A "counter-propoganda" poster. Photo: @specialpatrols
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Posters across London are challenging the Met using its own data – why has one gone missing?

An anonymous arts organisation has been posting STRIKE! magazine's "counter-propaganda" across the capital. Now one of the posters seems to have been whitewashed.

They look so similar that they make you double take. Going past on a bus or bike, they are indistinguishable from the Metropolitan Police’s poster campaign. But their messages are anything but pro-police; and the #acab (“all cops are bastards”) tag at the bottom suggests a different source.

In fact, these posters were created by independent newspaper STRIKE! magazine after a Freedom of Information request revealed the Met had spent almost a million pounds on a campaign designed to improve their image in areas where “confidence in policing is lower than average”. The posters advertised what the Met considered to be recent successes, including putting the “five worst anti-social offenders” in Lewisham before the courts and stepping up drugs raids in Islington.

The campaign has attracted ridicule from organisations such as the Center for Crime and Justice Studies, who suggested the police would need “psychic powers” to know some of the statistics they claimed.

The poster which prompted the CCJS to ask if the police were psychic. Photo: Center for Crime and Justice Studies

According to a STRIKE! spokesperson, the messages they spread were “a massive public expense”. They launched a counter-campaign through “Brandalism”, a form of activism that seeks to radically disrupt the “visual assault” of advertising in public space, which STRIKE! calls “completely undemocratic, in that it is public space used to make a profit” – or, in the case of the police, to “promote lies about policing in the areas worst affected by police violence and racism”.

Their “counter-propaganda” posters appropriate the police posters’ design to spread an alternative message, using a shared visual identity to highlight a striking contrast in content.

A Met police poster alongside a STRIKE! ​parody.

If this all looks familiar, it’s because this isn’t the first time the posters have had an airing on the streets of London. In 2014, the “shadowy art-activism organisation” Special Patrol Group helped the design go viral after they distributed them around the city.

Now, after a week that saw deaths in police custody at their highest level for five years, Special Patrol Group are back. STRIKE! claims not to know who put the posters up, but suggests they've used a technique advocated by the Brandalism website that recommends the group put the adverts up by, “hiding in plain sight with hi-vis vests”.

Last night, however, it appeared someone was fighting back. After the designs received press attention yesterday, one of the posters in New Cross seems to have been whitewashed over. A STRIKE! spokesperson tells me the act came as a shock; the campaign initially received “great feedback from members of the public”, and residents of the building where the poster was displayed seemed not to know anything about a potential cover-up.

Now STRIKE! is asking if the police arranged for the poster to be whitewashed:

The figure on the poster is based on fact, confirmed by the Met themselves. The billboard was a derelict site which hadn’t been changed for years and in the past few months had been covered in fly posters. Nobody bothered to change that but someone was clearly very quick to get rid of this advert. Why? It looks like the police are afraid of the truth.

Nevertheless, the publication hopes to continue taking action. “Theresa May herself has told the police that there are too many bad apples in the force”, says a source. “After 25 years and 1,513 deaths in custody with not one conviction of a police officer, [she’s] launched an investigation. Big woop. It’s not enough.

“Until police officers are held responsible for their wrongdoings, violence, corruption, murder and racism we will not be satisfied. Until we build a society where ‘crime’ is not so closely related to inequality, we will not stop fighting”.

We have contacted the Metropolitan Police for comment and await their response.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.