The United Kingdom has strict regulations when it comes to coverage of electoral politics and campaign ads on television, but how politicians and journalists behave on digital and social media is a free for all. And then there are the more familiar tricks of campaign seasons, from dodgy pamphlets to avoiding the media.
“The main parties are ruthlessly exploiting every opportunity they have to try and influence the electorate within the law — and the regulations are quite lax and out of date so they have many opportunities and they are using them,” Rasmus Klein Nielsen, director of the Oxford Reuters Institute told CNN Business.
With just over 24 hours until polls open, things could get even worse.
“We’ll probably see some more of this over the next two days because the stakes are so high,” said Andrew Chadwick, director of the Online Civic Culture center at Loughborough University. “It is the worst that I’ve seen, and I’ve been studying the internet and politics for 20 years.”
From masquerading as fact checking organizations to forging an email response, here are some of the worst examples from the 2019 campaign.
The punch that wasn’t
With the exception of Brexit, few issues in the UK are argued over as passionately as the National Health Service. The issue came to the fore again this week when The Yorkshire Post newspaper published on its front page a photograph of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia lying on a hospital emergency room floor because there were no beds available.
When asked about the image by a correspondent for ITV News, Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly refused to look at the photo on the reporter’s phone, before grabbing it and putting it in his pocket. Pressed again for his response, he eventually took out the phone, looked at the photo and apologized to the reporter and the boy’s family.
But the story didn’t end there. Johnson dispatched his health secretary, Matthew Hancock, to the hospital where he was confronted by a group of protesters. A member of Hancock’s team was accidentally hit in the face by an outstretched arm, but the initial version briefed to reporters was that the adviser had been punched.
“It is completely clear from the video footage that Matt Hancock’s adviser was not whacked by a protestor, as I was told by senior Tories, but that he inadvertently walked into a protestor’s hand,” tweeted ITV political editor Robert Peston. “I apologize for getting this wrong.”
Faking fact checks and websites
The campaign had started on a low note.
During the first live TV debate between Johnson and his Labour Party rival Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative party’s press account changed its Twitter name and profile photos to “FactCheckUK.” It was a complete misrepresentation of the @CCHQPress account with more than 80,000 followers. The account tweeted “fact checks” of Labour policies and Corbyn’s statements during the debate — all while keeping its blue check verification badge.
A user casually scrolling through Twitter could easily have mistaken the account for legitimate fact checking organizations, especially because retweets only showed up as “FactCheckUK” without the @CCHQPress account handle.
The stunt was condemned by Full Fact, one of those legitimate fact checkers, which asked “why would a self-respecting, serious political party masquerade as something else to get its campaign point across.” Twitter took no action, warning only that if any group pulled such a move again it would result “in decisive corrective action.”
Conservative campaign managers were clearly impervious to the backlash. A few days later, just as the Labour Party launched its manifesto, the Conservative party created a brand new website called LabourManifesto.co.uk and bought Google ads to make sure it showed up top when people search for “Labour” and other related keywords.
The search ads only ran for a couple of days, according to Google data, but the website lives on, featuring a picture of Jeremy Corbyn and “Labour’s 2019 Manifesto” with the words “a website by the Conservative party” and clickable links that take the reader to Conservative talking points about Brexit and taxes.
Playing with video
Manipulation of video was also part of the playbook.
Google and Facebook removed a Conservative party ad that showed edited clips of BBC reporters saying things like “pointless delay to Brexit” when in fact the reporters were quoting politicians, not giving commentary. The BBC said the ads could damage its reputation for impartiality and they complained to both platforms about a breach of copyright.
The party also edited a TV interview with Labour’s top spokesperson on Brexit to make it seem as though he was unable to answer a question about his brief. The unedited footage of the interview showed him giving an immediate answer.
Labour has also been caught red handed. It got into trouble with the Financial Times for what its news editor said was a “selectively edited” video tweeted by Corbyn featuring one of the newspaper’s reporters, Nic Fildes, explaining the implications of Labour’s plans to provide broadband for free. Corbyn later deleted the tweet, after a request by the FT, Fildes said.
Then there were the attempts to duck scrutiny.
Johnson made himself available for several interviews, but refused to face BBC political anchor Andrew Neil. The former editor of the Sunday Times has a reputation for hard-hitting interviews and his run-in with Corbyn led to an uncomfortable moment where Corbyn repeatedly declined to apologize to the Jewish community over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
Neil was furious that Johnson backed out. The leaders of all the other major parties were interviewed by him.
“Leaders interviews have been a key part of the BBC’s primetime election coverage for decades. We do them on your behalf to scrutinize and hold account those who would govern us. That is Democracy,” Neil said. “We’ve always proceeded in good faith that the leaders would participate. In every election they all have, until this one.”
Johnson also refused to debate rival party leaders on the biggest issue facing the planet — the climate crisis. In his place (and that of fellow absentee, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage) Channel 4 placed blocks of ice that melted during the broadcast.
A Russian connection?
The suspicion of Russian meddling has also cropped up in the last few days of the campaign.
The day after Corbyn’s disastrous interview with Neil, he managed to take control of the news agenda by announcing he had obtained secret documents related to trade talks with the United States. Corbyn said the documents were “proof” the Conservatives would put the National Health Service “up for sale.”
No one has challenged the authenticity of the documents, but Corbyn has been criticized for overstating their contents and Johnson has flatly denied his central claim.
Later it was revealed the documents were first posted on Reddit nearly a month earlier by someone who went on to tweet at politicians and parties about the dump. Reddit and security researchers say they believe the source is likely part of an operation with suspected ties to Russian intelligence.
The smaller parties have got their hands dirty too.
When the OpenDemocracy website contacted the Liberal Democrats for a story about the party selling voter data, it didn’t receive a response before publishing its article.
A law firm acting for the party wrote to OpenDemocracy calling the story irresponsible and demanding the website remove “all derogatory and disparaging statements.” In a later letter, the firm said the Liberal Democrats had provided a response and it referred to an email as proof.
There was only one problem. The email was dated the day before the reporter sent in the official request for comment. The “proof” was a forgery, and the Liberal Democrats suspended a senior member of its campaign staff.
Real ‘fake news’
The Liberal Democrats were also slammed for creating pamphlets to look like local newspapers, full of praise for its policies and candidates.
One of them — the “Mid Hampshire Gazette” — was designed to mimic the actual local paper, the Basingstoke Gazette. Only in tiny print on the top right corner of the front page did it say who produced and paid for the fake newspaper.
The editor of the Basingstoke Gazette blasted the party and said she’d be writing a letter of complaint. The Liberal Democrats defended the practice, telling the Press Gazette: “[W]e remain committed to communicating with people, and tabloid newspapers has been one way of doing this employed by all political parties for decades.”