UK election suggests disinformation spread by politicians may be a bigger threat in 2020 than Russians or ‘deepfakes’

Domestic disinformation marred the UK election, Russian meddling less so.

Much has been made of the disinformation spread by Russia in 2016 and the threat of "deepfake" videos, but the U.K. election indicates that domestic actors could be more of a threat in next year’s U.S. presidential contest, experts say.

Boris Johnson was re-elected as prime minister in a landslide victory in the U.K. on Dec. 12, but his party’s campaign was marred with allegations of spreading lies and mistruths. The Conservative Party openly posted misleading material online, including a fake manifesto from the opposition party, Labour, and in one case masqueraded as a fact-checking operation to spin commentary on a debate (a move that it defended).

“From our evidence the biggest source of disinformation for voters in the U.K. was from people who are candidates to become their next government,” Will Moy, CEO of the independent U.K.'s fact-checking charity, Full Fact, told ABC News.

There was one example of foreign interference when a document leaked by known Russian accounts on Reddit was used by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to criticize the government at a press conference. This document was actually leaked back in May, and reported on, but only came to prominence when Corbyn produced it in front of cameras. It’s also worth noting that to date, the validity of this document has not been questioned.

The threat of "deepfake" videos -- manipulated clips to make a real person appear to speak words they never uttered -- also appears to have been overstated in the U.K. election according Joe Galvin, a journalist from social media news agency, Storyful. As the election kicked off, a research group produced two "deepfake" videos of both Corbyn and Johnson to warn of the dangers of such videos, but that was the last we saw of them in this election.

“The only people that are producing deepfakes at the moment are people are warning about how terrible they are," Galvin told ABC News. “Why do something complex like a deepfake when you can do something straightforward and unsophisticated and have the same impact?”

The morally questionable tricks in the U.K. election weren’t limited to social media either. A number of prominent news organizations published a story about a Conservative aid being punched by a Labour supporter after their journalists had been tipped off by sources, when in fact the entire incident turned out to be completely fabricated.

So are these dirty tricks new to politics or is it the same old political games, just being played out on different platforms?

“I really don't believe that what we saw in this election [in the U.K.] was significantly worse or better than what we've had in previous general elections,” John Rentoul, chief political commentator for the Independent, told ABC News. “I think people got a bit carried away and forgot that politics has always been a fairly brutal contact sport and politicians have always been accused of lying and making things up.”

Rentoul claims that the reaction was overblown, in particular to the Conservative Party rebranding its Twitter account as a fact-checking operations during the first leader’s debate. “That Tory press account on Twitter has got fewer followers than I've got and yet it became a huge story. I don't I don't believe a single person in the entire country was taken in by that,” he said.

Rentoul admits that editing a "Good Morning Britain" interview to make it look like a Labour politician couldn’t answer a question on Brexit was deceptive but not necessarily anything worse than we’d seen before. “That was that was a bad thing to do. But I mean, that is the kind of thing that happens in politics all the time," he said. "Other people accuse the other side of misrepresenting them."

But Full Fact’s Moy disagrees, saying that even after criticism, the Conservatives kept the edited "Good Morning Britain" clip up on social media and in some cases even defended it. “Manipulating media should not be a defensible tactic in a democracy," Moy said.

He argues that these kind of blatant deceptive tactics, particularly on this scale, had not been seen before. The three main differences Moy cites are: that politicians can now message voters directly via social media, thereby avoiding the checks and balances carried out by traditional media; the messages can now be personalized and hyper-targeted towards a very specific audience; and lastly, there is very little transparency about who pays for these ads or accountability for their content.

Facebook has improved transparency around political ads; they are now all labeled with the name of the person or organization that paid for the ad, and an advertiser needs to provide identifying documents to be able to post. However Moy points out that it is still difficult to guess how much groups paid for ads because exact amounts are not provided in the Facebook political ad database.

Britain bans political ads on TV, so prior to social media, the only method candidates had of getting their message out was through mainstream media, where they would face scrutiny from journalists. “You can reach a mass audience directly, much less expensively than before,” said Moy. And by going directly through social media,"you can bypass traditional scrutiny channels.”

With political ads on Facebook and other social platforms, candidates, just like any other advertiser, can pay the platform to direct ads to a particular gender, racial group, age profile or geographical location based on the information they have about their users. Moy cited a research paper leaked to Bloomberg after the 2016 U.S. election, which found that the Trump campaign had run 5.9 million different ads. “That’s a totally different scrutiny challenge than in the past," said Moy.

Storyful’s Joe Galvin says it’s fair to say that the Conservatives were more active in terms of spreading misinformation during the election campaign. “There was a lot of disinformation in the election and a lot of mistakes made by journalists. In the last few days of the campaign particularly, things seem to get a little out of hand,” said Galvin. “A number of falsehoods had a prominent place on the agenda in the final few days of the campaign, which was kind of dispiriting in some ways to see because we are so aware and try to be so vigilant about these things."

Galvin and his team have in the past been able to find groups coordinating and conspiring to spread misinformation on some harder to search platforms like Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, but it was difficult to see during this election. “One of the challenges for us in this campaign itself is that a lot of the coordination for various local and national projects takes place on closed networks like WhatsApp Telegram and private Facebook groups,” said Galvin.

According to Galvin, the U.S. electorate can learn a lot from what just happened in the U.K -- particularly by watching political parties and domestic actors. “One of the things that we're always very cautious about is everyone looking at Russia. But actually, we should be looking at the party and political dynamics closer to home and how domestic actors are using the platforms and manipulating the systems to spread information or misinformation that's favorable to their political stance,” he said.

“That is more significant than foreign interference, more widespread and much harder to crack down on because obviously Facebook said it's not going to fact-check its political ads,” he added.

These misleading Facebook ads are already running in the U.S. Earlier this month, the Trump campaign ran a series of Facebook anti-impeachment ads that misleadingly implied House Democrats were pushing "treason" allegations against President Trump.

In October, Joe Biden wrote to Facebook, Twitter and Google asking them to remove Trump campaign ads containing a claim, which the Biden campaign denies, that the former vice president promised Ukraine $1 billion if the country fired a prosecutor investigating a company linked to his son Hunter.

Unfortunately none of this appears to paint a very positive picture for voters ahead of the 2020 race. “I'd love to be able to say we are in a stronger, better position now than we were in 2016. But I don't think that's the case,” said Galvin.

Moy's biggest fear is that this increase in mistruths will further erode the public's trust in politicians, which could lead to lower voter turnout.

“If politicians deter people from participating, ultimately they will undermine the whole basis on which they do their jobs,” said Moy. “A government that gets elected by deceiving people and loses their trust in the process will find it harder to govern.”