Almost as soon as the 2019 election was over Britain launched itself into a fresh crisis. Barely had the words ‘2020 is going to be a great year,’ left Boris Johnson’s lips than the first cases of Coronavirus began showing up. 100,000 deaths later and the country has been understandably focusing on other things.
However, a new study looks back on what was a watershed election. It was one in which misinformation went mainstream and the implications for our democracy could be profound.
The study comes from campaign group Truth Defence, a group of activists, journalists , and academics who are concerned about the spread of misinformation online. Their recent report demonstrates that the 2019 election was like no other. Between 2017 and 2019 the media stepped up its hostility towards Corbyn’s Labour. A wave of obscure campaign groups piled in to register with the electoral commission, but most of all, one party came with a game plan based on lies and deception.
In an online discussion about the report, Dr Justin Schlosberg, founder of Truth Defence, explains more. In stark contrast to Theresa May’s campaign in 2017, he said, the Conservatives “designed and launched a campaign which was based on the dissemination of lies and false hoods.”
Until now, little work has been done to really look at what happened in 2019 and the implications it has for democracy.
“We got a glimpse of it at the time through the work of organisations such as first draft,” he adds “but the evidence was patchy and not all of it was substantiated.”
This report by Dr Justin Schlosberg aims to fill the gap.
The findings are stark. The Conservatives were seven times more likely to mislead the voters than Labour. Both Facebook and Google left adverts up for an unnecessary long periods before removing them. Some were left unchecked entirely. Even those which were removed lasted for an average of seven days and reached audiences of millions before big tech acted.
Equally disappointingly, some of the biggest names in broadcasting news and media helped them do so. This was an election in which disinformation stepped out of the shadows. No longer was this the work of fringe parties and extremists. Now it was right out in the open. Lies were pumped out from the Conservative campaign and served up unfiltered on newspapers and in the Twitter feeds of broadcast journalists.
The phantom punch
One of the clearest examples came at the peak of the campaign. The government was being hauled over the coals after a video of a young boy with pneumonia who was forced to sleep under a hospital trolley on the floor, surfaced online.
The story quickly threatened to spiral out of control. PM Johnson didn’t help matters when confronted by a journalist from ITV News. Rather than address the issue, he took the reporter’s phone and put it in his pocket.
However, the story quickly took a different turn. Matt Hancock and his team rushed to the hospital to perform damage control. Almost immediately, rumours emerged that a member of Hancock’s team had been punched by a protestor.
Two leading broadcasters, Robert Peston and Laura Kuensberg quickly repeated the rumour in their Twitter feeds.
Kuensberg wrote: “So Matt Hancock was despatched to Leeds General (sorry not just Leeds Hospital), to try to sort out mess, hearing Labour activists scrambled to go + protest, and it turned nasty when they arrived – one of them punched Hancock’s adviser.”
ITV’s Robert Peston repeated the allegation in another Tweet, saying it was Matt Hancock’s “adviser who was whacked in the face by a protestor as he tried to help Hancock get into his car. Police on scene. All sounds very unpleasant.”
Peston would later claim he had been told this by senior Conservatives. Kuensberg said she had two sources for the story. Both statements repeated the incident as fact, not that there had been claims.
The lie unravelled quickly. First the Police announced that they knew nothing of any such incident. Then a video emerged showing Hancock’s adviser accidentally walking into an outstretched arm.
Kuensberg and Peston both deleted their Tweets and issued brief apologies, before continuing to pump out unsubstantiated claims from anonymous ‘Number 10 sources’.
Trolls then went to work trying to unpick the story itself claiming the picture had been staged. None of these were true, but the press picked it up. They began repeating the claims casting doubt on the truth of the original story. The boy himself and his parents became collateral damage. Having gone through the distress of having an extremely ill child treated in such a way, the press attempted to paint them as liars.
It was just one of many examples in which journalists amplified Tory lies in the name of debate.
For example, at the start of the campaign the Conservatives claimed that Labour’s manifesto spending commitments would amount to a staggering £1.2 trillion over five years. The claim was rapidly discredited by fact checking organisations, but that didn’t stop the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Mail splashing the report over the front pages.
Broadcasters were better at challenging falsehoods. However, the report found that “there was a significant time lag between when false claims by the Conservatives were simply reported (and matched against Labour’s reply) and when they were actively challenged by journalists.”
Even then ministers were given a platform in which they defended and repeated the lie.
One example was the Conservatives’ claim to be building 40 new hospitals. In reality they had committed funding to only six to start building works and all of these were for upgrades to existing hospitals. The remaining 34 had only been offered seed money to develop proposals for new hospitals.
The gap between the number of hospitals the Conservatives claimed they were building and how many they were actually building, therefore, was 40. No new hospitals were being built. Even so they were left to repeat these claims over and over throughout the campaign.
The impact of broadcasters during this election, said the report, ‘should not be overstated’. The more the campaign progressed, the more significant the impact of the delay between the claim being made and being debunked actually was.
Even worse, when fake news was debated on the news, presenters did nothing to address the fact that fake news was coming overwhelmingly from one direction over another. It was framed as a problem of politics itself.
One of the clearest examples of this came after a report found that 88% of the Conservative’s online advertisements were false. As we mentioned previously in Bywire, BBC news and other outlets phrased the reporting to make it appear both parties were culpable.
