The local news_apers: Tadmouth Gazette or Badmouth Gersatz?

As election season gets underway, more and more instances of disinformation and misinformation (just plain fake news if you’re feeling fed up) keep hitting the headlines. Stoned squirrels, dead cats, fake factcheckers, dodgy polls, it’s all happening right now. Disinformation is in the headlines, everywhere.

But there’s a catch with disinformation.

And headlines.

Sometimes, they’re the same thing.

In the past few weeks, people began to tweet about free local newspapers that were being posted through their doors. Luckily for me, plenty included photos, usually of the front page, pointing out that this apparently free journalistic offering was in actuality a political publication with a clear agenda to persuade voters to support particular candidates. More to the point, people were not happy. At the extreme, some felt that these were literal embodiments of disinformation and should be aggressively prosecuted. Still others felt that these were problematic, manipulative, and/or deceitful, but not unexpected. And at the other extreme, some people responded that these publications allegedly all disclose their true identities and agendas in various ways, so the responsibility is on the reader. (We’ll get into that more later.)

There are several key differences between this case and the #factcheckUK debacle. One was that when @CCHQPress changed identity, people knew what they had been before, and after their brief soiree into their alter ego, the account changed back to its original branding. Identity resolution was, therefore, an easier prospect. These newspapers simply are what they are. There will be no big reveal later on where anyone with doubts could finally see for themselves, and the imprints that discloses the actual provenance of these publications are not always obvious.

Further, the distribution of these papers has been dispersed across several weeks. Unlike with @CCHQPress’s #factcheckUK identity, there wasn’t a single, crystallised hour in which something very obvious and egregious happened all at once, and then everyone responded to that short-term event with increasing levels of fervour and outrage (a “celebrage” phenomenon that the Twitter platform is exceptionally well-suited to supporting). Instead, this was random individuals getting home, finding mail, gazing over it idly, finally realising that something was amiss, and then getting irritated enough to tweet a picture of it from the kitchen or the office or the greenhouse. And that is if they even noticed, or cared, that this was happening.

And there’s one more consideration. There are (supposedly) little, local publications, not international validated Twitter accounts like @CCHQPress that most of the globe can read. Recipients of these papers may have felt like this was annoying, sure, but also highly localised, and therefore possibly too trivial to get upset about. After all, how much damage can a tiny local paper sent to a few hundred people actually do?

The very fact that these papers were not obviously election materials, and that they were both distributed broadly over time but (apparently!) narrowly over geography will have had an effect on the immediacy and obviousness of the problem. Thankfully, however, we are in a time of heightened sensitivity to disinformation, and enough people felt enough interest in the matter to create a critical mass of online content that has gradually drifted towards the surface of the current media politics whirlpool. As ever, since I research deception and manipulation, this new circumstance thoroughly piqued my interest, so I spent a few hours trawling Twitter, and then an extremely helpful site, Election Leaflets, looking for examples to analyse. (Ht to Martin for putting me onto that site.)

I wish I could credit all original sources of these pictures but if Twitter allows anything, it is the instant further dissemination of content, so tracking back to first sources for many of these images has been nearly impossible. Anyone who wants an online hi-five for their contribution to open source data analysis, though, send me a tweet and I shall respond with credit, and a random, appreciative gif.

Data

Anyway, a few hours of searching and some extremely kind emails, letters, and DMs (thank you to those who did this, you know who you are) produced the following results:

PARTY FRONTPAGE ONLY FULL COPY TOTAL
Conservatives 11 6 17
Labour 1 (not a typo) 0 1
Liberal Democrats 12 1 13
Literally any other party 0 0 0

Anyone who would like to see this dataset for themselves can access it here. [Note: the link will expire on the 03rd of January 2020.]

First crucial point: these figures do not imply an exhaustive physical search of every premises in the United Kingdom. Whilst I would love to ransack people’s houses just because. I literally don’t have the time. Also it’s probably illegal. Anyway, just because I couldn’t find UKIP mocking up a Daily Backs Tab, or the Green Party pumping out thousands of copies of Myth & Echo, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Somewhere. Out there. And just because I could only find one Labour “newspaper” doesn’t mean there aren’t more. I put a lot of effort into my searches and saved everything that was of usable quality (cropped, illegible, altered, and mock-up images were all excluded), and ultimately I can only analyse what I can find.

