Trolls, Sock Puppets and Useful Idiots: An Anatomy of an Election Disinformation Campaign
Photo: Yorkshire Evening Post
Peter Jukes dissects how ‘No 10 sources’, mainstream broadcast journalists and an army of hired online activists tried to save Boris Johnson from himself.
The Local Journalist
First, some facts, as they are in precious short supply. Around noon on Sunday 8 December, Daniel Sheridan of the Yorkshire Evening Post published a story about Jack Williment-Barr, a four-year-old boy who was rushed to Leeds General Infirmary with suspected pneumonia. His mother Sarah had contacted the newspaper with a picture of her son lying on a pile of coats and claimed he had been left in the clinical treatment room for four hours.
Like any responsible journalist, Daniel Sheridan double-checked the story with the hospital and its chief medical officer, Dr Yvette Oade, who explained how busy the hospital was and apologised to the family. “We are extremely sorry that there were only chairs available in the treatment room, and no bed,” she said. “This falls below our usual high standards and for this we would like to sincerely apologise to Jack and his family.”
So far, a telling example of the vital importance of local journalism – a profession that continues to be gutted as newsrooms are cut or amalgamated, and Google and Facebook siphon off the billions of revenues that keep local accountability alive.
The TV Journalist
The next day, Joe Pike, a young journalist for ITV Calendar in Grimsby, was following the Conservative Party leader as he posed for photos holding a large cod (not for the first time) in the fishing town which has often become an emblem of ‘taking back control’ of our waters by leaving the European Union.
Unlike the BBC interviewer Andrew Neil, Joe Pike has no reputation for skewering politicians, so Boris Johnson and his advisors probably thought they didn’t need to avoid this particular interview in the bowels of the fish warehouses. They miscalculated. Pike whipped out his phone with the photo of Jack Williment-Barr lying on the floor, and persistently questioned the Prime Minister about it.
In a psychologically revealing panic, Johnson tried to bluster that everything would improve once we “got Brexit done”. But Pike persisted. Johnson tried to steamroller him, but his darting eyes and demeanour showed that he didn’t want to answer the question and, in an effort to avoid it, the Prime Minister took the reporter’s phone and hid it in his pocket. This prompted one of the most remarkable comments of the campaign so far from Pike who remarked, calmly:
“You’ve refused to see the photo. You’ve taken my phone and put it in your pocket, Prime Minister.”
Child psychiatrists would have a field day on this. The failure to realise that hiding your face does not make you invisible, or that stealing a reporter’s phone does not make the report go away, suggests that – under pressure – the leader of the Conservative Party has the social cognitive abilities of a four-year-old.
Apart from Johnson’s kleptomanic evasion, the film of this strange encounter had the additional problem of focusing on the NHS at a key point in the last few days of the General Election campaign. Conservative campaigners know that the NHS is not their strong point, so the Health and Social Care Minister, Matt Hancock, was dispatched to Leeds General Infirmary to firefight.
The Mainstream Media Campaign
As Hancock rushed to Leeds, a host of media figures sympathetic to Johnson rushed into action. Guido Fawkes (which registered the site Boris2020 seven years ago) was first off the mark, with a fake story that 100 Labour activists were being paid to go to Leeds to protest. This was followed up by his former colleague at the Sun, Tom Newton Dunn, who described a “flash mob descending”.
Soon, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, was describing to her 1.1 million followers how “Labour activists scrambled to go and protest” and then “it turned nasty” when “one of them punched Hancock’s adviser”. The information had no attribution, or “I’ve heard” or “sources say”.
Not to be left out, Robert Peston, the political editor of the second largest broadcaster, ITV, identified the person punched to his 1 million followers, and named the special adviser to Matt Hancock, adding that the police had been called.
The only problem with this breaking story – which quickly and conveniently replaced the story of Johnson pocketing the reporter’s phone in all the major news feeds – was that it was completely bogus.
There were about four noisy demonstrators outside Leeds General Infirmary as Hancock departed in his ministerial car, not 100. No punch was ever landed. Hancock’s SpAd walked into a cyclist’s hand as he pointed to the ministerial car rushing away.
It took several hours of persistent correction from other Twitter users before both Peston and Kuenssberg corrected the damaging allegation of assault. But their apologies revealed even more…
Peston explained that he had been told the story by two Tory party sources. According to good journalistic practice, that would be the minimum to run an allegation of assault – but only if the sources were independent. They clearly weren’t. What would have been a rookie mistake for a young journalist was a catastrophic failure of judgement by the political editors of both major broadcasters, made even more so because it came in the crucial last few days of a landmark General Election.
I’m not of the the view that either Peston or Kuenssberg are consciously partisan, and I certainly don’t buy the allegation that they have been ‘bought’. But they have been played, and to rescue their reputations – and most importantly our trust in the two most important sources of news in the country – there should be a full inquiry.
For the real culprits here are the sources who lied to them both, consistently. They have no protection for deceiving the public and both Peston and Kuenssberg have a public duty to tell us who they are. Nothing short of that can begin to repair the damage caused.
The Online Calling
Thanks to some brilliant traffic and network analysis by Mark Owen Jones, we can see how the fake punch story was spread around 7,500 Twitter interactions from 5,500 unique Twitter accounts – from Guido Fawkes, via the Sun‘s chief political correspondent, commentator Dan Hodges to the BBC and ITV. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Soon after the punch story was discredited, a new story about the whole hospital photo being staged – borrowed from Facebook – began doing the rounds on Twitter.
All the Twitter accounts repeating it had the same information – “a good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister” – and claimed that the mother of Jack Williment-Barr had faked the photo for publicity as a Labour activist.
This frankly defamatory and unpleasant smear was boosted, with no fact-checking, by Allison Pearson of the Telegraph and Brexit Party MEP Claire Fox. Just one post on one Facebook discussion group alone has 276 comments and 98 shares.
No sooner was this story being debunked (after all, the head of the Leeds hospital trust had apologised two days previously) when a new disinformation theme was being boosted on social media, especially to the gullible Allison Pearson, who declared she was going to write a story in the Telegraph about the shocking propaganda around the four-year-old.
Whoever this “Great Ormond St” nurse was, they seemed to have multiple Twitter accounts in fake names.
The first tweet came from a Twitter user who claimed to have attended six universities and was now training in law:
The next came from a foreign exchange trader:
While another, identical claim, came from someone who had previously boasted about working in “supply chain JLR for 35 years”:
Whether these are semi-automated bots, or one malicious user deploying sock puppet accounts, or just bad faith actors in the public realm, they are very effective at targeting journalists and commentators who then spread the false narrative to a wider audience.
In fact, journalists and politicians are the main targets of such information operations, whether organised centrally or not, as trusted but duped sources are the quickest way to amplify a misleading story.
Britain is currently undergoing a perfect storm of electoral interference. With lax or unenforceable legislation about ‘non-party campaigners’ spending millions on Facebook posts, and with Twitter easily gamed by trolls, bots and sock puppets, the online sphere requires extreme caution.
We should only trust journalists who seek to verify and double-check, like Daniel Sheridan who started this saga, and remember that we are all easy prey to the stories we want to hear.
Combating online disinformation requires education, some ferocious forensic investigators, and a large dose of mockery and shame to those involved. But what to do with our press?
Both the Sun and the Telegraph were keen to promote and prop up these fake stories. Though their circulations are tanking and their profit margins non-existent, these newspapers still wield power, especially over politicians, whose lives they can trash, mock or ignore.
But, by far, the most worrying thing is our two main broadcasters – the BBC and ITV. One of the protections against our feral press was that we had a mixed commercial and public service broadcast system which could be relatively immune to political and commercial pressure.
Kuenssberg and Peston have shown the other hidden danger: the danger of client journalism, of editors in hock to their sources thanks to the clubbish cliqueness of the lobby system of unattributed briefings. I personally think that there is some cultural capture here, because you’re only two north London dinner parties away from another senior journalist or politician these days, thanks to rank inaccessibility of media jobs for most ordinary people. But, more important than any professional criticism of the two political editors, is the laxity and complicity of their management.
Byline Times approached the BBC last night for a response to Laura Kuenssberg’s misinformation. We asked the broadcaster how its political editor happened to circulate a false rumour as a fact and how this reflected on the corporation’s editorial standards and the public service broadcaster’s reputation. The press office replied with a curt message directing us to her apology – an apology that raises more questions than it answers – and does nothing to allay the growing concern of licence fee payers.
Byline Times is still waiting for a response from ITV.
This article was corrected to reflect that Joe Pike won’t be joining Sky News until January and is still employed by ITV Calendar.