Such ambiguous reporting papered over the fact that the governing party was lying to the public on an industrial scale. The Tory disinformation machine was big business, especially for online platforms who eagerly took money from Tory HQ as well as a growing number of obscure campaign groups with shadowy backgrounds.
The report’s authors used Google’s Transparency Tool and Facebook’s Ads library to analyse thousands of adverts from the main political parties and an ‘unprecedented number’ of campaign groups. They cross referenced this data with claims which were comprehensively debunked by the fact checking organisation Full Fact.
Their analysis focused only claims which were statistically or factually inaccurate. Some were ads which were removed by Facebook or Google while others contained demonstrably false information. One of the most insidious was run in the final leg of the campaign and was not covered by Full Fact. It claimed that Labour’s inheritance tax pledge would cost homes over £325,000.
This referred to Labour’s plan to reverse the Conservatives’ increase in the inheritance tax threshold from £325,000 to £475,000. This meant that homes over £325,000 would have been impacted. However, they phrased the advert to imply that it would cost all homes £325,000.
Other highly questionable claims included 50,000 new nurses, and 20,000 more police. Labour meanwhile ran adverts which falsely claimed the Conservatives cut £8bn from social care. In truth this referred to the savings made by councils on social care spending since 2010 not the actual cut in their budgets. They also claimed that their policies would put ‘£6,700 in your pocket.’ This claim about how much people would save on average thanks to their policies was not, according to Full Fact, credible.
The Conservatives also habitually misled people about the origins of their messaging. This included changing the name of their press office’s Twitter account to ‘Fact Check UK’ during a TV debate. The Tories attempted to give the impression of an independent fact checking organisation to push further questionable statements.
During the campaign they also used Google to promote the website labourmanifesto.co.uk. This had a picture of Jeremy Corbyn at the top with the title: Labour’s 2019 manifesto. Only further down in smaller print did they see the words admitting that this website came from the Conservative party.
The report also turned its eye to the enormous number of non-party political campaign groups which appeared during the campaign. According to the Electoral Commission, they spent a record £6.9 million during the campaign. This was more than double the figure in 2017.
These came from all directions. They included adverts from groups advocating tactical voting to defeat the Conservatives and others such as Led By Donkeys which attacked both the Conservatives and Labour for their positions on Brexit.
However, the report finds that once again it was those groups which were anti-Labour, or more specifically anti Corbyn, which led the way in disinformation. These included a doctored image of the Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti which was made to look like a comment article in the Guardian and said: “We need to ban public schools, just as soon as my son finishes at Dulwich College.”
The nature of non-party campaign groups follows a well trodden path in this election. It was remarkable not just for the sheer scale of disinformation but the direction it came from. Although Labour’s advertising was not whiter than white, it was dwarfed by the flood of lies and misdirection emanating from Labour HQ.
The same was true in the press. Every year the Press Standards organisation (IPSOS) publishes its naughty list of those newspapers which have had the most complaints upheld against them. It’s a roll of dishonour and every year they show the same story. The most complained about outlets almost universally approach politics from the right.
Last year The Times topped the list, a culmination of a recent trend which has seen the Murdoch owned broadsheet pump out a growing number of false and debunked stories. It was followed by the Express and the Sun. Previous winners include the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
This wilful campaign of disinformation serves to erode trust in both the press and politicians, both of which are near historic lows. All of this plays into their hands. It becomes increasingly hard to counter misinformation when people distrust everything they read and hear. Experts are labelled biased or activists, as the government seeks to run away from the truth.
The time has come to break the delusion that this is a problem in which both sides are guilty. Truth is under assault, and attacks come almost exclusively from the right.
The report calls for measures to improve standards in the press and a rethink of how online advertising is regulated. However, it doesn’t have a clear roadmap for how this can be achieved. Conservative figures are in control of the regulators and the major media institutions. Social media platforms have been content to take proceeds from false advertising.
Those who are in a position to make change are not the kind of people who can be trusted to do so. It is down to organisations to create the changes that we want to see. There are alternatives out there. Independent media organisations such as Double Down News, Byline Times, Canary, Bywire and many others are building strong audiences to demonstrate how independent and truthful news can look like.
The recently launched Independent Media Association, is seeking to bring those organisations together to give them the weight and collective strength to counter the corporate power of right wing corporate media.
In the social media realm. there is appetite for change. The political landscape has impacted the reputations of tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. They have been forced reluctantly into taking action on misinformation.
However, they change only when compelled to do so. Real development only comes with the creation of new platforms which provide a more reliable, transparent and accountable model of social media. Voice.com sets itself up as the antithesis of Facebook. All people on the site must be verified and content is time stamped and transparent.
Who knows how different the world may have looked today if the UK Parliamentary election systems were less dominated by nefarious influencers, dark money and perhaps even clandestine state led interventions. Freedom, democracy, truth; these notions are in jeopardy and without a common language, a shared vocabulary and set of moral absolutes, then the world will fail to communicate and communicating is the only thing that distinguishes humanity against all other known life forms..
Communicating is essential to civilization, what we witnessed at Capital Hill on January 6, demonstrates how fragile our societies really are if we fail to communicate honestly, respectfully and most importantly, accurately.
Written by Tom Cropper and Michael O'Sullivan from Bywire News