Tories, Twitter and Fake News

The furore surrounding the Conservative Party’s ‘rebranding’ of its press office Twitter account as ‘FactcheckUK’ during the leadership debate has been quite spectacular.

The BBC’s Emily Maitlis called it ‘dystopian’ on Newsnight, and the reaction on Twitter itself was, as many things on Twitter are, a mixture of outrage, anger, defensiveness and humour. And yet the full impact and the real importance of this seemingly small piece of deception do not seem to have been properly appreciated by many – at least in part because they need to be considered in the context of the much misunderstood phenomenon of ‘fake news’. It is not just that the Tories were contributing to fake news – using some well known techniques – but that their activities directly undermined some of the few effective tools that exist to combat (or at least reduce the impact of) fake news.

Fake news is very difficult to fight. It is not a new phenomenon – its history can be traced back pretty much as far as human history. Classic examples include its use to demonise Vlad the Impaler in 15th Century Wallachia: its use is one of the reasons he became a byword for brutality and the basis of the myth of Dracula. What is different now, and what makes it more of a problem in the current environment is the way that social media works – the speed and sharing networks of Facebook and Twitter, the gameable curation algorithms of YouTube, the ease with which content can be created and tailored all contribute to something which can have a huge effect, particularly in times of political turbulence.

The question of how to deal with this has been wrestled with by lawyers, academics, tech companies, governments and more, and many suggestions have been made and many ‘solutions’ suggested – including, importantly, the use of law to clamp down on fake news, tech to detect fake news and ‘rules’ applied and enforced by the social media companies. The UK government introduced its ‘Online Harms White Paper’ earlier in the year, and one of the key harms it aimed to deal with was misinformation…. …so one of the first reactions to seeing the UK’s governing party engaging in fakery should be to question their suitability to govern the regulation of fake news.

This isn’t just a particular problem for the Tory Party in the UK. All over the world governments are wringing their hands about fake news, bringing in often harsh and censorious laws and worst – whilst using fake news themselves. Fake news, from a government perspective – and certainly from the Tory Party perspective – is only a bad thing when other people engage in it.

Most of the ideas and tools suggested to ‘deal with’ fake news are unlikely to be effective, can be gamed or sidestepped, or have significant and damaging side effects. All, however, do rely on one key factor: if we are to have any chance of dealing with fake news and other forms of misinformation we need to have some kind of ‘anchor points’ of reality to judge the fakery against. The Tory Party’s little deception yesterday directly undermined two of the main ways that those anchor points are established.

The first of these is the verified account – the ‘blue tick’. This is not, as some seem to think, a badge of honour, or a status symbol, but is intended to be a way that you can be sure that the account is what it says it is. For someone with a verified account to be misleading as to what they are is to directly undermine this – and when CCHQ ‘relabelled’ itself as a seemingly neutral ‘fact checker’ it was being directly misleading, and in a way specifically forbidden by Twitter in the terms and conditions for a verified account.

The second is the existence of fact checkers themselves – they’re intended to provide those anchor points, to measure claims against reality. By creating a fake fact check account, and then by using it to do fake fact checks, spreading propaganda, they were not only being misleading but undermining the whole concept of fact checking, damaging another of the key ways in which people have a chance to work out what is true.

Dominic Raab tried to suggest this didn’t matter, because anyone looking at the account would see from the details that it was still ‘@CCHQPress’, so know it wasn’t really a fact checker. “No one who looks at it for more than a moment will have been fooled,” he said, missing the key point that one of the main techniques of fake news is to create things precisely for those who only glance at them for a moment, who catch them in passing. Empirical evidence shows that even one impression of a headline (or a tweet) can have an effect and make a story more likely to be believed. That’s how Twitter, in particular, works very often. The ‘rebranding’ include a simple, bright colour and a large tick mark, just like those of real fact checkers. The immediate impression for those glancing for a moment was that of a fact checker – and what other reason did they have for doing the ‘rebrand’?

Some of the other defences of the approach from the Tories have attempted to suggest that this is all normal, that no-one outside the Westminster Bubble or the media geeks would be interested. Others have feigned naïveté, as though this isn’t any kind of ‘trick’ or deception, or acted as though they don’t understand why people are upset about it. To believe these ‘explanations’ is the real naïveté: the strategists involved in the Tory campaign may not be geniuses, but they do have a more than working knowledge of how social media works. Boris Johnson has surrounded himself with the people who worked for the ‘leave’ campaign that used social media as central to their strategy, who used profiling and targeted ads and all kinds of other related practises, and used them very effectively during the Brexit campaign. This is their area.

The response from Twitter when alerted to this breach of their rules was fast – but very disappointing. CCHQ Press had to revert to their real name, and were told not to do it again or they would be punished properly. A slap on the wrist at best, and a chance to laugh it off – as they’ve been trying to do ever since. A much more appropriate punishment – and one available to Twitter under their rules – would have been to take away their verified status for a period. Until the General Election, perhaps? A verified status matters, and removing it would make the point that it is both a privilege and a recognition of ‘truth’. CCHQ broke the rules, undermined the concept of a verified account, and damaged the integrity of the system. They directly opposed the truth. Taking away that verified status would make that point – and without any form of ‘censorship’. They can still tweet, but their tweets would not carry the authority that they did. That would seem entirely appropriate.

Without it, it is easy for the Tories to continue the tactics – indeed, when asked, Michael Gove doubled down on the approach, saying it was the right thing to do, and that they were the ones who were working for the truth. Again, this is a classic tactic of misinformation – and one familiar from all the many years that those in power have engaged in propaganda – to accuse your enemies of the things you are guilty of, shifting the blame and muddying the waters at the same time. That muddying of the waters, the blurring to the issues, is all about making truth harder to find, and creating a kind of exhaustion amongst those who seek to find it. Given the knowledge and understanding that Boris Johnson’s team have of social media, we can expect more and different examples of the use of social media ‘dark arts’ in the rest of the campaign.

We need to be ready for this, and in particular to be ready to counter it, to alert people to it, and to fight. Misinformation is hard to fight, but even harder to fight if we take away those few tools we have. If we don’t fight to keep those – and verified accounts and relatively reliable fact-checkers are two of those tools – we will lose the bigger fights for truth and for an even slightly functional democracy. Right now, it looks as though that’s exactly what’s happening.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, which included a warning that the Tories would engage in ‘more and different examples of the use of social media ‘dark arts” they have provided an excellent example – their fake/spoof Labour manifesto, which they’ve linked via paid advertisements to searches on Google for ‘labour’. Not only have they done this, but they’ve done what in the past we would have called ‘cybersquatting’ – registering a domain name that looks as though it’s ‘official’ with a deliberate attempt to mislead. In this case, it’s… looks real, makes no mention of the fact that it’s run by the Tories…. Yup, we’re in for a lot of ‘games’ this election…

Note that whilst the manifesto itself says that it’s by the Tories, the domain name doesn’t, the advertisement and headline that appears on the Google search results didn’t in its original form , and that’s what you would see if you don’t click on it! This has now been corrected – seemingly it was an error on Google’s part.

GEEK POINT: This isn’t immediately illegal, though IT law people might well suggest that it’s an ‘abusive registration’ of a domain name, and that it Labour applied to Nominet to take over the domain, they might well be successful. By that time, of course, the damage would have been done….