The evening of the 19th November 2019 saw the first of three Leaders’ Debates on ITV, starting at 8pm and lasting for an hour. Current Prime Minister and leader of the Conservatives, Boris Johnson faced off against Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Plenty of people will have been watching the debate live, but a good proportion were “watching” (er, “twitching”?) via Twitter. This is something I’ve done in the past for certain shows. In some cases I just can’t watch or listen, but I can read, and in other cases, the commentary is far more interesting and entertaining than the show itself will ever be. This, for me, is just such a case. But very quickly, all eyes turned upon a modestly sized account with the handle @CCHQPress. That’s short for Conservative Campaign Headquarters Press. According to their (current!) Twitter bio, they are based in Westminster and they provide “snippets of news and commentary from CCHQ” to their 75k followers.
That is, until a few minutes into the debate.
All at once, like a person throwing off their street clothes to reveal some sinister new identity underneath, @CCHQPress abruptly shed its name, blue Conservative logo, Boris Johnson banner, and bio description. Moments later, it had entirely reinvented itself.
The purple banner was emblazoned with white font that read ✓ factcheckUK FROM CCHQ:
The matching profile picture was a white tick in a purple circle. The bio was updated to: “Fact checking Labour from CCHQ”. And the name now read factcheckUK, with the customary Twitter blue (or white depending on your phone settings!) validation tick still after it:
Notably, the Twitter handle, @CCHQPress, remained unaltered, no doubt carefully so, since changing it would have lost the account its blue verification tick. And that blue tick is important, but we’ll get back to that later. Here are the two different guises for those wanting to see a before and after shot. Note that they are taken taken on my phone which is set to nighttime mode, hence the dark backgrounds:
As is probably very apparent by now, my interests are in how individuals present themselves online, and in particular, how they create a credible (or non-credible) identity that may or may not be a faithful representation of their motives, attitudes, and beliefs. And this example is a perfect case study. The @CCHQPress account undertook a radical, short-lived identity change. Why? What was their gain or purpose? This blog post sets about carefully picking that apart, and exploring all the mechanisms by which this was achieved. This is in the context of current public and political debates about disinformation, misinformation, and a phenomenon known as information operations, or IOs.
What are information operations? In vague terms, IOs are efforts to control the information environment. More concretely, one side targets their intended audience with messages in various forms that they think will be palatable or persuasive or outright manipulative. At the same time, if they’re doing a comprehensive job, they will also try to undermine or suppress their adversary’s messages. In journalistic and PR parlance, this is called controlling the narrative. Just one possible permutation of this is Boris Johnson’s now-infamous deadcatting. And the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, is a well-known information operations organisation. If you’ve seen someone online putting out mind-bogglingly unbelievable claims for or against Brexit or Trump or vaccines or abortion or immigration any of the current wedge-topics in the spotlight right now, then you’ve probably seen some form of information operation.
Somewhat like multi-level marketing, the ideal strategy for any sensibly executed IO is to recruit believers and adherents to do your work for you. You convince and evangelise A. A then goes on to convince and evangelise B, C, and D. They then go on to convince and evangelise the rest of the alphabet, and so forth. That’s the information environment, and the memetic spread of information through it. In ideal conditions, a good campaign will convince not one person, but hundreds, or thousands, and they will go on to spread your new gospel through their own networks consisting of hundreds of thousands, or millions. Your information operation, at that point, has become independent of you, and you can sit back and simply watch it unroll across the country or planet. (If you want a startling example of this in a different guise, go listen to the podcast, The Missing Cryptoqueen.)
Anyway, as all this suggests, information operations tend to wander about in the grey swamp of ethically dubious conduct, but plenty of instances wade right out there into the shark-infested depths of outright disinformation. Most recently in the world of British politics, Jo Swinson discovered that she was supposedly guilty of stoning squirrels. (For the sake of clarity: with… actual stones.) Despite its frankly bizarre improbability, the squirrel stoning story still went viral and will inevitably have had some quantity of damaging effect on how she is perceived, by however small a proportion of the electorate. Indeed, the Conservatives do not have a monopoly on this sort of conduct. Just last week, the Liberal Democrats came under fire for using dubious polling data. And Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives have all been accused of distributing fake newspapers.
