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22 November 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:56pm

We must fight the use of disinformation as an election campaign technique

By Sophia Gaston

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” wrote the late American diplomat and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It is hard to imagine what Senator Moynihan, who died in 2003, would have made of a UK general election campaign where the idea of “fact” has become weaponised as a tool of deception.

For the course of the televised ITV election debate on Tuesday evening, the Conservative Party’s official press account on Twitter rebranded itself as “factcheckUK”, in the manner of an independent fact-checking website. Its tweets were, of course, focused solely on exposing the alleged untruths spoken by the Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

There is no question that Corbyn propagated a number of truth-bending claims throughout his performance, as did the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson – a miserable reflection of the endemic dishonesty in our political life. The decision by the Conservative Party’s headquarters (CCHQ) to impersonate a non-partisan and objective service seeking to improve the integrity of our political system, however, was truly shocking.

It is true that the essence of campaign “ops” is nothing new – parties have sought to mock, humiliate and disparage their opponents since the dawn of politics. What is disturbing about these antics from CCHQ is not just their sheer mendacity, but also the deep cynicism they reveal about the evolving attitudes towards political education, the foundation of our representative democracy.

The Labour Party, for its part, has also been culpable in undermining the value of factuality in our political life, and the online ecosystem that has built up around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has peddled some of the most egregious examples of conspiracy thinking we have ever seen, to terrifying reach and impact.

Nonetheless, Labour HQ itself has not, thus far, sought to deliberately manipulate voters seeking to make sense of an increasingly cluttered online landscape.

Pundits may laugh at CCHQ’s ham-fisted tactics, and even invoke that quietly pernicious shrug of the populist age, to claim that the outrage of the political class insultingly underestimates the savviness of ordinary punters. Perhaps it is unlikely that voters were taken in by the Conservatives’ clever ruse. Yet, like so many malevolent campaigns in this age of rampant disinformation and anaemic political trust, whether deployed by climate change denialists, big tobacco or the Russian state, the intention is not so much to convince, but to sow seeds of doubt.

In the end, the sense of ever-shifting sands contributes to citizens’ perceptions of a malleable political reality, where the truth, lies and “good-natured campaigning” become so difficult to distinguish that voters switch off altogether. Their ears become muffled to campaign messages, they change the television station when the candidates flash onto the screens. They might even decide, on a cold December morning in the lead-up to Christmas, that they have better things to do than queue at the ballot box.

The day after the debate, Conservative MPs were rolled out for the television rounds, armed with the line that it was simply an issue preoccupying the “Westminster bubble”, and that few ordinary voters would have even noticed. Many journalists duly made the case on Twitter that this facetious act of duplicity was simply a means of diverting attention away from the substance of the campaign, arguing that such distractions should be ignored, not validated.

Both of these responses fail to address the very high stakes obscured behind these seemingly small transgressions.

On its own, the decision to masquerade as an independent fact-checking organisation for a few hours during a televised election debate will not have swung the election. We know that the proportion of Britons regularly engaging with politics on Twitter is relatively small, and unrepresentative in their high levels of political engagement.

But this incident cannot be taken alone. A few weeks earlier, CCHQ had edited a genuine video of Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer on a national television programme to such an extent that it crossed the line into blatant disinformation. Two days after the ITV debate, CCHQ sought to hijack the Labour Party’s manifesto launch, by purchasing the domain and paying to increase its prominence in online search results.

All British political parties have played the role of victim and victor in a digital environment that emphasises and amplifies emotion, shame and outrage. For the most part, it has been the powerful outrider voices around the parties whose hands have been dirtiest. The blurring of the boundaries between the parties and their activists, however, has made this process increasingly fluid.

In many ways, this general election campaign reflects the long tail of this process of consolidation in the partisan social media ecosystems. It also represents dangerous a step change in the parties’ attitudes towards online disinformation – once seen as a malicious white noise that undermined carefully crafted messages, and now being actively harnessed as a legitimate campaigning technique.

The enduring nature of our liberal democracies cannot be taken for granted. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the egregious manner in which political conventions are being eroded should alarm us all. In particular, those that seek to undermine citizens’ trust and engagement with politics.

This election may feel existential on all sides, but the battle should not come at the expense of the codes of conduct and standards of decency in our political life, which have been so integral to Britain’s position as a beacon of liberal democracy throughout the world. Otherwise, we may wake up on 13 December and wonder what we fought to save. 

Sophia Gaston is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group and a researcher in populism and misinformation at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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