Second crucial point: my original intention had been to analyse the whole of each publication, but I could only get seven full copies overall, six belonging to one party, so this analysis is based purely on the front-page shot of every paper I have. Later I may do a little overview of some full editions. In some respects, this is not such a big deal. It’s likely that (nearly) every recipient will have glanced at the first page. Proportionally fewer will have opened the publication to read further. Far fewer still will read every word on every page. So whilst the main dataset consisting purely of frontpage shots isn’t perfect, it is certainly still very useful. Also we generally identify newspapers based on their frontpage, not on their middle sections, and this blog post is primarily about how newspaper-like these publication were. Finally, if I had been lucky enough to get all the newspapers in full, that would be a huge analytical undertaking. Having an enforced smaller subset actually makes the analysis more achievable.

Third crucial point: to make a fair argument here, I also explicitly searched for a newspaper-like publications by each party that I felt were fair and acceptable, and for some that fell into a grey area. Frustratingly, I couldn’t find one for the Conservatives, and the one from the Green Party is arguably more a leaflet, but the three together still make for a useful baseline that we can measure the problematic publications against.

The baselines

You would be forgiven for wondering, why does it matter if election materials look like newspapers? And I would answer, it doesn’t, as long as they also clearly identify themselves as election materials as well. The reason for this is that we have certain expectations and ideals about newspapers and journalists. We expect at least a semblance of investigative impartiality. We expect newspapers to tell all sides of the story, or at least, to not cover up the truth. We expect journalists to reveal to us both the good and the bad, the self-interest and the disinterest, or in short, to tell us the whole story. We therefore, rightly or wrongly, accord newspapers a higher degree of trust and believe their contents more readily. By contrast, we expect political materials to only give the best version of events, to sing the praises of candidates whilst never revealing any wrongdoings, to put forward figures and results and policies that make them as appealing and impressive as possible. As a result, we tend to be rather less credulous about the claims and hyperbole in election material. Should a political publication therefore masquerade as a newspaper, it unfairly claims to itself a greater degree of trust and authority than we would general bestow upon it, and whether the discovery is made or not, if those claims later on turn out to be damagingly false, it potentially, or actually erodes our confidence in journalists and the media. This is an issue. Historically, journalists have held politicians and their claims to account.

Unfortunately, however, money and power have a deeply corrupting influence, and plenty of publications have assumed explicit political agendas, where they openly support one political party and denounce others. In short, whilst they are not supposed to be party propaganda, some produce material that could very well be seen as just such. This has in turn both shaped politics and also eroded public faith in journalism. But it has led to the rise of a new species of journalism – the fact-checker. (Some would say that this is what journalism always was but others would disagree. This blog post won’t get into that. You can always go read something on the philosophy and ethics of journalism if you find the topic interesting.) Now, when we doubt some claim or story, we turn not necessarily to a newspaper to get a fully rounded story, but to an organisation like FullFact or FactCheck. As we speak, such organisations hold both journalists and politicians to account. (One can only hope that this Guard of the Guards institution itself does not suffer a similar fate of underlying corruption.) The very fact that this third institution, the factchecker, is currently seen as the last bastion of truth is partly why the #factcheckUK debacle was such a problem. By contrast, this current affair of political parties mimicking newspapers is dabbling in waters that have already been long polluted by earlier political interest and interference, and so perhaps it seems less egregious somehow.

Anyway, having established that covertly emulating a newspaper is not something as political party should be doing, the first thing to note are the key elements that make a (local) newspaper look the part. If you’re going to emulate one, you have to know what you’re emulating, after all. Search for an image of any newspaper front page and you’ll see a pretty standard set-up. Across the top you have the masthead – the name of the paper, usually in its particular fonts and colours, sometimes with a logo like an eagle or a coat of arms or some other majestic emblem of journalistic integrity. The name itself will tend to reference the locale, e.g. Burnley, and be followed by one of the many synonyms of the genre – Star, Today, Bugle, News, Gazette, Mercury, World, etc. etc. etc.. There will be a large picture dominating the front, a main story will typically be attached to that picture, usually formatted into columns, and then in the margins at the sides or bottom, there might be a few more stories in columns, perhaps with smaller images. Within that there’s a lot of variation, of course, but that’s the main premise.

So I noted that three of the newspapers I collected were, in my view, unproblematic, and two were borderline. Let’s look at the three that passed muster.

