Britain's Conservative Party was accused Wednesday of trying to deceive voters by changing the name of its press office Twitter account to "factcheckUK" during a televised election debate between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Rebranded to resemble a neutral fact-checking account complete with a big check mark, it posted a series of tweets supporting Johnson during Tuesday's debate. It later reverted to the name "CCHQ Press" and restored the party logo to its profile.
Organizations that seek to combat political misinformation cried foul.
"It was an attempt to mislead voters,'' Will Moy, chief executive of the London-based fact-checking website Full Fact, told the BBC. "And I think it is inappropriate and misleading for a serious political party to behave that way."
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defended the party's actions, saying the Twitter account was clearly linked to the Conservatives and claiming voters would not be perturbed by "the social media cut and thrust."
"We make no apology for having an instant rebuttal to all the nonsense and lies put out," Raab told the BBC.
Twitter said in a statement that it had "global rules in place that prohibit behavior that can mislead people." The company pledged to take "decisive corrective action" if there were any more attempts "to mislead people by editing verified profile information," but did not censure the Tories for their account switch.
The manipulation of the account in a high-profile event put the issue of the rise of digital campaigning squarely in the public eye.
All political parties are devoting much of their campaign spending to the digital realm as they battle to win the U.K.'s Dec. 12 election.
Despite parliamentary reports urging new regulations to combat misinformation or regulate the way digital ads are targeted at voters, officials in Britain have made no significant changes to laws governing online ads, social media and election disinformation.
In a reflection of the confusion, the Electoral Commission, which regulates campaign finances, issued a statement warning that "voters are entitled to transparency and integrity from campaigners in the lead-up to an election.'' Critically, however, it pointed out that it doesn't have "a role in regulating election campaign content.''
With the absence of law, campaigns have already been pressing the boundaries to get attention. The Conservative Party became embroiled in controversy earlier this month when it posted a video on social media containing a misleading edit of a television interview with Keir Starmer, a senior Labour Party figure. The video had been altered to show Starmer failing to answer a question about Brexit , when, in fact, he responded quickly. The chairman of the Conservative Party described the doctored video as lighthearted satire.
It comes as the Conservative Party is trying to raise its online game in this election, after being outperformed by Labour during the last campaign in 2017, when the opposition party exceeded expectations and the Tories stumbled.
The Conservatives have hired young New Zealanders Sean Topham and Ben Guerin to oversee digital strategy, and Australian Isaac Levido as overall campaign director. All three have worked with Lynton Crosby, an aggressive Australian political strategist who has long ties with the U.K. Conservatives
The trio have been credited with helping Australia's Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison pull off a surprise election victory in May, partly with high-volume, emotion-tweaking social media activity.
Guerin told a center-right political conference after the Australian election that winning "the battle of the thumbs" required varied means — videos, memes articles and more — to drive home the same core message, cranking up the volume of posts.
"It's an arms race for who can dominate the news feed," he said.
Early Conservative efforts in the British campaign included amateurish Twitter ads using the derided font Comic Sans. They were instantly mocked by opponents, which only amplified their reach.
In their first TV debate of the election on Tuesday, Johnson and Corbyn attacked each other's policies on Brexit, health care and the economy.
But the debate likely failed to answer the question that has dogged the campaign: Who can voters trust? The two leaders sidestepped tricky questions about their own policies in the hourlong encounter and drew derisive laughter from the studio audience at several points.
Both Johnson and Corbyn are trying to overcome a mountain of mistrust as they try to win over a Brexit-weary electorate.
Johnson is under fire for failing to deliver on his often-repeated vow that Britain would leave the EU on Oct. 31.
Audience members laughed when he urged voters, "Look what I have said I'm going to do as a politician and look what I've delivered."
Corbyn, a stolid socialist, is accused by critics of promoting high-tax policies and of failing to clamp down on anti-Semitism within his party. His refusal to say which side he would be on in a Brexit referendum was also met with hoots of laughter.
Televised debates are a relatively new phenomenon in British elections — the first took place in 2010 — and they have the power to transform campaigns. A confident 2010 appearance by former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg sparked a wave of "Cleggmania" that helped to propel him into the deputy prime minister post in a coalition government with the Conservatives. Clegg now works for Facebook.
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