As the election’s first televised leaders’ debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn got underway, CCHQ made the brazen decision to rebrand its Twitter account as Factcheck UK. Tweets sent from the account throughout the debate denounced most of Corbyn’s proposed policies and praised Johnson’s.
It’s fair to say the decision did not go down well. Twitter users and political opposition members reacted in fury and bewilderment. Some saw it as a deliberate attempt to mislead the public, with Labour MP David Lammy saying it showed the party’s “disdain for the truth.”
There was also strong condemnation from genuine fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact, which was rightly perplexed by the decision and urged people not to confuse the account for an independent fact-checking service.
But confusion seemed exactly what the Conservatives were hoping to achieve. A fact-checking operation badged as CCHQ—with the same tweets sent without changing the account’s branding—was possible, yet the decision was made to change not only the name of the account but also its header and profile image. Why would the party feel the need to rebrand itself in such a way if there was no attempt to mislead?
When questioned about the decision after the debate, the party’s chairman James Cleverly tried—in the most unconvincing manner possible—to defend the move.
He told BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis that because the account’s Twitter handle remained “CCHQ press,” the nature of the site was clear and suggested that the rebranding idea came from his digital team.
In response, Maitlis called the decision “dystopian”—and it’s hard to disagree. Why should UK voters have to put up with such underhand and unethical actions by politicians? It’s not as if they don’t already have enough online misinformation to contend with.
Nearly half of social media users who share articles have passed on fake news, according to a study by Loughborough University. This is particularly a problem during elections when undecided voters seek out more information and struggle to distinguish fact from fiction.
Cleverly seem to imply that the Twitter account rebranding was part of an innovative digital strategy. Perhaps the party saw it as a way to connect with younger Britons, who are more likely to follow the debate on social media channels rather than television.
But let’s be clear, adopting such propaganda tactics is regressive, not progressive. This kind of behaviour has no place in British politics. It’s staggering that the Conservatives cannot see how its digital scheme is a step backwards for democracy.
Technology has opened up new opportunities for parties to speak directly to voters and amplify their message. But if politicians cannot use this technology in a responsible way they should stick to more traditional methods of electioneering. Instead, the party has rejected justified criticism and stuck to the infeasible line that CCHQ is such an instantly recognisable abbreviation of the Conservative party to the general public that the rebrand could not deceive them.
The fact that the Conservatives felt able to carry out such actions also speaks to the failure of tech companies to properly enforce their policies. The party soon reverted back to their original Twitter handle, but if the rules were enforced, it is likely they would face sanctions: Twitter’s policies state that accounts posing as a person, brand or organisation in a deceptive manner may be permanently banned.
When Twitter’s rebuke came, however, it was mild. “We have global rules in place that prohibit behaviour that can mislead people, including those with verified accounts,” a statement said. “Any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information—in a manner seen during the UK election debate—will result in decisive corrective action."
This is a clear admission by Twitter that it believes the Conservatives misled its users, yet the company will only act if the party attempts to pull the same stunt again.
This response is frankly not good enough. It’s unclear why a political party should be given a second chance when ordinary individuals who breach the rules are routinely suspended from the site without a second thought. (Then again, Twitter has yet to take meaningful action against the constant rule-breaching of its most notorious user, Donald Trump.)
What Tuesday night’s saga shows most clearly is that some politicians are more willing than ever to blur the lines of fact and fiction if they believe it will help them gain an edge over the opposition. Tech companies have failed voters once again by not taking a zero-tolerance approach to this behaviour.
Vague promises to act in the future are not enough. Until Twitter and its rivals realise this, they will remain a cog in propaganda machine—to the detriment of democracy.