Did Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal’s campaign make up dozens of false news stories?
One theory: Maybe a campaign staffer used an AI chatbot to generate headlines about the sheriff and posted them on her website. "Really odd," a communications expert said.
Rochelle Bilal ran for Philadelphia sheriff as a reformer in 2019, pledging to clean up an office long plagued by corruption, controversy, and financial irregularities so extensive that they gave accountants actual nightmares.
But Bilal has been telling a different story on her campaign website. It features dozens of favorable headlines attributed to local news organizations such as NBC10, CBS3, WHYY, and The Inquirer, all listing the dates of publication.
“This page,” the site proclaims, “highlights Sheriff Bilal’s record of accomplishment during her time in office.”
One snag: No one can seem to find any of the supposed news stories.
NBC10 spokesperson Diana Torralvo, for instance, said her digital team could not locate any of the dozen stories that Bilal’s team claims that it ran about her November 2019 election, police reform initiatives, distribution of free gun locks, suspension of evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for domestic abuse survivors.
“We have one video similar to the Sheriff’s Office’s headline about the Sheriff’s Office handing out free gun locks,” Torralvo wrote by email. “However, that story was done in 2016, before Rochelle Bilal was in office.”
Torralvo said NBC10 had run several stories on evictions being halted in Philadelphia, but the sheriff wasn’t mentioned in any of them. The station had a May 2019 segment on Bilal’s primary victory, but that doesn’t match the headline or November 2019 date on Bilal’s campaign website.
Bilal, who was reelected in November, did not respond to requests for comment last week. Her spokesperson, Teresa Lundy, referred questions to Bilal’s campaign manager. Lundy, however, said she could not identify that person.
“I wouldn’t know that information,” Lundy said in an email.
A request for comment sent on Thursday to the campaign’s email address was not returned.
By Friday morning, the link to the 31 phantom news headlines had been removed from Bilal’s main campaign site.
Reaction from communications ethicists and media studies experts ranged from “nutty” and “really odd” to “brazen” and “outrageous.”
One theory: Maybe a campaign staffer used an AI chatbot to generate headlines about the sheriff.
Peter Loge, who leads the Project on Ethics in Political Communication at George Washington University, said fabricated headlines could further erode trust in both public officials and the media.
Amid concerns about AI-generated deep fakes and “pink-slime journalism” created by partisan interests, posting false news stories online makes it even harder, experts said, for voters to figure out what is true about a candidate.
Eventually, Loge warned, they might “just assume everything is a lie.”
“That,” he said, “is dangerous.”
Expert: Made-up headlines can confuse voters
In some ways, the Bilal campaign’s strategy resembles that used by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
It was Trump, after all, who hung framed copies of fake Time magazine covers ― with his photo and made-up headlines — at several of his golf clubs. And Trump’s longtime adviser Steve Bannon has long embraced the media strategy of disorienting audiences by “flooding the zone with s—.”
“You just keep spewing stuff out and it fatigues people and they don’t know what to believe,” said Matthew Jordan, professor of media studies and director of Penn State’s News Literacy Initiative.
The manufactured headlines appear to be an attempt to paper over the coverage of Bilal’s first term.
Bilal was sued early on by her chief financial officer and two other staffers for alleged financial impropriety and sexual harassment in the office. Sales of tax delinquent properties were halted in April 2021 and haven’t resumed, costing the city millions of dollars in potential tax revenue.
In 2022, a sheriff’s deputy was busted in an FBI gun-trafficking investigation. Last year, Bilal’s second-in-command was fined by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics for moonlighting as a defense lawyer. In December, the sheriff was sued in federal court for raiding the home of a man who’d been dead for five months.
On top of all that, FBI agents have reportedly interviewed members of her staff about her spending and management, Philadelphia magazine said in an article last May.
Jordan said the brazenness of Bilal’s alternative headlines strategy is indicative of a chaotic media environment in which readers are losing the motivation or ability to sort fact from fiction.
“This works in that kind of environment, where people are exhausted and nobody is going to check anymore,” Jordan said. “Most people are probably looking at this on their phones and just scrolling along.”
The majority of the Bilal headlines, at first glance, seem believable. Some have elements of truth or are related to real coverage.
Five headlines are attributed to WHYY, including, “Philly Sheriff’s Office Announces Temporary Halt to Evictions Amid Coronavirus Outbreak,” with a date of March 16, 2020.
WHYY did run an article on March 15, 2020, with the headline “Philadelphia halts evictions as coronavirus bears down.” However, it refers to the municipal courts’ decision to postpone evictions. Neither Bilal nor her office is mentioned in the headline or the article.
“WHYY News cannot confirm these stories based on our survey of internal news-gathering,” WHYY News spokesperson Tory Harris said in an email, referring to the five headlines Bilal attributed to WHYY.
Bilal’s campaign cited three stories by local media outlets about crime-fighting partnerships with District Attorney Larry Krasner in mid-2021.
Krasner spokesperson Jane Roh said last week: “After searching our email and web archives, we were unable to locate any press releases, announcements, or news clips that match what those headlines describe.”
Bilal campaign can’t vouch for its website’s accuracy
Other headlines don’t appear to have any connection to real stories.
Bilal’s campaign, for example, cites a purported Inquirer article from Jan. 29, 2020 — just three weeks into her first term — with the headline, “Philly sheriff’s office to digitize sheriff sale process, reduce confusion and fraud.”
No such article — or any article about Bilal or the sheriff’s office — could be located in The Inquirer’s archives on or about that date.
Kelly McBride, who chairs the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, said it is not surprising that the headlines seem to be real.
“That is how misinformation works,” McBride said. “It has to be believable. It has to be plausible. That’s what’s so insidious about it.”
On Friday afternoon, Bilal’s campaign restored the 31 headlines to the campaign site and added a note to the bottom:
“Public Disclaimer: While we endeavor to keep the information up-to-date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability or availability with respect to the website or the information provided.”
Inquirer researcher Ryan W. Briggs contributed to this article.