However, at the moment, the Conservatives do seem to have a particularly chequered track record. A fortnight ago, on the 05th of November, they tweeted a doctored video of Labour Brexit spokesperson, Keir Starmer, which shows him as apparently unable to answer a crucial question. (In the actual interview, he answered it fluently.) Perhaps more surprisingly still, the tweet hasn’t been deleted. Yet.
WATCH: Jeremy Corbyn's Brexit Minister can't or won't answer a simple question about Labour's position on Brexit. pic.twitter.com/wsxMlUuq9N
— Conservatives (@Conservatives) November 5, 2019
As pressure and interest in the video intensified, CCHQPress (the very same account that features in the rest of this post) quote-tweeted the original video from Good Morning Britain, but with no indication that theirs was altered and therefore different. If anything, “believe it or not, this car crash interview did really take place” seems to suggest that their video is the same as the original:
There have been some enquiries about the veracity of Keir Starmer’s interview this morning where he was unable to explain Labour’s plan to delay Brexit.
Believe it or not, this car crash interview did really take place
— CCHQ Press (@CCHQPress) November 5, 2019
Reacting to the ongoing media storm, James Cleverly, the chairman of the Conservative party, described it as a “light-hearted satirical video”, and told the BBC that rather than being doctored, the video had been “obviously edited”, noting the difference in the connotations of the words. However, after days of relentless media scrutiny on the subject, finally, on the 12th of November, Rishi Sunak, the Conservative’s Treasury Chief Secretary, stated that, “It was done in the spirit of humour but I can appreciate it didn’t land properly. It was a video that was done in jest. I am sorry that it went a bit too far – that’s clearly in hindsight what happened.”
Then, the day before the Leaders Debate, the Conservative Party registered the address “labourmanifesto.co.uk”, and on the 21st of November, they launched it and paid Google to promote it in the search results of those looking for Labour’s manifesto. In fairness, the site does make very clear that it is “a website by the Conservative Party”, but this has still triggered hundreds of headlines.
And finally, of course, there was the incident that is the point of this entire post: the CCHQPress reinvention.
(Hat-tip to Ellen Judson whose excellent article on this very same topic is the source for lots of those examples above and inspiration for the rest.)
Stoned squirrels and dead cats aside, in the rest of this post, I’m going to consider the data and evidence on whether @CCHQPress’s rebrand into “factcheckUK” really was a detour into the grey areas of the information operations swamp, or just a very silly idea that spectacularly backfired. To get to the answer, let’s take it all apart in little bits, starting with the colour.
The major rebrand colour that @CCHQPress chose was purple. A rich, medium purple.
Why does that matter?
Well, the Conservatives are blue, and Labour are red. An independent political factchecker would therefore choose neither of these colours as their own major palette choice because it would subconsciously suggest bias. Even a shade of aquamarine or orange could still suggest associations. Other obvious colours are also not viable. Yellow is out since it belongs to the Liberal Democrats. Green is also out, because it would suggest, well, the Green Party. Black belongs to FullFact (and we’ll be coming back to them later). White seems like no one even tried. Grey seems uninspiring. But purple is tidy. It doesn’t have any major UK party attached to it, and it is a perfect blend of blue and red. It sits exactly in the middle between these two main opposing parties.
Just like an independent factchecker would be.
The ordinary Conservative fonts, if we look at their account in its daytime garb, are actually rather interesting. On their banner to the left we have a heavy Impact-style font (the font of choice for most memes), and on the right, we have some sort of down-with-the-kids affair that wouldn’t look out of place graffitied on a wall.
I don’t know who chose these but they might want to read up on the semiotics of fonts.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. If you look at the “factcheckUK” text in the banner, it’s in a simple sans font that looks something like Segoe UI. Notably, this is not dissimilar to that of @FullFact and @FactCheck. Indeed, @FullFact has “The UK’s independent factchecking charity” in slightly-right-aligned white on its one-colour (black) banner, and “factcheckUK” has its own name in slightly-right-aligned white on its one-colour (purple) banner. The actual words and colour choices may be different but the design similarities are striking.
