All the parties are being dishonest online – but the Conservatives are better at it

Different approaches to misinformation by the leading parties could have an impact on the election. 

NS

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On the eve of polling, we are getting an idea of just how dishonest the election campaign has been. And when it comes to social media, it looks like the Conservatives have most enthusiastically embraced the idea that misleading the public is the best way to win their vote.

A report compiled by disinformation specialists First Draft last week found that 88 per cent of the 6,749 ads from the Conservative Party between 1 and 4 December included claims that had already been labelled misleading by independent fact checkers Full Fact.

Claims used by the Conservatives on Facebook that FullFact has been able to deem misleading, many contained in its manifesto, include the party’s commitment to raising the number of nurses by 50,000, increasing police numbers by 20,000 and, of course, its core message that it will “get Brexit done”.

By contrast First Draft were not able to find any claims labelled by Full Fact as misleading in Labour’s Facebook campaign, which has been at far smaller scale than the Conservatives.

They were also unable to find comparable misleading claims from the Liberal Democrats. However, a consistent feature of the Lib Dem campaign has been misleading graphs combined with statements that “only the Liberal Democrats” can beat the Conservatives in specific seats. Some 16.5 per cent of the Lib Dems 7,295 ads contained such a claim but, because Facebook dos not share where ads are targeted, it was difficult to verify which claims were false.

The top line numbers suggest the Conservatives are terrible liars, with the Liberal Democrats a distant second and Labour basically purer than pure. However, the nuance behind the study is not so simple, and reveals a great deal about both the differences and similarities between the different campaigns.

One of the main reasons that First Draft were unable to identify any false Labour claims on Facebook was that their messaging strategy relied on broad claims rather than specifics that were provably false – something Full Fact has also found.

“It’s probably true that Labour’s messaging has been on a narrower set of factual claims generally compared to the Conservatives,” says Will Moy, director of FullFact.

It’s also worth noting that the First Draft study was conducted a week before the election. In the campaign’s dying hours, both Full Fact and First Draft have noted an uptick in more specific claims from Labour on Facebook, some of which Full Fact has found are misleading. These include the claim that Labour will save every family £6,700 a year, which Full Fact has deemed not credible. Labour has begun citing this figure in Facebook advertising using the Daily Mirror’s reporting, something Moy describes as  “laundering through independent media”.

Nevertheless, the scale, according to First Draft, remains far smaller, with so far only four variations on the £6,700 claim. 

So it’s not so much that Labour are avoiding dishonesty in this campaign – it’s that they have been far less aggressive and slower at doing so than the Conservatives.

Labour may be slightly more constrained in its approach by the left-leaning media. While Conservative publications have by and large ignored or amplified false Conservative claims, left-wing outlets have shown a greater tendency to critique dishonesty on both sides.

And it may not be surprising the Conservatives were quicker off the mark given the party is led by a prime minister who has twice been fired for lying.

Whatever the causes, the party that has most aggressively embraced misinformation online currently looks set, according to the latest polling, to win a majority in parliament and to form the UK’s next government.

Jasper Jackson is a freelance journalist and media columnist for the New Statesman.

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