The day after Thanksgiving 2019, residents of Chippewa Township, Pennsylvania, watched from their windows as state and local police combed through their backyards looking for Kyle Michael Jones.
Jones, 26, had a long rap sheet for offenses like reckless driving and disorderly conduct. He had responded to an officer’s attempted traffic stop by jumping out of his car and making a run for it.
Information about Jones wouldn’t be public for days, so as helicopters flew overhead and police dogs searched the surrounding woods, residents logged on to Facebook. And that’s when the fear, and the exaggerations, and the falsehoods begin to circulate and multiply.
“Word is he escaped from Detroit where he killed someone,” a woman offered in The News Alerts of Beaver County, a public Facebook group where 43,000 members — roughly a quarter of the county population — post and comment on local news from potholes and closing businesses to lost dogs and suspected criminals on the loose.
Chatter in The News Alerts of Beaver County group, which counts Chippewa Township among its 53 municipalities, moves fast. Earlier the same day, local police had had to dispel rumors spread in the group about an attempted kidnapping in the riverside shopping town of Monaca. Hours later and 10 miles north, as police searched for Jones, group members tuned into the police scanner and began to describe what they were hearing.
Jones was thin, they said, missing one shoe and a sock. Someone claimed that he had a gun. Someone else posted that they had heard gunshots nearby. Another thought they had heard a gun firing at a playground. A man posted that he had sent his wife and children to the basement and was guarding his door with a loaded gun. “When I started reading those posts, I was losing my mind,” said Chippewa Township Police Chief Eric Hermick, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who officially took the top job overseeing Chippewa Township’s 13-person police force in January 2020.
The comments came in faster than the group’s administrator could moderate them – hundreds of them in an hour. Just as many panicked phone calls were placed to 911 operators and the local police precinct, according to police and the director of emergency management services.
Jones was no murderer, but local police say that for the umpteenth time the group’s Facebook posts needlessly frightened a town and tied up officers who had to combat rumors when they should have been investigating crimes.
Members of the community say ineffective communication caused confusion, especially an emergency services push alert sent to smartphones in the area that warned residents to stay inside to avoid a potentially armed person.
For all the chaos, Jones turned himself in. He was charged with “fleeing to elude an officer” and 14 other traffic-related charges — but no murders or shootings.
In an interview from his office last year, surrounded by unpacked cardboard boxes spilling with uniforms and policing awards, Hermick described parents rushing to pick up kids from friends’ homes and older people in the community flooding the emergency services call line.
“It just caused panic,” he said.
Like other police departments throughout the country, Chippewa Township Police embraced Facebook for its ability to reach the community and aid in investigations, especially retail thefts. But Hermick never anticipated the headaches that might arise. The fake murderer-on-the-loose story was just the latest issue in what Hermick said was a larger “social media problem.”
“It’s just crazy. These people that sit around with nothing else to do except listen to a scanner and start sensationalizing stuff,” Hermick said. “I don’t think there’s any accountability or checks in place to make sure these people are putting factual information out there.”
Officers on duty posted to the thread, too, but the efforts to set the record straight only made things worse. The group members accused the police of organizing a “cover-up.”
“It destroys our reputation, our community, confidence in the police department, and we have to regain that,” Hermick said. “I never had a problem doing that, but let’s hold people accountable for what they’re putting out there.”
But the question of just who is accountable for providing information in Beaver County is murky. The area’s once-trusted news source, a newspaper with a 160-year history, was devastated in a few short months after it was swallowed up by giant corporate chains. The vacuum was filled by social media, namely Facebook.
Lawmakers and experts have been critical of Facebook’s groups feature, claiming the mostly private spaces have become hubs for coronavirus misinformation and extremism.
But The News Alerts of Beaver County isn’t home base for a gun-wielding militia, and it isn’t a QAnon fever swamp. In fact, the group’s focus on timely and relevant information for a small real-world community is probably the kind that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg envisioned when he pivoted his company toward communities in 2017.
And yet, the kind of misinformation that’s traded in The News Alerts of Beaver County and thousands of other groups just like it poses a unique danger. It’s subtler and in some ways more insidious, because it’s more likely to be trusted. The misinformation — shared in good faith by neighbors, sandwiched between legitimate local happenings and overseen by a community member with no training but good intentions — is still capable of tearing a community apart.
The heart of Beaver County sits 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, a scenic stretch of country where the Beaver and Ohio rivers meet.
In its heyday, Beaver County was home to a middle-class way of life built on Big Steel. But the collapse of the steel manufacturing industry in the 1980s hit Beaver County hard. Today, shuttered steel mills dot the landscape. The main streets that make up the county’s small towns and the bridges that connect them could use repair; the small businesses could do with more customers.
In more recent years, high unemployment and the opioid crisis have been particularly cruel to the county’s remaining residents. People who stayed talk a lot about how old the area seems; more kids move away now for school or jobs and often don’t ever come back. Facebook groups like The News Alerts of Beaver County have been a way for current and former residents to stay connected to their small towns.