And then there’s the name. I’ve already mentioned @FullFact and @FactCheck, but there is also a @FactCheckNI. It goes without saying that “factcheckUK” is remarkably similar. The addition of “UK” even suggests a countrywide, impartial account dedicated to everyone across the United Kingdom.
For the passing Twitter user, then, there are now numerous comprehensive signals pointing towards the credibility of its impartiality. It doesn’t look like any known political party account in its colours, its profile picture, its banner, its fonts, its bio, or its name. For most people, “CCHQ” is also an opaque abbreviation, and without the help of the standard Conservative branding, plenty of people wouldn’t know what it stood for. Central Communications Headquarters? Is it like GCHQ? How often do we look up opaque abbreviations just to check what they actually stand for? Do you know what HSBC stands for? TSB? BMW? Ever checked? Of course, those abbreviations have global brand recognition to fall back on. You don’t really need to know what TSB stands for (in the UK at least) to know that it’s a bank. But CCHQ does not have global brand recognition. It arguably doesn’t even have national brand recognition. At best, the ordinary person will guess that HQ means Headquarters, and the CC will be a mystery to them.
In short, all major methods of semiotically identifying the provenance and therefore the political partisanship of the account have been removed, and they have all been replaced with lots of markers suggesting an entirely different sort of entity.
An entity with a lack of partisanship.
An entity to which we would extend higher degree of credibility when reading their claims about political integrity and honesty than we would extend to a party-specific account.
An independent factchecking entity.
But there’s more…
The @CCHQPress account has a blue tick to show that Twitter has validated the authenticity of its provenance. And this is important because to different people, that blue tick means different things.
Twitter themselves state that…
The blue verified badge on Twitter lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic. (Twitter 2019)
But they also state that,
A verified badge does not imply an endorsement by Twitter. (Twitter 2019)
In other words, this tick is merely a mark of the authenticity of the account holder’s identity. Not of its credibility or integrity. And yet, in the past Twitter has removed blue ticks from verified users due to violations of their terms of service, even though they have authenticated their identity. Implicitly, then, it is seen and used as a stamp of approval, both by Twitter itself, and by the wider user population. That makes the blue tick especially problematic in a case like this. It lends even more credibility to the appearance of impartiality and independence.
So let’s imagine our average Jo is watching the #LeadersDebate hashtag, and in that feed, she sees this account apparently doing some factchecking. She’s interested, she doesn’t know it’s coming directly from the Conservative Campaign HQ, and she starts reading. What content will she find?
Very soon “factcheckUK” was churning out tweets such as:
Corbyn is lying on the NHS – the PM, POTUS and trade experts have all confirmed that the NHS will NOT be on the table in a US trade deal. Corbyn is lying about the NHS just to distract from his confused Brexit position (@CCHQPress 2019)
gif reads breaking fact check: LIE
.@Conservatives have made clear that “the NHS will never, under any circumstances, be on the table in any future trade talks. The price the NHS pays for drugs won’t be on the table. And the services the NHS delivers won’t be on the table. (@CCHQPress 2019)
gif reads breaking fact check: TRUE
(Underlining as emphases all mine, and I have copied and pasted rather than embedding since the content may one day quietly vanish…)
One could, perhaps, do some sort of statistical analysis to see how many lies “factcheckUK” found in Johnson’s claims, and how many truths they found in Johnson’s, but I leave that to those with more time than I have. More to the point, and at the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, a real, impartial factchecking organisation is an organisation that impartially checks facts. They don’t (or shouldn’t!) throw in either support for, or against, the parties or individuals in questions. It’s from this that the very essence of their credibility derives. They do not take a subjective stance. They objectively weigh the evidence.
Take the first tweet quoted above and its use of the words “first mistake”. The use of “first” presupposes there will be more, and “mistake” carries baggage. Factcheckers would not be forecasting that this was the “first” of, presumably, several, but would instead focus on checking whether the statement married up with reality or not.
More egregiously, in the second tweet, an independent factchecker certainly wouldn’t throw in a lengthy exposition on whether a candidate is “distract[ing] from his confused position on Brexit”. And they wouldn’t, as in the third tweet, “help” a candidate or party by emphasising how well or thoroughly they’ve previously done something. All of this would be partisan behaviour.
