State Politics

NC Senate leader Phil Berger changes news headlines on Facebook posts – violating the site’s policy

Senate leader Phil Berger (Rep) right, walks across the floor of the chamber as the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes for a special session on Dec. 13, 2016.
Senate leader Phil Berger (Rep) right, walks across the floor of the chamber as the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes for a special session on Dec. 13, 2016.

Visitors to Senate leader Phil Berger’s official Facebook page might have thought this headline appeared in The News & Observer: “Has Roy Cooper flip-flopped on HB 2? Gov. Cooper now refusing to support men in women’s bathrooms.”

But that headline never appeared in the newspaper or on its website. The real headline on the news story: “In HB2 repeal effort, Gov. Cooper is silent on proposed nondiscrimination law.”

The person managing Berger’s page used a little-known Facebook tool to change the headline on the article being shared, making it appear that the headline was written by the news organization. A typical user of Facebook can’t make such a change, but a manager of a professional or group page can. Facebook says Berger’s use of the tool violates its policies.

The Eden Republican’s page altered headlines on at least five news articles recently, making stories from The N&O, Charlotte Observer and WBTV appear as if the media outlet was jabbing at the Democratic governor.

Facebook users see the articles’ real headlines only if they click the link and go to the news outlets’ websites.

“I can confirm that Sen. Berger has violated Facebook policy,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said this week, pointing to the site’s terms of use that dictate users “will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.”

Berger spokeswoman Amy Auth issued a statement Thursday criticizing Facebook’s interpretation of its policy.

“We reject the assertion that posting an original hyperlink to unaltered content is somehow ‘misleading’ – Facebook allows this basic discretion to all other pages and we question why they are targeting Sen. Berger,” Auth said. She did not address the issue of why Berger’s staff altered the headlines on Berger’s Facebook page.

Facebook deleted N&O and Charlotte Observer posts on Berger’s page after McClatchy, The News & Observer’s parent company, reported the practice to Facebook. On Thursday, Auth noted that comments from other Facebook users who’d weighed in on the posts were also deleted.

“We are disturbed that the N&O and Facebook are censoring the voices of nearly 135,000 constituents who contribute to Sen. Berger’s Facebook page by forcibly deleting their posts just because the N&O’s leadership doesn’t like Sen. Berger’s links to its unaltered news stories and headlines,” she said.

The N&O had asked Berger to stop changing its headlines on Facebook. “I am glad for you to post News & Observer articles on your Facebook page,” N&O executive editor John Drescher wrote in a Feb. 15 letter. “However, I ask that you not change the headline or photo we placed on the story, as you have several times recently. Most readers of your page will think the headline written by your staff was the original N&O headline and will be misled.”

Since the newspaper’s letter, the practice has not continued. But this week, Berger chief of staff Jim Blaine sent a response to the paper including a “modest proposal” that Berger’s staff collaborate with journalists in writing stories’ original headlines.

“Rest assured that people in our office have suggested many, many, many responses to your correspondence,” Blaine wrote.

“Please let us know if you’d be willing to work together with us to provide your readers and our readers with the accurate and honest headlines they deserve,” he wrote.

Drescher said Thursday that he’s concerned by the responses from Berger’s staff. “I was surprised that Sen. Berger intentionally misrepresented our news articles by writing fake headlines on them,” he said. “And I’m disappointed that even after Facebook has said Sen. Berger is violating its policy, he continues to defend the practice.”

Here are other examples where Berger’s Facebook page used an altered headline:

Original WBTV headline: Cooper has no plans to change McCrory’s executive order on bathrooms

Berger version: Cooper backs away from shared bathrooms

Charlotte Observer headline: Sports official says HB2 closing window on hopes of landing NCAA events

Berger version: Cooper’s block of HB2 repeal, unwillingness to compromise is closing window on hopes of landing NCAA events

Charlotte Observer headline: Carolinas political leaders react to Trump’s executive order

Berger version: Cooper flip flops on refugees (The Facebook post also switched an image of Sen. Thom Tillis from the Observer story to a photo of Cooper laughing.)

Republicans celebrate as they hold on to a legislative majority during a North Carolina Republican Party election results watch party at the Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley in Raleigh, NC on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

Video: Senate Bill 68 combines the current State Ethics Commission and State Board of Elections into a single board. It is headed to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, who has said he would veto it.

Senate Leader Phil Berger says he doesn't see Gov. Roy Cooper's HB2 proposal as a true compromise.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter