Conservative HQ Knew Exactly What It Was Doing When It Rebranded Its Press Account

Parliament has ignored warnings on fake news for 2 years and now democracy is at stake, DCMS Select Committee member Ian Lucas writes.

Conservative HQ knew exactly what it was doing when it rebranded its press account “FactCheckUK”. The choice of the misleading “fact check” description was an innovative, if cynical, response to the efforts by genuine fact check social media handles and charities like Full Fact to hold politicians to account.

The Conservatives know that the law is woefully lacking around election disinformation: the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office have told them so repeatedly. Little of substance has changed since the 2016 referendum result and the holes in electoral and data law served the Vote Leave campaign well during the referendum.

We need to remember that the triumvirate now at the heart of our government – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings – were equally at the heart of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. They know that, even though that campaign broke electoral law, the result stands.

As a member of the DCMS Select Committee, which produced two ground-breaking reports on disinformation detailing evidence and impact on elections across the world, I saw evidence first-hand of the influence that manipulation of information on social media had on elections. I also witnessed the Conservative government’s inadequate response. It saw everything through the prism of the 2016 referendum and refused to countenance any investigation or change which cast doubt on the result, no matter the broader issue at stake: the integrity of our democracy in the long term.

CCHQ Twitter
CCHQ Twitter
Twitter

Cummings himself emphasised the enormous influence social media activity could have and, when he had the choice of where he would spend the million-pound donation made to Vote Leave in the last days of the campaign in 2016, he pumped it directly into Facebook advertising. He did so even though this meant Vote Leave committed electoral offences for which they were later fined.

“It is not for a lack of suggestions that the government has done nothing to bring about effective change in the law.”

The Conservatives learned this lesson well. It explains why the government has taken virtually no action to remedy the defects in electoral law since 2016. It means that the dishonesty of the Tory “FactCheckUK” move breaks no laws and is only subject to any action if the private business Twitter decides it has broken its terms of business.

The fact that legislation hasn’t been introduced to tackle disinformation isn’t by accident or by lack of ideas to address the problem (which is admittedly complex when it comes to its interaction with laws around free speech.) The DCMS Select Committee proposed a raft of measures needed to protect our democracy, learning the lessons of the recent electoral campaigns in the UK which have been transformed by the arrival of social media as a political battlefield. We proposed introducing digital imprints for campaigning material online, more transparency around sources paying for the content you see online, enhanced regulatory powers and a new definition for tech companies that make them liable for information posted. So, it is not for a lack of suggestions that the government has done nothing to bring about effective change in the law.

The result is that the 2019 General Election result, whatever it is, will be as tarnished as those before it by the dishonest, manipulative and cynical deception of voters by devices such as our governing party presenting propaganda as “facts”. Increasingly, trust in our democracy will be undermined and voters will lose confidence in our system. Tragically, it has been left too late to address the pervasive problems of disinformation tactics that the Committee warned about time and time again for this 2019 election. We need a Government with integrity to legislate to ensure that, when we next go to the polls, we’re ready.

Ian Lucas is a former MP and senior member of the Digital, Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.