However, factcheckers do also use simple iconography – green ticks, red crosses, Pinocchio’s noses, pants on fire, and so on, to indicate levels of (in)accuracy, truthfulness, and deception, and the gifs created by “factcheckUK” play into that highly simplified model of right and wrong. It’s easy to skim the screen, and see “Corbyn: LIE” and “Johnson: TRUE” and simply move on.
The whole spectacle hit a final crescendo when the account posted a gif providing a “verdict” that Johnson was the “winner”. If a factchecker might stray anywhere near such a claim, at best, they might count how many times one side or the other was truthful or deceitful, and provide those scores. But again, the casual reader might skim over that congratulatory gif and presume that the “winner” in this case was the more honest candidate.
But you might argue, their username, @CCHQPress, remained the same. Shouldn’t people read more carefully? Shouldn’t we all take responsibility for the quality of the information we put into our brains? I heartily agree with all of these sentiments. And at the same time, I am fiercely of the opinion that organisations and individuals – especially those in positions of power – should also themselves absolutely operate to the highest standards of integrity, and that includes thoroughly assessing any sort of conduct that could be liable to mislead. I would write this post no differently for any political party, or indeed any organisation or individual that undertook this sort of activity for unfair gain, whether it was a supermarket pretending to independently review its own produce or an ordinary untrained person masquerading as a medical doctor. However, this example is particularly troubling for a number of key reasons.
This was orchestrated and then executed by a well-funded powerful political party that has, in the past, set out a clear position on disinformation, and that should be working towards, and upholding the highest standards of democratic process:
— CCHQ Press (@CCHQPress) March 20, 2018
It took planning: someone had to think up the idea. It then took preparation: someone had to design the full rebranding that all matched and looked professional and credible. This included a profile picture, a banner, a new bio, a new name, a font choice, a whole series of TRUE and LIE and VICTORY gifs that were initially created as nice quality mp4s, and captioned images. (Remember, all this just for one hour.) And then it took people: there had to be a team on-hand to execute the switch at the right time, with someone to watch the debate itself avidly, as evidenced by the way that the account counted how many times Corbyn did or did not answer certain questions. It seems unfeasible to me that one person alone could have been so attentive (1) to the debate itself, (2) to Twitter conversations happening around the debate, and also (3) to tweeting the relevant content in a timely manner.
Instead, I imagine that at least one debate-watcher was making notes and throwing comments back to those sat at their keyboards. Then, three or four people were frantically creating the captioned images, posting the tweets, and finding supporting content to retweet.
What’s my evidence for this perspective? I counted all the (re)tweets put out by “factcheckUK” between 8pm and 9pm and reached a number of around 195. (The vagueness is because retweets retain their original time and the last @CCHQPress-authored tweet is at 8:57pm, so it’s possible that a few more retweets occurred between 8:57pm and 9:00pm. Regardless, I’ve discounted them, so this estimate is slightly on the low side.) Whatever the precise number, it means that “factcheckUK” posted slightly more than one (re)tweet every twenty seconds. Sure, retweets are easier, but someone has to be checking ongoing conversations on other parts of Twitter and finding the right sort of content to retweet. One cannot retweet carelessly. Certain tabloid newspapers have found themselves stung by the namechange retaliation gambit. After embedding tweets from individuals in their news pages, the user changes their screen name (not their account handle) to something like “I hate this stupid newspaper” and then this is faithfully duplicated in the newspaper’s embedded tweet. It is perfectly possible to entice a political party into retweeting content so that one can then perform this exact same manouevre of changing one’s screen name into a criticism of that very party, thus thoroughly embarrassing them. For that reason, Average Jo accounts out there “in the wild”, as it were, have to be carefully vetted first. Meanwhile, someone else has to be turning points gleaned from the live debate into “factcheck” tweets, adding the appropriate gifs or captioned images, probably running them under a lawyer’s nose, and then posting them.
Conceivably one might achieve such an outcome with one or two highly caffeinated people, but I suspect there was, in reality, a team of five or six or more working away frantically. So, as I said: orchestrated. From the planning stage to the production of a full branding suite of colours and fonts to the deployment of personnel at the key moment, this was presumably all done to assume a more credible persona of objectivity and neutrality than their standard CCHQPress guise conveyed. As a result, any posts put out under this new identity would more powerfully shape the information environment. That would therefore make this a type of information operation.
But we don’t simply have to measure the carefully dissected account against academic definitions. Another excellent source of insight is, well, everyone else. If, upon exposure to this change, lots of people expressed opinions, assessments, and thoughts on that very change, then this is a useful further set of data to consult. So what did others think?
The reactions online were swift. By 8:14pm, the Guardian’s media editor had noticed and tweeted about it to his 235k followers:
Oh they've rebranded the Conservative HQ press account as 'FactCheckUK' yeah sure why not. pic.twitter.com/kwodENbkPO
— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) November 19, 2019
(Reader? I don’t think he was in favour of it.)
By 8:27pm FullFact had learned of the situation, assessed it, put together a formal response, and tweeted thus:
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 such as @FullFact, @FactCheck or @FactCheckNI
— Full Fact (@FullFact) November 19, 2019
A few minutes later, at 8:35pm, Ben de Pear, editor of Channel 4 News (the home of @FactCheck) responded with:
As the home of the original @FactCheck in the UK we need to point out “factcheckUK” has nothing to do with @Channel4News it is the renamed twitter account of @cchqpress– @Conservatives no political party should be trying to cloak themselves in the guise of independent journalists https://t.co/KprD6ub7eD
— Ben de Pear (@bendepear) November 19, 2019
In turn, @FactCheck quote-tweeted Ben de Pear at 8:37pm with:
— C4 News FactCheck (@FactCheck) November 19, 2019
By this point, however, Twitter (the users) was already on it. In one of those amusing critical-mass-of-satire moments, suddenly, the platform was awash with “factcheckUK” accounts, ranging from Charlie Brooker and TechnicallyRon to any number of verified and unverified users spoofing the new @CCHQPress identity.
In fact, within the space of around twenty to thirty minutes – certainly by the time FullFact and FactCheck had tweeted their disapprobation – the reaction to “factcheckUK” was becoming unignorably, prounouncedly unfavourable. The dial seemed, on my reading, to sit somewhere between sardonic hilarity and outright disgust. Rather than the masses of likes and retweets that one can only imagine “factcheckUK” were hoping for, many of the “factchecks” were responded to with scathing criticism and annoyance. Countless users replied with screenshots of themselves reporting the account for being misleading. And to gild the whole with a final layer of peak Twitter mischief, the “factcheckUK” clone-army began tweeting anti-Conservative and anti-Brexit “facts” with their accounts that were almost indistinguishable from the original @CCHQPress “factcheckUK” account.
(There is a phenomenon on social media known as being ratioed, where the ratio of comments on a post radically exceeds the likes and/or retweets, suggesting that rather than being approved of, the content has not gone down well. At. All. Many of the “factchecks” were thoroughly ratioed.)
What remains most incredible to me about this whole affair is the fact that no one pulled the plug. Not at ten minutes in, when the sleeping dragon’s eye twitched and the Guardian editor tweeted about it to quarter of a million people. Not at twenty minutes in, when its nostrils quivered at something interesting in the ether and @TechnicallyRon tweeted about it to his 170k followers. Not even at the thirty minute mark when the dragon was not just awake, but already inviting the world to dinner whilst the real factchecking organisations put out formal statements condemning the behaviour.
CCHQ is the Conservative Campaign Headquarters. Communications and campaigning – that is, winning over voters – is literally meant to be their thing. And more to the point, this was not merely CCHQ. This was the press account of CCHQ. You know. The people within the campaign HQ who are meant to be media experts. To go back to the opening points of this post, managing the information environment is supposed to be something they excel at. One would imagine that a suggestion to masquerade as an independent factchecker during a period of heightened awareness about disinformation and in a context of deep voter frustration with devious political practices would be immediately and categorically shut down on all sides. But the inexplicable nature of the whole event doesn’t stop at the fact that this even went ahead in the first place. Not only did someone sign off on this plan, and put it into action, as they started to execute it, and it quickly went up in flames, “fullfactUK” just… kept going?
