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Friday, November 22, 2019

Tories playing fast and loose on social media

If this is to be the election when social media finally comes into its own then it is possible that the Tories have blown it. Their antics on Twitter and elsewhere have thrown up a storm of protest, as they have used their online engagement for dirty tricks and alternative facts.

As if to compound their misdemeanours, when confronted by journalists over the party's misuse of the medium, senior Tories have dismissed concerns out of hand, claiming that nobody really takes notice of what happens on Twitter etc, outside the Westminster bubble.

I am not sure that is true. More and more people are engaging with social media, and expect political parties to use it honourably, albeit that everybody expects a level of hyperbole from politicians anyway. Just as importantly, the media coverage of dirty tricks does have an impact.

So what exactly have the Tories been up to. Well, they started off by doctoring a video which appeared to show Labour Brexit Spokesperson, Keir Starmer struggling to answer a question while being interviewed on Good Morning Britain. It was chopped to make it look like the Shadow Brexit Secretary froze when asked by Piers Morgan about the EU's willingness to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with Labour.

As Politics Home explains, Tory chairman James Cleverly initially tried to defend the video, which was viewed more than a million times, by claiming it had to be "shortened" for social media. But appearing on Good Morning Britain on Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak admitted the Conservatives had gone "too far".

Then there was the "misleading" video of Labour MP, Jess Phillips, shared online by an official Conservative account, supposedly showing her discussing election manifestos and the fact that parties can find it difficult to deliver on all of their promises, as part of a book tour last month. However, the video was edited to suggest that the comments were new and that the Labour candidate had specifically been referring to the Labour Party manifesto.

She was in fact, talking about Brexit policy during the interview, and her wide-ranging comments were in response to a general question about how well parties had delivered on their manifesto promises.

The big reaction came when Twitter accused the Conservatives of misleading the public after they rebranded one of their official party accounts to make it look like a factchecking service during the ITV leaders’ debate.

As the Guardian records, the party was widely criticised on Tuesday night when it temporarily changed the name of its Conservative campaign headquarters press office Twitter account, which is followed by nearly 76,000 users, to factcheckUK from its usual CCHQPress.

The account’s avatar was switched during the debate from the party’s logo to a white tick against a purple background, and the account was used to promote pro-Tory statements prefixed with the word “FACT”. Shortly after the debate finished, the Twitter account name was changed back to CCHQ Press.

It was at this stage that the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, defended the move and told BBC Breakfast that “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”. A claim that was disproved almost immediately by the reaction it generated.

And now we have the Tories setting up a website that purports to contain Labour’s manifesto, in a bid to trick voters looking for the document. The party paid Google to promote the website labourmanifesto.co.uk towards the top of its results for people searching for the opposition plan.

The website features a picture of Jeremy Corbyn at the top and the headline “Labour’s 2019 manifesto”. Once users are on the page, it notes in smaller writing further down that it is “a website by the Conservative party”. The page then launches into Tory talking points and PR messages instead of the party’s actual manifesto, which was released yesterday.

It is little wonder that these underhand tactics being employed by the Tories are leading them to be accused of running an authoritarian-style disinformation campaign to confuse voters about opposition plans.
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