And while the group may be a thorn in the sides of local police, digital communities like it are becoming ubiquitous. Facebook isn’t the only neighborhood-watch-style social network — Nextdoor is the fourth most popular app in the Apple store’s news category — but it is the biggest. Facebook’s hyperlocal groups have been crucial for information-sharing, especially during a pandemic and in a growing number of areas where local newspapers have been shuttered or gutted. At the same time, the groups have turned into hubs for misinformation, partisan squabbling and vigilantism.
There are thousands of such groups on Facebook, each with its own issues.
A 27,000-member group in North Dakota, Bismarck’s People Reporting News, became a hotbed of immigration misinformation and fear-mongering last year, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Scanner and News of Klamath Falls, a 7,000-member group in Oregon, was the source of antifa rumors that caused armed standoffs between neighbors last summer.
Beaver County has three distinct Facebook news groups. In addition to The News Alerts of Beaver County, there is the heavily moderated and less popular Beaver County News group, with 27,000 members, and the News And Alerts Of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, with 5,700 members.
“It might be serving the public,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University who studies social media. “In a system with inadequate legitimate local news, they may only be able to get information by posting gossip and having the police correct it. One could argue this is what society will look like if we keep going down this road with less journalism and more police and government social media.”
Black Friday wasn’t the first time The News Alerts of Beaver County had frustrated local officials. Since its inception in 2016, the group and the woman running it have been criticized for posts that were alleged to have riled up members with misinformation.
Statistically speaking, Beaver County is a relatively safe community. But judging by posts in The News Alerts of Beaver County group, the area is beset with murderers, human traffickers, child molesters and criminals of all sorts. Members have repeatedly posted photos of white vans alongside warnings about shady characters and firsthand accounts of escaping near-kidnappings. Last year, like most official news organizations, the group focused primarily on Covid-19 and the election.
Despite some negative attention, members said they have a deep appreciation for the group and consider it a real community service. They post job announcements, affordable apartment listings and new restaurant recommendations. Within minutes of a post about an emergency like a traffic accident, a member with firsthand knowledge of the victim will usually log on and give an update. Messages of prayers then roll in.
“It allows people to make informed decisions about local situations without being told what to think about the issues,” a member wrote on a post asking for opinions about the group. “It’s also a place to find news that pertains to us locally whereas the news covers more broader areas.
And last but not least it allows us to post critical information long before the news even covers the story.”
The group isn’t just a side project for its sole administrator, lifetime Beaver Falls resident Deanna Romigh; it gives her a sense of purpose.
“I was always the last to know anything,” Romigh, 36, a single mother of two teenagers, said in an interview from her father’s home in Beaver Falls. Before the pandemic hit, Romigh had a house cleaning business.
Romigh, who is deaf, said the group is her way of getting information and bonding with her neighbors.
“I need to know everything, too,” she said. “I’m not invisible. So I just made my own group. I never thought it would grow this big. I mean, I’m shocked myself.”
One of her earliest posts, in June 2016, was a callout. “Who got a scanner on their phones? Lmk.” she wrote, calling for members who were willing to post about crimes and traffic jams. “I’d do it for yins but I’m deaf. Lol.”
The rules were simple — be nice to one another and no politics — and as her group grew, Romigh swiftly banned anyone who broke them. Within a few months, she had several thousand members. With no real guidance from Facebook, Romigh learned as she went. Early on, some members would post photos of people who they said had committed crimes, and others posted about police activity in ways that could alert criminals. So she instituted new policies: no faces and nothing that would impede an investigation.
Romigh has gone through several co-admins and moderators but ultimately runs the group by herself. She estimates that she spends six hours every day approving members and posts and moderating comments — work that Facebook doesn’t pay her to do. For a group of her size, which has garnered over 4.5 million interactions, according to CrowdTangle, the work is more than what she had in mind when she started.
“I just get overwhelmed,” she said.
About a third of the activity in The News Alerts of Beaver County is posting and commenting on links to news stories. Romigh tries to keep the group focused on local news, but lately there’s just not been much to post.
Beaver County is what’s known as a news desert — one of 20 in the state with only a single newspaper or no newspaper. The sole newspaper that covers Beaver County and its 170,000 residents, the Beaver County Times, has been slashed to a shell of its former glory.
Its problems are emblematic of the squeeze being felt at thousands of local newsrooms across the country. Declining ad revenues and a generally broken business model have shuttered nearly one-quarter of U.S. newspapers over the last 15 years.
“We are truly facing an extinction-level event for local news,” Jonathan Schleuss, president of the News Guild-Communications Workers of America, testified at a House hearing in March.
Facebook didn’t exactly kill local news, but it certainly sped its demise. It’s a role that Facebook has acknowledged and tried to redress.
Since 2019, Facebook has committed $400 million in grants to local news programs. It also released a feature meant to highlight local news publishers called “Today In.” But the feature, now part of a larger “Facebook News” product, was thwarted by an obvious problem: “About one in three users in the U.S. live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch,” the company said in a blog post.