There are two plausible explanations here: either no one was checking, live, to see how well this strategy was playing out with the electorate, which seems genuinely unthinkable. Why would you not keep your finger on the pulse of this kind of strategy during such a critical moment? Alternatively, possibly even worse, they were checking, and they saw the flames creeping up the mountainside, and they just… didn’t care? Or perhaps the idea was to brazen it out, rather than make any move that would seem to indicate that they had recognised the error of judgement? Alternatively, politics truly is in a new post-shame epoch and the rationale was that it simply didn’t matter. That any publicity is good publicity. That some would be influenced and that this was a price worth paying.
Anyway, if the story thus far seems like it might have some of the characteristics of a PR disaster, it didn’t stop there. By the next morning – yesterday as I write this – Twitter (the corporation this time) waded in with the following statement from a spokesperson:
Twitter is committed to facilitating healthy debate throughout the UK general election. We have global rules in place that prohibit behaviour that can mislead people, including those with verified accounts. 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. (BBC 2019)
“No one gives a toss”
You would think that admonishment from two real factcheckers and the hosting platform itself, followed by torrents of critical headlines the next morning might have been enough of a rap on the knuckles to quell any further argument on the matter, but instead of accepting that this may have been a gaffe, in an interview on BBC Breakfast the morning after the debate, Dominic Raab responded to the issue with, “No-one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”.
"No-one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust"
Conservative Dominic Raab defends rebrand of party Twitter account as 'factcheckUK' during TV debate, calling it an "instant rebuttal mechanism" for "nonsense put around by Labour"https://t.co/HVs6HmvGvr #bbcbreakfast pic.twitter.com/4ZrIwVn8iX
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) November 20, 2019
And yet no one giving a toss about social media seems to belie the sheer amount of effort that obviously went into converting one of the validated Conservative party accounts into the full raiment of an independent factchecker, complete with images and glossy mp4-based gifs and carefully-thought-out branding and a support team, all at a high profile moment of intense public interest. If social media doesn’t matter, then why do this?
Ultimately, of course, the answer to that question is that people do give a toss, and that the effort, though it backfired so spectacularly, is a catch-point of where we are in the political landscape. With luck, this incident will encourage greater caution and curb any further similar attempts across the whole political spectrum. In the meantime, @CCHQPress may find that Twitter remains a difficult climate for a few more days. As of yesterday morning (20th November 2019), some accounts such as Parody Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson_MP) have rebranded themselves as spoof “CCHQ Press” accounts and published “apologies” on their behalf that have been widely liked and retweeted:
We apologise for any misunderstanding caused by the changes to our account last night. It was an honest attempt to mislead people into believing our lies and propaganda.#FactCheckuk
— Parody Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson_MP) November 20, 2019
Most fascinating of all, within forty minutes, this same account followed up with:
The fact that some people are taking this as a genuine CCHQ tweet blows a hole in James Cleverly’s defence that there was no confusion because the twitter handle didn’t change.
— Parody Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson_MP) November 20, 2019
The information age has shone a startlingly bright light into previously undisturbed, deep, dark corners. We know, now, that bankers, once deeply trusted and revered, actually sold subprime mortgages to profit from our loss. And that the once-last-bastion of holding others to account, the media, took part in phone hacking. And that those we trusted to lead and look after our best interests, politicians, were embroiled in expenses scandals. Whilst all these revelations were important, and the light of publicity has been a powerful disinfectant, they have taken us into an era of deep distrust. Masquerading as an independent and neutral factchecking organisation not only arguably damages the reputation and credibility of the Conservative party, it also continues the current narrative that politics as a whole is irreversibly corrupt. Worst of all, it taints the image of the truly independent factchecking organisations who are now striving to hold both the media and politicians to account.
To answer my original question, then, this had, in my view, plenty of the hallmarks of an information operations attempt, but one that certainly did not bring any measure of success that could be said to counteract the enormous quantity of negative publicity and further suspicion that it caused. In the end, rather than managing to take control of the information environment, @CCHQPress instead unwittingly invented an entertaining new way for Twitter users to respond – through obviously fake factchecking, or “fakechecking”.