reviews reports of improper use quickly, often within 24 hours.
Mills said the appearance of these sites is especially worrisome as police and residents are coming to rely on social media as a way to communicate.
Most police departments in Maine use their Facebook or other pages as a way to foster good community relations, posting items about the positive work officers do and organizations and events that the police support. And, increasingly, it’s a crime-fighting tool.
For instance, South Portland police recently posted an item about an increase in house break-ins. A map showed where most of the burglaries were occurring and the post reminded residents to lock their doors and windows, report suspicious activity or people, and let neighbors or the police know if they’re going to be away for an extended period.
The potential for fake sites to erode trust between police and residents online is perhaps the greatest threat posed by the look-alike sites with fake crime stories, said Robert C. Gregoire, Augusta’s police chief.
“Everybody uses Facebook – I don’t – but everybody else uses Facebook a lot,” he said. “It allows us to push information out relatively quickly.”
But Gregoire said a lot of people aren’t going to do their own sleuthing and determine whether a crime item, or even a site itself, is real.
“People are going to believe it” when an item is posted online, he said, and when they do, “that ties up our personnel and keeps us from doing other things. It’s like calling in a false report or pulling a fire alarm.”