In its heyday, the Beaver County Times was owned by local media magnate S.W. Calkins, a prototypical newspaperman who operated newspapers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida. Calkins died in 1973, and his family took over the business. But by 2017, the grandchildren who were running the empire wanted out, and they sold the Times along with four other local newspapers for $17.5 million to New Media Investment Group, a New York-based corporate behemoth that owned Gatehouse Media, a chain of hundreds of local newspapers in 36 states.
Gatehouse immediately began offering buyouts, then cuts. The copy desk was the first to go, according to an insider at the Times who asked for anonymity to speak freely. Then it was the managing editors, because reporters didn’t need the guidance, and then editorial page editors because news editors could just take on the opinion section. And who needs photographers and videographers when reporters have iPhones?
In the summer of 2019, the Times staff packed up 55 years’ worth of history from an iconic brick building in Bridgewater and moved to an office that sits among other businesses in a sprawling industrial park. The move made sense; the old building was “far too large a facility for our dwindled staff,” Lisa Micco, then an executive, wrote in a 2019 column mourning what she called the “end of an era.”
Reduced subscriptions and increased outsourcing meant there was no longer a need for an in-house printing press, a library or photo or video departments. The employees who were left could fit in a single room.
Their new offices didn’t have the familiar hum of a newsroom — the mood when an NBC News reporter visited last year was more like that of an empty library.
There’s still news to report, of course. The biggest stories to watch include a crisis at rural western Pennsylvania hospitals, which are facing major layoffs and closures, and the soon-to-be-opened plastic pellets manufacturing plant that’s expected to put thousands of people back to work.
“The resources you have to have to really cover a community, it’s a lot harder than people think it is,” the insider said.
What was once the region’s largest suburban daily newspaper is now home to fewer than 10 editorial employees. The budget leaves the few remaining reporters to cover beats including sports, entertainment, politics, business, crime and courts — little time is devoted to the city, borough and township government goings-on.
GateHouse bought Gannett in November 2019 for $1.2 billion, and the Beaver County Times became one of more than 600 daily and weekly papers that made up the “new” Gannett, the country’s biggest corporate-owned newspaper business.
Shane Fitzgerald, Pennsylvania state editor for Gannett and a former executive editor of the Beaver County Times, said the paper continues to concentrate on local news and has added two reporters in 2021 and anticipates hiring two more.
“While we’ve been impacted by the same economic conditions that have led to cutbacks across our industry, we remain well-positioned to be the dominant news source for Beaver County,” he said in a statement. “Additionally, while we may have a few less dedicated staff in that area, we have centralized support functions through the USA TODAY NETWORK so that local reporters and editors can focus on covering the important issues within their community.”
But residents say they have noticed a decline. Some of the biggest complaints in The News Alerts of Beaver County Facebook group are about the paper. There are gripes about coverage, bias, quality and how the paper is delivered (never on the front porch like it used to be!), but the biggest concern for residents by far is the cost. In 2017, the price of a paper increased. The next year, it put up a $9.99-a-month paywall for its online content — angering many in the county who had gotten used to reading articles for free.
“I don’t understand why people are so upset. Before the internet, everyone had to pay to read the newspaper and nobody complained,” a member of the News Alerts of Beaver County Facebook group responded in a thread about the paywall. “Now that we have the net in our pockets, people think they are entitled to all media for free.”
“It’s a dying medium,” another member replied.
Motives aside, for some members of the community the possible dangers of Romigh’s group outweigh the benefits.
A small investigative news website, BeaverCountian.com, has published multiple articles debunking rumors spread in the group.
“This all must end before people get hurt,” John Paul Vranesevich, who publishes the local news website, wrote in an editorial calling for the group’s removal.
Vranesevich, 42, who was born and raised in town, graduated from Beaver High School and then “spread his wings and escaped,” as he puts it, to work in the tech industry. Vranesevich founded a popular computer security website but came back to Beaver County and started BeaverCountian in 2011. Today, he has a team of six freelancers — some former writers for the Beaver County Times — and automates much of the newsgathering process, including county 911 call logs and the recording and transcription of public meetings.
“We’ve got limited resources, let’s be blunt,” Paul said of his award-winning website. “Do we spend our time fact-checking false things that we didn’t publish? Do we spend our time writing about things that are not news because they’re not real? Or do we spend our time actually investigating and writing real news about matters of significant importance that the public needs to know about?
“Our unspoken policy has been that if it starts having a massive impact on the community at large, then we have an obligation to the community to come in,” he said.
Other, smaller rumors, like the one about the community organizer who was wrongly branded a pedophile in the group for taking photos at a kids’ soccer practice, may not get fact-checked, but they can have outsize impacts on the subjects at the centers of the false claims.
“I get phone calls from people in tears who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a very bright spotlight, undeservedly,” Vranesevich said. “Private people who are going about their lives, who’ve done nothing wrong and all of the sudden find themselves with the attention of 40,000 people, being accused of everything from being a child molester to a human trafficker. That can disrupt your day.”
Despite the criticism, The News Alerts of Beaver County continues to grow.
Romigh acknowledges that sometimes, especially in breaking news situations, the group can get out of control, but she is adamant that she never wants to spread misinformation.
“Do I want to spread fake news?” she asked. “No. We all just want to know what’s going on.”