Here we have a Green View, a Labour Today, and a Southport Focus. The former two use their party name as the “newspaper” name, making their political agenda extremely obvious. All three have party logos on them, further emphasising their allegiance. The Liberal Democrats even have their logo on twice. Get them. All three use their party colours (though Labour is in tricky territory here as we’ll see later), to the extent that the Liberal Democrat leaflet is dominated with yellow. The Green’s “headline” is “SAM COLLINS” (not really a headline at all), and then in far smaller font, it tells the reader to “vote” for someone. Labour’s headline tells the reader to “re-elect” someone. And whilst the Liberal Democrats use the most miserably contrived pun ever created by this species with “The Wright choice for Southport”, thereby failing at both headlines and at producing any clear linguistic mandate for voter-based actions, the page does have a classic voting box at the bottom with an X in it, implying as much through visual semiotics. Finally, the copy (the text) on each publication is not set into newspaper-style columns. Labour’s comes closest to looking like a small inset textbox, but I note the woman in the background seems as unimpressed with this as I am. In short, there are plenty of clues all over these that they are election materials produced by political parties or affiliates.

So let’s grade these papers for their obviousness:

FEATURES/OMISSIONS GREENS LABOUR LDEMS
Masthead looks like real newspaper name YES – 0 NO – 1 NO – 1
Headlines looks like real “breaking news” NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
Large image NO – 1 YES – 0 YES – 0
Newspaper-style columns NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
Misc. newspaper-style features (bullets, Courier New, insets, etc.) NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
Lack of prominent party name NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
Lack of political logos (excludes those in photographs) NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
Lack of obvious political colours NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
Lack of explicit voter-action message, e.g. “vote for”, “re-elect”, etc. NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
Lack of clear, easily legible imprint NO – 1 NO – 1 NO – 1
TOTAL 9/10 9/10 9/10

You’ll note that the first five features are not in bold. That’s because they don’t, in and of themselves, lead to duplicity. It’s those in combination with other missing signals (the latter five features) that are really problematic. In other words, if a publication does all the first five, it should also take a lot of trouble to NOT do the next five.

Anyway, to these three examples, well done. Gold stars all round. Thoroughly respectable scores. Now let’s take a look at the two questionable cases:

These look a lot more like local newspapers. Ranil’s headline is arguably less typical of an actual news story, and the sub-header descends ever further into classic politispeak, but Shaun’s headline could have come from many newspapers around the country. By contrast, Ranil’s frontpage doesn’t have a clear party logo anywhere, whilst Shaun’s has a small monochrome one in the bottom right. Both publications have main pictures, both have set the “stories” out in classic newspaper-style columns, and neither clearly use the house colours of their political parties. Unless you recognise their names or read the copy or spot the little logo on Shaun’s, I suspect plenty of people couldn’t identify the source of this election material, so I will give you a clue: it begins with a C.

All that said, there are also some obvious differences to real newspapers. Their mastheads are frankly something else. Unless you’re a crazed dictator in a small close-bordered country, it’s not likely that a genuine paper with any real circulation will call itself “News from Claire Hardaker” or just “Claire Hardaker”. It’s a big clue that something here is amiss. And Shaun’s ticklist called “MY CRIME ACTION PLAN” is another glaring clue. So too are subheadings like “Your choice at this election” on Ranil’s offering.

Okay, time to do some scores:

FEATURES/OMISSIONS RANIL SHAUN
Masthead looks like real newspaper name NO – 1 NO – 1
Headlines looks like real “breaking news” NO – 1 YES – 0
Large image YES – 0 YES – 0
Newspaper-style columns YES – 0 YES – 0
Misc. newspaper-style features (bullets, Courier New, insets, etc.) NO – 1 NO – 1
Lack of prominent party name YES – 0 NO – 1
Lack of political logos (excludes those in photographs) YES – 0 NO – 1
Lack of obvious political colours YES – 0 YES – 0
Lack of explicit voter-action message, e.g. “vote for”, “re-elect”, etc. YES – 0 YES – 0
Lack of clear, easily legible imprint NO – 1 NO – 1
TOTAL 4/10 5/10

Overall, then, I’m unimpressed with these offerings, since I suspect they would take the average person substantially longer to identify them as election materials than the first three, but they do have key differences.

