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13 June 2012updated 05 Jul 2021 7:43am

Separating fact from falsehood is harder than ever – and it’s polluting our politics

By Jasper jackson

The outrage was immediate. The rebranding of the official Conservative Party press office Twitter account, blue verification tick and all, as “FactCheckUK” was roundly denounced on Tuesday night as an affront to democracy and an attempt to mislead the public — at the same time that the party’s leader was being asked on national TV about his integrity.

The attempt to sow confusion by peddling disinformation mirrors the behaviour of authoritarian governments in Turkey and India, who have set up social media accounts and websites in the guise of neutral fact-checkers to push propaganda. It was another sign the UK’s politics had sunk below the standards that it was previously thought to adhere to.   

Conservatives such as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have claimed that anyone could have seen through the rebrand. This is fatuous; many people do not possess the skills, or do not bother, to scrutinise social media sources carefully for clues to their origin. We also have to ask, if the Tories knew no one would be fooled, why try fooling them in the first place?

Twitter’s response that “any further attempts to mislead… will result in decisive corrective action” was woefully inadequate, and undermines the tech firm’s stated goal of supporting democracy with its ban on political advertising. Calls for the Electoral Commission to intervene are understandable, but given the body’s remit almost exclusively covers campaign finance, there is little it can do.

The effect of the deception is hard to measure and the number of people deceived by the rebranded account may actually be very small. Still, the move reinforced growing concerns that this election will be one of the most dishonest in memory — and was a worrying sign that our ability to communicate with each, with wider society, is completely broken.

There were other examples hours before Tuesday’s debate. In the morning, radio station LBC asked Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson about the fake viral stories that she enjoyed shooting squirrels. Whether or not many (or indeed any) people believed the hoax, the fact she was spending time addressing it in the middle of an election campaign shows the influence that parody memes have over mainstream discourse, regardless of whether they’re obviously fake.  

A few hours later, people began tweeting what were allegedly leaked direct messages from a hack of Brexit donor Arron Banks’s Twitter account. These messages quoted Banks dismissing possible concern from “northern monkeys” who might be upset at the Brexit Party’s deal not to run candidates in Tory-held seats. The messages proved to be fake, but not before prominent figures online regurgitated their content as evidence of Banks’ contempt for his supporters.

These are three examples on just one day. To take two other examples from the past fortnight, the Conservative Party press office tweeted a doctored video of shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and the Victoria Derbyshire programme ran faked videos of Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson backing each other’s parties. The latter in particular shows how confusing this deluge of information has become — almost no one is making political “deepfakes”, but in running the videos the programme both made us more likely to doubt real footage, and put fake content into circulation.

Impersonation, manipulation, deception and distraction have all been features of a toxic culture of disinformation that the UK public is swimming through on its way to the polls. Many of these tactics first entered public consciousness during the Gamergate scandal in 2014, when angry video game players launched waves of harassment against women they accused of threatening their right to enjoy misogynistic and violent games (they weren’t).

Then there was the rise of “fake news” during the 2016 US presidential election, much of it run for commercial gain from Macedonia, with almost-believable headlines such as “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” and “Isis leader calls for American Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton”. That was coupled with armies of Trump-supporting trolls using the chaotic meme-based activism they’d learned on 4Chan and Reddit in a bid to “Make America Great Again”. In the run up to the UK’s 2017 election, meanwhile, hyper-partisan sites like the Canary and Skwawkbox rode a Facebook-driven wave to push often spurious stories such as an alleged plot by Portland Communications to overthrow Jeremy Corbyn. 

We have bemoaned the coarsening of public debate and the collective unmooring from any notion of what constitutes the truth. Still, the pollution of information, both on social media and more traditional broadcast channels, has washed over us all.

A number of factors are to blame. Traditional media outlets, once sole purveyors of accepted truths, have been disrupted by new technology. There are now dozens, if not hundreds of other channels for information across social media and the wider web, where any truth you seek, and many you don’t, is available and algorithmically optimised to grab your attention.

But it isn’t old media weakness that has let toxic new media in, it’s simply the breakdown of the barriers to communication that once protected them. On the extreme end it’s what’s allowed conspiracies about pizza-based paedophile rings to exist alongside fears of Russian agents secretly stuffing ballot boxes during the referendum on the EU. But even further in from the edges it’s how a Corbyn supporter can see a principled man fighting against inequality while detractors see a leader who has tolerated prejudice in his party. These narrative are broadcast and reinforced in like-minded communes, often existing on public platforms yet rarely intermingling.

This tide of information democratisation is the inevitable result of the internet turning communication from a mass, one-to-many process to one in which anyone, anywhere, can talk to anyone, anywhere with ease. It is in principle a good thing. But right now it is washing old forms of media even further out to sea, leaving behind a confusing morass of shitposts, memes, fake stories and deceptive accounts.

When we try to assess the impact of wading through it all, we tend to focus on the specific attempts to mislead:  Who trusts “FactCheckUK” when it says Boris Johnson won the debate? Who believes that Arron Banks was DMing insults about his supporter base? Who is convinced that Jo Swinson has taken potshots at squirrels?

Yet the most worrying impact is that, amid all the rubbish, we can’t find any shared conception of what is really going on. We’re too busy getting angry about the other side’s lie, wondering if the latest news story is really true, or trying to make sense of an in-joke understood only by some new community that’s bubbled up on the web.

And that leaves us unable to agree on any way forward, trapped in a quicksand of shitposting and disinformation, and unable to do anything except yell about how someone, maybe everyone, on the internet is wrong.

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