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10 December 2019updated 05 Oct 2023 8:46am

Evening Call: The rise of fake news as a political strategy should terrify us all

By Jonn Elledge

This afternoon, I received a pitch email with an unusually pointed opening. “Dear Sir/Madam,” it began. “I am writing to invent a story.” This, I assume, was some kind of translation error, but it’s possible, given what is shaping up to be the theme of the day, that it was actually an admirable profession of honesty about its author’s desire to get some more fake news out there into the world.

Anyway, about that theme. I’ll keep it brief because it’s complicated, depressing, and we’re all going to die, but over the last day and a bit the following things have happened. The Yorkshire Post published a story about a four year old boy with suspected pneumonia who lack of beds had forced to sleep on a pile of coats on a hospital floor. Some Tories were dispatched to the Leeds General Infirmary, where they met some protestors from Momentum. A Tory walked into a protestor’s arm, unnamed “senior Tories” briefed journalists including ITV’s Robert Peston and the BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg that terrible violent lefties were now hitting Tories on the campaign trail, and the journalists tweeted the news…

…only for footage to emerge showing that this was not, in fact, what had happened. The broadcasters, we are left to infer, are even now asking themselves some searching questions about how exactly they use Twitter. We can only hope.

All that, though, was just the entrée. The main course arrived over night, in the form of a Facebook post, apparently written by a woman claiming to be the friend of a nurse at the hospital, who had told her that the original picture had been staged by the child’s parents. This was note true – the hospital had already confirmed the parents’ account, and woman responsible for the original Facebook page says that she was hacked, and also that she knows nothing whatsoever about Leeds.

Nonetheless, by this morning, this entirely fake rebuttal was suddenly everywhere, being repeated by hundreds of social media accounts in suspiciously similar language. And the story was again being enthusiastically shared by journalists who, despite being on the right, should have known better, if only because British libel law exists and as any Katie Hopkins can tell you can ruin your life.

There is, unlikely as it sounds, at least one person who comes out of this story with their reputation enhanced: the Yorkshire Post’s editor James Mitchinson. Earlier today, he tweeted a screen shot of an email to an angry reader, detailing how his paper checked their story was correct, explaining good journalistic practice, and gently suggesting there not everything you spot on Facebook can be taken as true. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re, I dunno, the political editor of a major national broadcaster, for example.

But the depressing truth is the entire affair has made a lot of people look terrible. A large chunk of the general public have revealed themselves as credulous. So, more worryingly, have some extremely senior journalists. And while it’s possible both that the unnamed Conservatives talking about lefty violence believed they were telling the truth, and that problematic Facebook post came from a troll not a Tory, it is very striking that the flood of fake news in this election seems almost exclusively to have benefitted the right.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explores how the true function of propaganda is not to make people believe it but to make them doubt the truth. For all his many, many, many flaws, I do not, as it happens, think that Britain is looking down the barrel of totalitarianism if Boris Johnson wins a landslide on Thursday. But the enthusiastic embrace of fake news as a political strategy should worry us all.

If you want more reading on this cheery topic, Jasper wrote a great guide to Fake News for the F part of our A to Z of the 2010s; while Sarah has written on why the BBC needs to overhaul its social media policies. Anyway, to other, equally miserable things.

Good day for…

Rory Stewart. Possibly. Word has reached Ailbhe that the incredible ambulating man was recently spotted in the offices of London’s Evening Standard newspaper (editor: George Osborne), sparking speculation that he might win its endorsement for his bid to become mayor next year. This would be a terrible outcome for the official Tory candidate Shaun Bailey, who is, to put it charitably, not doing very well. More here.

Bad day for…

Jonathan Ashworth, after the leak of a tape on which he said that Labour was on course to lose badly, and implied that Jeremy Corbyn was a security risk. The shadow health secretary has said that the comments, made to a Tory-supporting friend – at least, they were a friend before this morning – were intended as a joke. Hilarious.

Quote of the day

“Instead of seeing a tragedy, Boris Johnson saw an opportunity.”

Dave Merritt, whose son Jack died in the London Bridge terror attack two weeks ago, on how the Prime Minister had handled the tragedy. His interview with Sky’s Beth Rigby would, in a better world, be devastating for Johnson, but unfortunately we live in this one. More here.

Everybody’s talking about…

The continuing crisis in Hong Kong, which has, considering our national lack of interest in foreign news, had a surprising amount of coverage over here this year. In a piece for the NS today, former speaker John Bercow warned: “If its government continues to ignore the will of the people, Hong Kong as we know it is dead.” You should read it.

Everybody should be talking about…

Quite how badly the Tories have miffed up the British economy even before Brexit. Figures out today showed that GDP didn’t grow at all in the three months to October. George has all the details.


Two errors in yesterday’s newsletter. Firstly I referred to something as a bug not a feature, when I meant the other way around. More damningly, I accidentally nicked a joke – about the suspicious resemblance between Boris Johnson and the Honey Monster – from Marina Hyde. I wasn’t conscious that she’d got there first, but I had read the column in question and it clearly lodged in my subconscious. I’ve let you down, I’ve let Marina down, but most of all I’ve let myself down. Sorry.

Questions? Comments? Email me.

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