GE2019: A post mortem on truth

JVL Introduction

Truth Defence has just published a devastating report on the 2019 General Election  one it argues that “was marred by what leading fact checking organisations and some journalists have characterised as unparalleled disinformation”.

In summary, says the Report, “the evidence suggests that the current regulatory framework for political advertising and campaigning during elections is not fit for purpose and wholly inadequate for the digital terrain on which elections are increasingly fought.

“There is no greater threat to democracy than disinformation, especially when it is produced and disseminated by an incumbent government and reinforced by the bulk of the mainstream press.”

We publish the Executive Summary of the report below and link to the full version.

This article was originally published by Truth Defence on Wed 3 Feb 2021. Read the original here.

GE2019: A post mortem on truth

Download the full report here

 

Executive Summary

 

  • The extent of false or misleading advertising by the Conservative Party was seven times that of Labour over the course of the campaign.
  • False online advertising was heavily skewed towards the final week of the campaign and reinforced by an unprecedented number of non-party campaigners advertising on Facebook.
  • Both Google and Facebook failed to remove ads long after their claims had been comprehensively debunked by fact checking organisations.
  • Several ads not removed by Google directed users to the website ‘labourmanifesto.co.uk’ run by the Conservative Party.
  • Even when ads were removed by Google, they had already run for an average of 7 days with a potential reach of millions.
  • False and misleading claims by the Conservative Party were significantly amplified by the mainstream press but also challenged – to some extent – by television news.
  • Whilst television news journalists did question the veracity of some Tory claims, there was often a significant time lag from when they were first reported.
  • The framing of the fake news issue on television obscured the vastly disproportionate role of the Conservative Party in producing and disseminating falsehoods.

The 2019 General Election was marred by what leading fact checking organisations and some journalists have characterised as unparalleled disinformation. It took place against the backdrop of acute political instability and uncertainty over how to deal with Britain’s looming departure from the European Union, an unravelling health crisis, and the climate emergency. It was described by all parties as a seismic election in terms of the significance and urgency of the issues at stake.

In spite of this, there has been relatively little post-election scrutiny as a result of the ensuing pandemic. Most of the available data and evidence on disinformation was collected in real-time by fact checking organisations, journalists and activists. As a result, this evidence is inevitably snapshot, selective and in some cases unsubstantiated.

We took a comprehensive look at patterns and examples of disinformation across the full duration of the campaign, focussing on the two major parties as well as the two main routes by which campaign messages could reach beyond their core vote: television news and online advertising. Specifically, we examined thousands of online ads across Facebook and Google, cross-referencing key messages with claims that were debunked by Full Fact during the campaign. This was supplemented by a qualitative analysis of television news coverage in relation to these claims, as well as an in-depth case study of a fake news controversy that surfaced during the final days of the campaign. Finally, we investigated Facebook ads run by non-party campaigners, of which the 2019 election saw a record number registered with the Electoral Commission.

Overall, the evidence collected strongly suggests that disinformation was an endemic feature of the Conservative party campaign. Although it does not make comfortable reading for the Labour Party either, the extent and frequency of misleading online ads between the major parties was incomparable. Over the course of the campaign, the Conservatives ran a total of 167 adverts across Facebook and Google which were either subsequently removed due to breach of the platform’s advertising policies and/or featured misleading or inaccurate claims. These ads ran for a cumulative total of 1,038 days which is the closest proxy measure for exposure and reach (give that both Facebook and Google only provide indicative ranges for the number of impressions generated by each ad). The equivalent figure for Labour was 139.

The extent of false online advertising by the Conservatives was therefore seven times that of Labour. It was also much more heavily skewed towards the final week of the campaign, during which the Conservatives pushed a particularly egregious fake news story ‘organically’. This suggested that a photograph of a 4-year old boy with pneumonia forced to lie on the floor of a hospital waiting room was ‘staged’. Amidst the fallout from the story, ‘senior Tories’ then falsely claimed that a special advisor to Matt Hancock was ‘punched’ by a Labour activist.

Although Google was considerably more likely to remove ads for breach of its policies than Facebook, these still ran for an average of 7 days and a cumulative total of over 350 days. More importantly, Google failed to act on dozens of ads based on claims that had long since been exposed as false by fact checking organisations. These included 13 ads that also directed users to the URL ‘labourmanifesto.co.uk’; a website run by the Conservatives.

Unlike Labour, false or misleading claims by the Conservatives were further reinforced by a string of non-party campaign groups advertising on Facebook as well as flyposting, and amplified by much of the mainstream press.

