The urgent lesson for America's voters in the UK's 'disinformation election': Analysis

The UK has been besieged by disinformation campaigns surrounding this election.

December 12, 2019, 5:58 PM

Why should the U.S. care about the U.K.’s general election?

Answer: because three years after a Brexit referendum campaign bursting with half-truths, exaggeration and just outright lies, it seems the U.K. has not learned its lesson.

The parallels for what may be to come in next year’s U.S.elections are startling. Both in the United States and here in the U.K., the focus has been on possible foreign interference. (Unlike the U.S. though, the British government has yet to publish a report on Russia’s role in the Brexit debate).

But another threat looms just as large -- what were once the tactics of anonymous trolls in the darkest recesses of the internet have become the accepted tools of apparently respectable political parties in the U.K.

Spin has long been a part of political campaigning. One group makes an assertion, which the other tries to undermine with its own facts and figures. That is nothing new.

But what we’ve seen in the U.K. goes beyond that in scope and immediacy. During a TV debate between Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative Party changed its Twitter handle to "factcheckUK" – purporting to be a neutral source contradicting Labour claims in order to dupe voters at precisely the time when they’d be online looking for clarity. Despite the move provoking reprimand from Twitter and condemnation from actual fact-checking operations, Conservative Party chair James Cleverly said he was "comfortable" with calling out what he says are Labour's "complete fabrications."

PHOTO: A woman arrives at a polling station in London, Dec. 12, 2019.
A woman arrives at a polling station in London, Dec. 12, 2019.
Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

In another instance, a television interview with a Labour politician was re-edited by the Conservative campaign to make it look like he had no answers to the important questions he was being asked – and used as campaign material, a video that was shared thousands of times on Facebook and elsewhere.

The three largest parties have created campaign literature made to look like local newspapers – designed presumably to trick the voter into thinking they are reading genuine headlines rather than political messaging.

The last example is perhaps most worrying. A story of a sick boy lying on a pile of coats in the hospital ran on the front page of a local newspaper in the north of England. It appeared to be proof of an overstretched National Health Service and bad news for the government on the eve of an election. A local journalist tried to show Johnson the photograph – but rather than look at it, the prime minister put the reporter's phone in his pocket (he later gave the phone back and looked at the picture). The moment went viral.

But disinformation about the boy spread quickly online. A post shared on Facebook said the whole scene had been faked – that the person knew someone at the hospital who told them the boy was not ill and had been placed on the pile of coats by those wanting to make a political point. It was widely shared in pro-government groups, but the origin was unclear.

So a real story that may have been damaging to the government was repurposed as a false attack on the prime minister -- making things just murky enough to leave readers unsure what to believe.

I had my own experience with this on the way back from the London Bridge terror attack. The cab driver was incensed at a tweet he’d seen from Jeremy Corbyn which seemed to criticize the police for shooting the terrorist. He showed me the screenshot. ‘It’s got a blue tick,’ he declared, referring to a verified account. I tried for the next 40 minutes to explain to him that this was a fake tweet -- that Corbyn had never written this. It had been shared with him on a WhatsApp group that he trusted and had appealed to him, using an intensely emotive subject. It succeeded in convincing him that Corbyn is an apologist, even after he realized the message was fake.

Over and above devious online tactics, the legacy of the Brexit campaign seems to be the dearth of truth in politics. Both U.K. parties seem to have been given licence to make claims that are untrue.

Corbyn has said his economic plan would save families £7,000 a year. Experts have said the chances of that are "remote."

Labour has said it has "proof" the National Health Service would be for sale under the Tories. But what they had were minutes from discussions on trade talks in which nothing has been agreed.

Johnson has said there’d be 50,000 more nurses. But he was forced to admit only 31,000 would be new recruits (the rest retained)

The list goes on. And a new diversion offered up hours later so that these scurrilous claims cannot be verified or picked apart.

Neither leader has a reputation for enjoying scrutiny -- and in this campaign Johnson has avoided the tougher interviews.

What both campaigns have done is undermine what they call "the mainstream media," as if there is another alternative media the public should trust. This is a mantra heard especially at Corbyn rallies. It has fostered a distrust of the media which has been very difficult to combat.

Sound familiar?