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“Factcheck” Twitter deception criticized in U.K. politics

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Is deception acceptable if it’s only temporary?

Britain’s Conservative Party is accused of misleading the public during a televised election debate Tuesday by changing the name of its press office Twitter account to that of an unbiased fact-checking entity.

The party, posing as “factcheckUK,” tweeted support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the debate against opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

factcheck UK twitter deception

Britain’s Conservative party came under fire after it rebranded one of its official Twitter accounts ‘factcheckUK’, during a debate between its leader, Boris Johnson and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday. Photo: Twitter/@CCHQPress

Shortly after the debate concluded, the name of the Twitter account was changed back to the original, CCHQ Press, and the party logo was restored to the account.

The background

Britain’s Conservative Party is trying to raise its online game in the Dec. 12 election after being outperformed by the Labour Party during the campaign in 2017.

Avery Holton, associated professor of communications at the University of Utah, joined Doug Wright on KSL NewsRadio Thursday to talk about the debate deception in the U.K. and the larger issue of media trickery. Holton is also Wright’s son-in-law.

“How illegitimate, how smarmy is this, especially from the highest levels of government, to have Britain’s Conservative Party, during a televised election debate, actually change its moniker so it looks like there a neutral fact-checker, especially when at the end they declared Boris [Prime Minister Boris Johnson] to be the winner?” Wright asked.

“This particular debate was supposed to be centered around truth and transparency between the two candidates,” Holton said.

Public, Twitter starting to catch on

He said the debate debacle happened while Twitter and other social media channels continue to formulate a response for the public when misinformation and disinformation are spread on their platforms. Particularly, users want to know what actions the platforms are taking.

Twitter says transparency and truth are part of its DNA, Houlton said, and that it will “take swift action, particularly against individuals and organizations trying to mislead the public regarding government and political issues, so this gives them the opportunity to stand behind their word.”

Holton also noted that it was a good sign to see the public catch on to the deception immediately and tweet about it live during the debate.

As for the U.K. Conservative Party, Twitter vowed to take “decisive corrective action” if there were any more attempts “to mislead people by editing verified profile information.”

“It’s an interesting, crystallized moment for social media platforms,” Holton noted.

“The negative side showed us how high misinformation and disinformation has reached now. 

“But the positive side is the public is on to it and growing seemingly tired of it,” he said.

Is there any way to justify this kind of trickery because “it is so deceptive that it is obviously a prank”? Wright asked.

“There’s a big difference between accidentally resharing something that isn’t true versus and willfully deceiving the public,” Holton said.

“In this case, the account went to extremes, not only by swapping out the photos that they had in their bio…but also changing the bio description and purportedly being a fact-checker during a particularly high-volume time for that conversation [debate] in the U.K.” Holton said.

Standing up to deception

He added that Twitter is discovering the nuances of deceptions and has banned or suspended more than 100,000 accounts across the globe, from Hong Kong and China to Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

“Traditional media has taken [misleading the public] very, very seriously over the years,” said Wright,  “and especially in broadcasting, in our case when you are licensed by the federal government.

“It will be interesting to see how seriously these missteps and even these outright deceptions are taken by those who provide the platform. Are you confident that they will [take them seriously]?”

 Holton said Facebook is talking about having an outside body look for “misinformation, disinformation, hate speech” and have that outside body govern in that area of expression across social media platforms.

“We might think of something like that the FCC stepping in. That way there’s no internal bias, there’s no revenue biased, but there’s an actual governing body taking control,” Holton said.

 “The argument against that has to do more with the First Amendment, and some folks feeling like their voices are being silenced,” he said. 

He added that Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to allow users to flag content and “have algorithms working with humans on picking out fake information and parsing out the severity of it,” he said.

When it comes to politics, Holton said, Twitter is now going to be banning political ads.

“The CEO Jack Dorsey says the company is tired of letting political forms being bought instead of earned,” he said.

But it is the public that has to decide whether they see these things as humorous or whether they see them as truly detrimental to democratic conversations, Holton said.