So now we have an idea of what good and grey-area material looks like, let’s have a look at the publications that caused such a stir on Twitter…

Conservatives

I was able to acquire a total of seventeen Conservative “newspapers” – eleven frontpage-only examples, and six complete ones. These include:

Altrincham Future Pendle Future (full)
Camborne Future Pudsey Future (full)
Cheltenham Matters (full) Ranil Jayawardena (full)
Clwyd South Future News From Shaun Bailey (full)
Copeland Future Southampton Future
Croydon Central Future Stevenage Future
Gower Future West Bromwich West Future (full)
Hastings Future Workington Future
Loughborough Future  

Yep. They really did call most of them [Someplace] Future. You’ve already seen Ranil and Shaun’s so I won’t reproduce those again but here are three Futures for your delectation:

You’ll be thrilled to know that voters in Clwyd South will decide this election. Oh, no wait, the ones in Pendle will. Hang on, no, those in West Bromwich West will. Actually in Hastings. No! Loughborough! Aaaaand you get the idea. Essentially, these are not lots of different papers. They are largely the same content over and over. Two (Altrincham and Sale West, and Gower) have headlines reading “ACTION ON COUNTRY’S PRIORITIES” but on top of the same picture as the rest. And their left-hand margin story is entitled “More money to invest in country’s priorities”. By contrast, all the other Futures have “BREXIT DEAL AGREED AND READY TO GO” as their main headline, and “New Brexit deal agreed with EU” as their margin headline. “BUT!” you might argue, “INSIDE THEY COULD ALL BE VERY DIFFERENT!”

Sure. So let’s take a look at the innards of a couple of these fine publications:

Hmmm…

In short, then, this actually wasn’t a highly localised message delivered to just a few people in one small district. This was closer to political mass-marketing. Indeed, it looks like it’s used some sort of mail-merge database, resulting in highly similar material being distributed across the country.

Okay, so now we know that this generic “newspaper” with very similar or identical content went out to lots of people in lots of locations, does it really matter? I mean, how much do these even look like a real newspaper anyway? Well, let’s have a look at something that apparently constitutes a real newspaper:

So we have a striking similarity with the standard red-tab masthead. We have a classic headline, white font over a large image, just like The Sun (and that headline appears to be breaking news). We have a Courier New subheader (INSIDE: PM ON HOSPITALS, POLICE AND SCHOOLS) just like The Sun. And we have bullet points, just like The Sun. What we don’t have are any clear party colours, logos, or names. The word “Conservatives” appears in the copy once, in the left-hand column, where it reads, “So the fate of this deal rests on whether the country elects a Conservative majority”. The only other appearance of the word is CON at the top-right, alongside LAB and LD. If you actually want to find the imprint for this piece – that is, the disclosure of its funder and publisher, you have to look to the tiny font in white on the red bar at the bottom. It is literally illegible in all my photos, so I had to find a close-ups that people had helpfully taken:

Who is this Alan Mabbutt person? Oh, he’s just a senior member of the professional staff of the Board of the Conservative Party, who holds an OBE, and has virtually no online footprint whatsoever beyond appearing in the immortal phrase, “Promoted by Alan Mabbutt” on all kinds of Conservative pages and sites, including the infamous labourmanifesto.co.uk. I half wonder if he even exists.  I mean, how hard would it be to invent an online individual, really?

Anyway, the Electoral Commission has a series of factsheets on election material imprints (e.g. here and here and here) that boil down to the following:

Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, there are rules about putting imprints on election material. Election material is any material that can be reasonably regarded as intended to promote or procure the election of a candidate at an election. Whenever printed election material is produced, it must contain certain details (which we refer to as an ‘imprint’) to show who is responsible for the production of the material. This helps to ensure there is transparency about who is campaigning. We provide advice and guidance on these rules but we do not regulate compliance of them. Decisions on the investigation and prosecution of imprint offences are a matter for the police and the prosecution services, and any allegations of noncompliance should be made to the police. The rules on imprints apply to all candidates. This factsheet explains the rules you must follow.

However, what does this advice actually look like? Well, they define an imprint thus:

An imprint is added to election material to show who is responsible for its production. It helps to ensure that there is transparency about who is campaigning, and should therefore be clear and visible.

What should an imprint include?

On printed material such as leaflets and posters, you must include the name and address of the printer, the promoter, and any person on behalf of whom the material is being published (and who is not the promoter).

Where should an imprint appear?

If it is a multi-sided document, you must put it on the first or last page.

And what if you don’t do this? Well,

It is an offence for a printer or promoter to publish printed election material without an imprint.

Okay, so technically these papers have an imprint, and it appears on the first page, but it is really tiny, it is white (i.e. no ink) font on a red background, and if the ink bled or the transfer was smudged or your eyes are tired or you need glasses like me, it could be virtually, if not actually illegible.