On the whole, television news journalists did challenge and scrutinise these claims. But in some cases there was a significant time lag between when the claims were first simply reported and matched against Labour’s reply, and when their veracity was questioned by journalists themselves. Even then, Conservative candidates and government ministers were often given a platform to both repeat and defend the claims. And during the last three days of the campaign, a fake news story being debated and debunked on television news ensured that a much more damaging story for the Tories quickly receded from the spotlight.

In the end, perhaps the most serious failing of television news coverage was its tendency to frame the issue of fake news as a problem implicating all political parties. This narrative served to obscure the vastly disproportionate role played by the Conservative Party in fermenting and circulating falsehoods.

In summary, the evidence suggests that the current regulatory framework for political advertising and campaigning during elections is not fit for purpose and wholly inadequate for the digital terrain on which elections are increasingly fought. There is no greater threat to democracy than disinformation, especially when it is produced and disseminated by an incumbent government and reinforced by the bulk of the mainstream press. As well as fact checking claims in real-time, broadcasters should provide viewers with regular updates and data on the scale of falsehoods put out by rival parties. As for online advertising, it seems clear that the current policies and enforcement operated by the platforms is nothing more than minimal and feeble given the scale of the problem. Unless and until the major platforms are able to implement a robust fact checking approval system before publication, there is an unanswerable case to ban all political advertising online during election periods.

Download the full report here

Comments (5)

  • Mary Davies says:

    Brilliant work by Truth Defence.

  • Jack T says:

    This is confirmation of what many of us have known for ages, that ‘advertising’ using false, twisted and emotional hooks works, particularly if it is repeated again and again. This is exactly how the ‘democratic’ referendum vote was won, Arron Banks even admitted it, he said ‘we didn’t use facts, we used emotion’ i.e. the threat of immigants taking workers jobs, homes, hospital and school places.

    Using his expertise in this field, Dominic Cummings used his experience and the enormous wealth at his disposal to persuade many to vote against their own best interests. When some people saw their mistake and wanted a confirmatory vote on any deal, the millionaires who financed the Leave campaign stood behind the unwitting Leavers proding them to protest that their democratic vote, which was bought and paid for by Banks and others, plus Robert Mercer, billionair friend of Trump and Farage, was being taken away from them. Another vote for the Brexit fanatics would have been just too much democracy.

  • Ian Hickinbottom says:

    Let’s be honest. Corbyn and Labour got too close in 2017. As the media was firmly in the sights for reform, including online, there was no chance of Labour getting a level playing field. Cases in point the ‘communist broadband’ being repeatedly broadcast by the BBC. (How brilliant a policy would that be now?). Phil Scofield’s attack on Corbyn but having a selfie with bojo. Bojos no show with Andrew Neil and at the Green debate on C4 and the air time given to the idiotic Austin. Add to that the inflated AS issue and the Chief Rabbi intervention, I hope he got his 30 pieces of silver, and Welby backing him up. The whole state establishment moved into overdrive to prevent a Labour government, with military,
    intelligence (an oxymoron if ever there was) and civil service having a say too. The worst part of it all, the Labour party stopped a Labour government in 2017.

  • Margaret West says:

    I take on board what the report says about the spread of false information – however I am surprised that this analysis appeared to be confined to the period of the Election Campaign itself – important though this was?

    It seems to me that June/July 2019 were significant dates for until that time Labour and Conservative were roughly neck and neck in the Opinion polls and after that the Conservatives lead increased. Indeed – even earlier – the May local Election results in the “red wall” areas were disastrous for Labour .

    Anecdotally – folk blamed the febrile atmosphere and perceived political chaos on “them” (ie House of Commons) who “were behaving like toddlers”. Doubtless this was finagled by Cummings but Johnson managed to present his image as working for “the people” against “Parliament” and even when Johnsons attempt to prorogue Parliament was overturned in the Supreme Court and he was shown to have “misled the Queen, the people and parliament” [Guardian headline] the polls hardly budged . On the contrary – Parliament and the Courts were presented by some of the MSM as “attempting to cheat the people of their Referendum vote” and this was believed ..

    (Methinks I have heard that one before somewhere?)

    Of course the lies and smears against Corbyn were relentless from 2017 onwards – so much so that in Summer 2018 many important news stories were ignored. For example the appalling suffering caused by the war in the Yemen was not reported in the MSM but confined to desperate appeals for funds by Charities in the Commercial breaks. (It still is pretty much ignored with a report on the death of nine members of a family in an air-strike in July 2020 confined to Sky News who did a careful investigation.)

  • seamus carey says:

    I remember seeing the news that two Senior Tories had promoted something that was just a demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn. Netanyahu involved?

    Also i saw headlines in the National papers , eye catching in the Newsagents, also demonising Jeremy Corbyn very near the election day.
    Can someone tell me more about these.?

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