The Tories just used a disinformation trick that deserves to get them banned from Twitter

The Conservatives’ decision to disguise their account as “factcheckUK” was a gross subversion of democracy - but it could yet backfire on them.

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The Conservative Party’s press office convincingly pretended to be a fact-checker on Twitter tonight, posting fake fact-checks nearly every minute of the ITV debate. There’s no other way to introduce a piece of news that’s this dire, nor to announce something so depressing for democracy. The party took their account @CCHQPress – a verified account for the Conservative Campaign Headquarters press office – and awarded it the name “factcheckUK”, using a new profile picture, new header, and branded videos and GIFs to make it resemble a third-party organisation. It made no reference to the Conservative Party other than the handle’s opaque acronym. 

A genuine fact-checking organisation, Full Fact, issued a statement to the Guardian about this tactic, saying, “It is inappropriate and misleading for the Conservative press office to rename their Twitter account ‘factcheckUK’ during this debate. Please do not mistake it for an independent fact checking service.” It added that it had reported the account to Twitter Support and doesn’t believe it should be allowed to remain verified while knowingly misleading the public. 

It needs to be spelled out that the Tories' actions were profoundly corrupt - a disinformation tactic that not even Donald Trump has stooped to. It echoes Russian dissemination tricks, or something you’d see in a badly-written episode of Black Mirror, and it has been executed by the Conservatives knowingly, flagrantly, and with sinister intent. It feels still more disgraceful when you consider that they adopted the guise of a fact-checker, a type of organisation that has become increasingly important and prominent as an ever greater number of false facts have been pushed by political parties. There is no other way to describe this tactic than as a deliberate attempt by the Conservative Party to mislead voters and to perpetrate a grand deception.

Joe Tidy, BBC News' digital elections reporter, pointed out that CCHQ likely don’t care about the outrage they’ve created. “The Tory social media team don't give a damn how things look and court controversy,” he wrote, “[and] they know that Twitter isn't ‘real people’ and is just a hornet's nest of news geeks they can poke a rise out of.” While the former is true – CCHQ knew what they were doing – the latter is not necessarily the case: many normal people turn to Twitter during major political events specifically because it’s an easy place to get news fast. And while you could point out that the Conservatives maintained their CCHQ handle, even I, someone who works at a political magazine, didn’t know what CCHQ stood for until earlier this year. How is a normal person, who mostly uses Twitter to look at memes, supposed to know that “factcheckUK” was actually the Tories' main press outlet? And would they really scrutinise the handle of a verified Twitter account when scrolling through their rapidly refreshing feed?

Around 15 minutes after the debate concluded, CCHQ turned back into a pumpkin – reassuming its original Conservative Party branding and stating its true identity in its bio, as though nothing had ever happened. But while most political stunts tend to work in spite of any backlash, this case may be different. Twitter has suspended verified accounts for far less and beyond the social media site, there are legitimate arguments for the Electoral Commission to intervene. While CCHQ has performed a gross subversion of democracy, it may have given this country what it finally needs: a chance to crack down on social media usage by political parties and update its outdated laws for a new world. 

Update: This article was amended on 20/11/2019 to reflect the fact that Twitter has decided to issue a warning rather than ban or unverify CCHQ. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.