To reach a final conclusion on this, let’s give these newspapers a score for transparency:

FEATURES/OMISSIONS Y/N POINTS
Masthead looks like real newspaper name YES 0
Headlines looks like real “breaking news” YES 0
Large image YES 0
Newspaper-style columns YES 0
Misc. newspaper-style features (bullets, Courier New, insets, etc.) YES 0
Lack of prominent party name YES 0
Lack of political logos (excludes those in photographs) YES 0
Lack of obvious political colours YES 0
Lack of explicit voter-action message, e.g. “vote for”, “re-elect”, etc. YES 0
Lack of clear, easily legible imprint YES 0
TOTAL   0/10

Liberal Democrats

Okay so what about the Liberal Democrat publications? Well, they were a more mixed bunch:

The Cheltenham Courier Oxford West & Abingdon Observer
 ~ Wantage Constituency Observer
Hampstead & Kilburn News  ~
Lambeth News Chelmsford Gazette
North West Leeds & Wharfedale News Eastleigh Gazette
Sheffield Hallam News Mid Hampshire Gazette
West Berkshire News Romsey & Southampton Gazette
 ~ Warrington South Gazette

So immediately, there’s a bit more variation. We have a Courier, an Observer, a News, and a Gazette. Blimey. Someone put some effort in. Because we only have one Courier we’ll leave that till later, but let’s have a little look at the other three types:

The first obvious point here is that there is far more variation across these papers. There are different designs – the tabloid-style News versus the middle-market Gazettes and Observers, different headlines and subheaders, different pictures, different footers, and so on. Unlike the Conservatives and their Future offering, a lot more effort seems to have gone into producing a variety of publications, perhaps so that they could each pass as separate, unrelated titles. But there are also notable similarities, with points clearly at central coordination. Seven of the thirteen headlines employ that worn out chestnut, “SETS/SETTING THE PACE”. Ten of them feature Jo Swinson, top right, as “THE PRIME MINISTER BRITAIN DESERVES”. Twelve of them have a main picture that involves apparently spontaneous eruptions of loyalty and adoration from placard-waving crowds surrounding and supporting the featured Liberal Democrat candidate. What were the odds that they all chose these exact features? (In sharp contrast, Sarah Lewis’ Lambeth picture seems to show her standing on the walkway of an urban high-rise housing complex by herself, but even she is wearing a party badge.) Crucially, however, even though the Liberal Democrats might point to those main pictures and say “Look! Our logos are all over this paper!” I would immediately rebut that. A photograph is a visual representation of events or people that a (genuine) newspaper does not necessarily espouse. It conveys information. It is not part of the paper’s own identity. Pictures are not endorsements or implicit disclosures of special (political) interest, otherwise our mainstream newspapers are endorsing all kinds of horrors.

But back to the point. There is also an interesting mix of disclosure across these different publications. For instance, the Hampstead & Kilburn News has a clear banner above its masthead stating “News from the Liberal Democrats”, whilst the Wantage Constituency Observer has a small heading below its masthead stating that it is “Paid for and delivered by Liberal Democrat volunteers”. Good stuff. I like this. Well done.

However, by contrast, in similar locations, others simply say, “News covering [X, Y, and Z region]” or “Free newspaper covering [X, Y, and Z region]”. What of the legally required imprints? Well, some have theirs at the very top of the page, others at the very bottom, some I can only guess have theirs on the back page, but whilst they all appear to be in black in (well done!) most are in extremely small font that is partially or fully illegible even on the good quality photos I have.

I can only guess here, but it looks in the case of the Conservatives as if a coordinated team in a central office somewhere made a decision to produce and publish the Future newspapers. By contrast, it looks as though the Liberal Democrats farmed out the idea, and even the templates – perhaps they targeted certain formats for certain constituencies, and then it looks as though those individuals were left to get on with the job. As a result, it looks like those people made different decisions about levels of party disclosure. This seems to be somewhat supported by the imprints that I can just about decipher. Unlike the Future newspapers which all appear to have been ordered into existence by the magnificent power of Mabbutt, OBE, each of the Liberal Democrat papers I have copies of appear to have been published and promoted at the request of different people. Closer scrutiny of the physical copies with a magnifying glass might reveal better information but for now, the evidence tentatively suggests that there was a far greater degree of delegation.

