While American eyes were focused on the Trump impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill last week, the U.K. has been embroiled in a political scandal of its own. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing an election on Dec. 12 and this week his Conservative party has been accused of peddling disinformation on both Twitter and Google.
Information disorder — the proliferation of fake news in various forms (whether intentionally false or not) — has emerged as a key issue in upcoming elections both in the U.S. and around the world.
Last week the party was reprimanded by Twitter for misleading the public when a campaign account posed as a fact-checking agency during the election debate, and now the Conservative Party, also known as the Tory Party, is in hot water over a Google ad purporting to be a false opposition manifesto.
On Nov. 19, Johnson faced off against Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, in the first televised debate ahead of the upcoming general election. Sparks flew as the pair clashed on a number of issues but the main talking point afterwards was the behavior of a Conservative party Twitter account rather than political issues.
During the debate, the Conservative Campaign Headquarters twitter account (@CCHQPress), changed its name to “factcheckUK” and changed its cover picture from a photograph of Boris Johnson to an image which contained a purple background with a white check mark. The account was described as “Fact checking Labour from CCHQ.”
After causing some outrage on Twitter during the debate, the CCHQPress reverted to its regular appearance afterward.
The move drew scrutiny from independent fact-checking charity Full Fact, which derided the move as “inappropriate and misleading.”
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 such as @FullFact, @FactCheck or @FactCheckNI
— Full Fact (@FullFact) November 19, 2019
And it drew criticism in the British media as well. In this clip, the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, who posed the questions to Prince Andrew in a recent controversial interview, accuses the Conservative party chairman, James Cleverly, of dystopian behavior. “You dressed up party lines as a fact-check service. That is dystopian,” she said.
In the same clip, Cleverly defends his digital team’s decision to rebrand the Twitter account simply saying that they did it in order to call out The Labour Party’s inaccuracies. “I’m absolutely comfortable with them calling out, when the Labour party put what they know to be complete fabrications in the public domain,” he said. “And we will call them out every time they do it.”
?️ “You were trying to coat your propaganda as hardened fact”
?️ “We were calling out the Labour Party’s wilful misinformation”
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) November 20, 2019
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, also defended his party’s action on a BBC breakfast TV show. “We’ve had all sorts of nonsense thrown at the Conservatives. We’re going to be in the process – one of the things we learned from the last election – of having a really good instant rebuttal of the nonsense,” he said.
Twitter officially reprimanded the party, saying in a statement to ABC News: “Any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information – in a manner seen during the UK Election Debate – will result in decisive corrective action.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Tories are embroiled in a new controversy over a Google ad, which linked to a fake Labour manifesto website set up by the Conservatives.
A banner on the labourmanifesto.co.uk website states “by the Conservative Party,” while the Conservative logo and contact information are also visible on the site’s main page.
The site, which went live before Labour officially released its manifesto to the public, was the first result in a Google search query for Labour Party carried out last Thursday morning. The Tory-sponsored site heavily criticizes a number of Labour’s policies and says Labour’s spending will cost the taxpayer 1.2 million pounds, a figure that has previously been rejected by Labour and described as “uncertain” and based on “flawed assumptions” by fact-checking website Full Fact.
Google confirmed to ABC News that the ad is not in breach of its rules as the site is clearly labelled as funded by the Conservative Party. A Google source did confirm that the ad didn’t initially display who paid for it, as per Google political ad rules, but that the error was detected and has been corrected.
The website states at the bottom of the homepage that it is “promoted by Alan Mabbutt on behalf of the Conservative Party.” Mabbutt is on the board of the Conservative party, which did not immediately respond to ABC News’ email request for comment, serving as a senior professional member of staff.
Earlier this month, the Tories were accused of spreading misinformation yet again when the same @CCHQPress account tweeted out an edited clip from Piers Morgan’s “Good Morning Britain” TV show.
The clip showed Labour’s Keir Starmer appearing silent and hesitating Morgan asked a question about Labour’s policy on leaving the EU. However as Morgan himself pointed out on Twitter the Labour Party’s Brexit secretary had answered the question immediately and the edited video had simply added an out of context clip of Starmer looking puzzled.
You doctored the end of the clip you originally put out, to make it look like @Keir_Starmer had no answer to my question. In fact he answered immediately. You could have had plenty of fun with that interview anyway – why fake it? https://t.co/nskZ0hgnyc
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) November 5, 2019
Google announced Wednesday that it would restrict advertising on political advertising but stopped short of banning all political ads on its platform. Instead the company is going to ban political advertisers from targeting audiences based upon their political preferences.
This would be a significant move because one of the reasons political social media advertising is so effective is that it allows advertisers to hand pick audiences based on the data the platform holds on its users.
Last month. Facebook employees asked Mark Zuckerberg to implement a similar restriction in an open letter, but the CEO has not given any indication that such measures are in the pipeline.
Google’s blog post on Wednesday said that they hoped to implement the rules within a week in the U.K. by the end of the year in the EU and in the rest of the world starting in January.
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