Rumors spreading on Facebook recently have caused two local police departments to issue statements.
In Stow last month, a post on a Facebook group claimed women were being assaulted and almost kidnapped outside of the Target/Kohl in the Stow Community Center plaza off Route 59. But Stow Police didn't have any reports of assaults or attempted kidnappings, just several reports of suspicious behavior that officers investigated.
"Just remember that anyone can post anything on social media," said Stow Police Chief Jeff Film in an email. "I appreciate those who were concerned and contacted our police department about it."
A similar post appeared later that month on another Facebook group. Just over the Geauga County border in Bainbridge, Jon Bokovitz, chief of the Township of Bainbridge Police Department, said his office took a report on Dec. 23 for a possible kidnapping incident that supposedly occurred on Dec. 20 on Route 422. A post described an incident the person who wrote the post was not a part of where a woman driving a car was nearly driven off the road.
Because it took so long to report the incident, Bokovitz said it was difficult to investigate what had actually happened, and a lot of rumors flew around social media before the office even got the report. Bokovitz said he thought something happened that night, but it seemed to be more of a road rage incident.
"The point is if you feel threatened by another driver, you should contact the police as soon as possible and provide them with as much detailed information as possible, which should be done prior to taking your concerns to social media," said an official statement posted to the Bainbridge Police Department page. "Again, as of this date and time, there is no viable information that would support the allegation of abduction attempts on this freeway."
Bokovitz said Route 422 is general safe and the police station is very close to where the incident supposedly occurred.
"Please report any suspicious activity," Bokovitz said. "The first thing should be to dial 911 or the police department."
Stefanie Moore, a professor of communications at Kent State specializing in public relations, said fake news has become an increasing problem on social media.
Media literacy becomes incredibly important when addressing fake news, she added. Media literacy has been talked about since before the internet existed, and those same rules apply now.
"With social media there are a lot of those same questions that you could ask before even social media, so kind of looking at the goal of the post, who created it, you know, why it's being sent, what techniques were used to kind of capture your attention," Moore said.
She said just looking at timestamps on posts can help weed out some instances of fake news, because sometimes things start to go viral all over again but have already been debunked.
Moore said she also talks with her children, who are 12 and 15, about this topic. Her teens will sometimes see fake posts claiming to be from celebrities or public figures, but it's a pretty easy check to go back and look at that person's timeline and see if the person actually said that.
Often, fact checkers can see what's going on just with a simple Google search, Moore said. She said she found a post from the Stow Police Department debunking rumors about kidnappings in a parking lot just through a quick search. Reliable fact-checking websites like PolitiFact, Snopes and Hoax Slayer can also help determine if a story is real or not.
Understand how websites like Facebook work is also important, Moore said. Posts that get more interactions from friends on Facebook, such as comments, are more likely to be displayed prominently in a news feed.
"And so, that means that the more shares and comments, mostly comments, from friends and family that a post gets the more likely it's rewarded and the more likely it's going to be seen," Moore said.
As for what to do when you see a fake post, Moore suggested writing a comment saying the post was fake.
Contact reporter Eileen McClory at 330-298-1128, email@example.com or @Eileen_McClory.