Grading these ones will, inevitably, be harder, because of the degree of variation between publications, so I’ve decided to award half-points where some have scraped over the bar and others haven’t:

FEATURES/OMISSIONS Y/N POINTS
Masthead looks like real newspaper name YES 0
Headlines looks like real “breaking news” YES 0
Large image YES 0
Newspaper-style columns YES 0
Misc. newspaper-style features (bullets, Courier New, insets, etc.) YES 0
Lack of prominent party name MANY ½
Lack of political logos (excludes those in photographs) YES 0
Lack of obvious political colours YES 0
Lack of explicit voter-action message, e.g. “vote for”, “re-elect”, etc. YES 0
Lack of clear, easily legible imprint SOME ½
TOTAL   1/10

Labour

Last but not least, let’s contemplate the one offering I found from Labour:

That’s right. The Bury Voice. Like some of the other offerings, this is a red-tab affair, however, this complicates matters, because Labour could argue that yes, they did indeed use their party colour, red, and so they have been less misleading. (For that reason, I’m removing colour as a factor for this paper.) But they didn’t use their party name in the masthead, and it purports to share, “Local news and views from Bury, Tottington and Ramsbottom”. Perhaps some of the people who produced this document are indeed from there but I doubt this paper provides quite the generality and breadth of perspective from the region as this suggests. The headline straddles an interesting grey area. On the one hand it gives a voter-directed command to “VOTE LABOUR” but it actually provides this in quote-marks, and just like photographs (which we’ll get to next), quoted content divorces the paper from direct ownership of those words. They are someone else’s content that is simply being reproduced. Meanwhile, like the Liberal Democrat offerings, we again seem to have a spontaneous enthusiastic political gathering on a lawn with plenty of clearly branded posters and placards. As before, however, logos in photographs don’t count in my view. They are not likely to be perceived as part of the paper’s own identity by the ordinary reader. That said, there is a clear Labour rose, bottom right, and the word Labour appears prominently in the headline, the bullets, the footer (point 3) and in the opening words of the copy itself (“Local resident and Labour candidate…”). Finally, I can’t see the imprint either because it was cropped or it’s on the back, meaning that I also can’t grade that aspect either.

So let’s score this one:

FEATURES/OMISSIONS Y/N POINTS
Masthead looks like real newspaper name YES 0
Headlines looks like real “breaking news” YES 0
Large image YES 0
Newspaper-style columns YES 0
Misc. newspaper-style features (bullets, Courier New, insets, etc.) YES 0
Lack of prominent party name NO 1
Lack of political logos (excludes those in photographs) NO 1
Lack of obvious political colours NA
Lack of explicit voter-action message, e.g. “vote for”, “re-elect”, etc. EH ½
Lack of clear, easily legible imprint ?
TOTAL   2½/8 (31%)

Final marks

In summary, the marks came in as follows:

PARTY SCORE PERCENTAGE APPROPRIATE EMOJI
Conservatives 0 out of 10 0% out of 100% 😭
Liberal Democrats 1 out of 10 10% out of 100% 😢
Labour 2 ½ out of 8 31% out of 100% ☹️

Of course, this is just a blog post and it’s a bit of fun and my views are subjective. You might perform the same analysis and come to different figures, and that would be an excellent example of a free and democratic system at work, but the main point here is that very few of these offerings made clear efforts to disclose itself as election material. In specific instances the Liberal Democrats did better, where their papers explicitly noted in easily legible prominent subheadings or text boxes that they were paid for and distributed by Liberal Democrats (whether supporters or volunteers). Further, the fact that there was only one Labour paper to assess means that this may be deeply unrepresentative of other offerings from them – if indeed, any other similar sorts of materials exist.

And this takes me onto the most important and serious underlying point of this whole effort. Disinformation, by its nature, is designed to fly under the radar. One could argue that the very purpose of this content’s chosen guise is to ensure that it is not (easily) recognised for what it is, and thus, less readily protested against. Whatever the case, all the problematic “newspapers” in the dataset are disappointing and troubling. They not only damage the face and credibility of politics, they also wear away at the foundation of the institution that has historically held politics to account – the fourth estate. Perhaps that is partly the intention, and if so, it will mean that the role of fact-checkers and other credible sources becomes ever more crucial as the information age evolves.

Addendum

You’ll be thrilled to know that literally as I was writing this up, yet another disinformation story broke about the use of letters from supposedly impartial experts. So that’ll be another blog post then, coming up, in a bit.

*sigh*

One thought on “The local news_apers: Tadmouth Gazette or Badmouth Gersatz?

  1. Pingback: Post mortem: dissecting letters from experts | Dr Claire Hardaker

Comments are closed.