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Fake news, the misinformation phenomenon that impacted the 2016 presidential election, has crept into a municipal race in one of Mississippi’s largest cities.
A fake news article published this week accused Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton of being arrested after a months-long investigation. The article spread rapidly on social media, prompting Shelton’s campaign to request the article be removed both from the host website and Facebook.
Shelton has not been arrested for any charge, and the article had been removed from the site by Friday morning at Shelton’s request.
“It was apparent, even though it created some buzz and gossip, that it’s not a concern that it could have an impact on this particular election,” Shelton told Mississippi Today. “But the concern that fake news has the potential to do, in general, is very real. … I think there’s a big fear of paid political operatives doing this kind of garbage.”
The article, which was published early Tuesday and first came to the attention of the campaign on Wednesday, alleged that Shelton had been arrested after a four-month investigation by the “Mississippi Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Specific charges were not published in the false article.
Shelton, the first-term mayor who was elected in 2013, faces Democratic primary opponent Candice Knowles on May 2. No Republican candidates are running for the seat, meaning the race will be decided in the primary.
Knowles did not return requests for comment about the fake news article.
The host website which published the article, Channel24news.com, is a self-titled “prank website.” Anyone can log on to the site and publish any article with customized content and headlines.
The “Fake news” label was popularized by Republican Donald Trump about articles he didn’t agree with during the 2016 presidential campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
False reports on social media prompted Facebook to take steps late last year to allow its users to more easily flag content they deemed to be fake or erroneous. With the spread of social media platforms, people will often read a headline and share the article with their friends and followers without first confirming its veracity.
One Tupelo resident shared the article about Shelton on her Facebook page on Tuesday with emojis indicating surprise. More than a dozen people commented on her post, calling out the article as “fake news.”
“You gotta be careful creating fake stuff like this,” one commenter posted. “Someone could be charged with slander.”
Another commenter wrote: “This is not funny. Too many people believe everything they see.”
Shelton said he used the new Facebook feature that allows users to report fake news. Facebook has not gotten in touch with him about it, he said Friday morning, and several links to the article are still published on the social medium.
“This kind of stuff, especially in Tupelo, is offensive,” Shelton said. “In a local election, particularly, most candidates are hometown folks. Tupelo is not a place for dirty politics.”