Carsten Reisinger - stock.adobe.
The Conservative Party has come under fire after it was caught changing the name of a campaign Twitter account to spread disinformation online during the 19 November General Election debate between Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The @CCHQpress Twitter account normally carries obvious Conservative Party branding, making its purpose clear. However, during the debate, its name was changed from “CCHQ Press Office” to “factcheckUK” alongside a new profile picture and header image. At first glance, this gave the account the appearance of being an independent body, and appeared to contravene the government’s own guidelines on online disinformation.
While carrying the misleading branding, the account issued messages of support for Johnson and criticised Corbyn extensively.
Unlike the user’s unique account handle, Twitter account names are easily changed, and many private users frequently change their names to take part in memes, to declare their love for celebrities, or to support political campaigns and causes.
However, in this case, the name change has raised concerns because, as a political party with candidates running in the election, the Conservatives are not an independent voice in the campaign.
This was picked up on by, among others, Labour’s David Lammy, who said the incident showed “disdain for the truth” and called on the Electoral Commission to launch an investigation, while Labour’s press team described the incident as a “laughable attempt to dupe” viewers.
Independent fact-checking charity Full Fact tweeted: “It is inappropriate and misleading for the Conservative press office to rename their twitter account ‘factcheckUK’ during this debate. Please do not mistake it for an independent fact-checking service.”
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said: “Voters are entitled to transparency and integrity from campaigners in the lead-up to an election, so they have the information they need to decide for themselves how to vote.
“The Electoral Commission seeks to deliver transparency to the public through the political finance rules; while we do not have a role in regulating election campaign content, we repeat our call to all campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly and to support campaigning transparency.”
Electoral Commission spokesperson
Conservative chair James Cleverly defended the name change to the BBC’s Newsnight programme, saying that because the account’s handle remained CCHQPress, the nature of the account was clear. He revealed the decision to rebrand it would have been taken by the party’s digital team which works under him, and that he was “absolutely comfortable” taking the Labour Party to task over its own claims.
In a statement, Twitter – which has faced calls from campaigners to ban the account – said it was committed to supporting healthy debate during the campaign and had clear rules in place to prohibit misleading behaviour, including from verified accounts.
It 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 the second time during the current General Election campaign that the Conservatives have been caught red-handed spreading online disinformation.
Earlier in November, the party’s digital campaign team edited a cut of an interview conducted with Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, on ITV’s Good Morning Britain news programme.
In the interview, Starmer was questioned by presenters Susanna Reid and Piers Morgan and spoke at length about Labour’s policy on Brexit. However, in the fake, doctored version created by the Conservatives, Starmer was presented as being unable to answer the question, and the caption “Labour has no plan for Brexit” was superimposed over him.
Despite extensive criticism, including from the programme’s presenters, the Conservatives failed to apologise and continued to spread other edited versions of the video on their social media channels.
At the time, Starmer said: “I actually saw it as an act of desperation. It is only when you think things are not going well that you get involved in those sorts of activities.”
At the start of the campaign, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham contacted all the UK’s political parties to remind them of their obligations relating to data privacy and protection during the election period, however, since the incident did not explicitly involve the misuse of personal data, the Information Commissioner’s Office is unlikely to get involved and declined to comment.
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