Fact-checkers have said the Conservative Party’s temporary rebrand of its press office Twitter account to appear as a fact-checking service was “self-evidently wrong” and had done “a disservice” to voters.
The account transformed into “FactcheckUK” during last night’s ITV leaders’ debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, which drew an average audience of 6.7m.
The party has said it was attempting to counter what it described as false claims about its policies on the NHS by Labour, but it has faced a backlash for the move in the era of “fake news”.
One fact-checker said it had been an “abuse of the term fact-check”.
Twitter has warned it will take “decisive corrective action” for “any further attempts to mislead people” through profile changes.
In the UK there are four predominant fact-checking services working to debunk false claims made during the 2019 general election campaign, alongside the factual reporting carried out by newspapers.
Full Fact is the UK’s primary independent fact-checking charity. Founded in 2009 it now has more than 20 management and staff members.
Earlier this month it published a guide for effective fact-checking for newsrooms to use during the election campaign, outlining elements of style, format and production that can make a difference to how fact-checks are perceived by readers.
As well as publishing fact-checks, Full Fact pushes for corrections where necessary to help slow the spread of misinformation, works with Government departments and research institutions to improve the quality of information at its source, and produces a fact-checking toolkit to help members of the public analyse claims themselves.
Chief executive Will Moy told BBC News today that the Conservative Party’s Twitter tactics had done “voters a disservice”.
“When people go online they’re looking for information they can trust and in our work we see that in all kinds of fields,” he said.
“We help people find accurate information about vaccines so they can make decisions about whether to vaccinate their children.
“We help people find accurate information about their finances so they can avoid being defrauded. We help people find accurate information about politics so they can make the choices they want to make on information day.
“Polluting that information space by pretending to provide independent fact-checking when you’re actually providing party lines, many of which were not accurate, is doing voters a disservice and ultimately if they get into Government they will need voters to trust them.”
Channel 4 Fact Check
Channel 4 News’ fact-checking service began as a temporary project around the 2005 general election and launched as a full-time offering in 2010. It now has a team of two dedicated fact-checkers.
The service decides what to analyse by both looking at requests from members of the public and constantly scanning the news for dubious claims from politicians.
Patrick Worrall, who heads up the team, told Press Gazette the service is “lucky to have a big social media presence and a curious, politically-engaged readership”. Its Twitter account alone has 92,000 followers.
Asked for his reaction to the Conservatives’ stunt last night, Worrall said: “This is not the first time people with a political axe to grind have posed as independent fact-checkers.
“In a way, imitation is a form of flattery, but it is self-evidently wrong for any partisan group to try to pass themselves off as fact-checking journalists.
“Luckily this time, the deception was spotted immediately and Twitter users made the strength of their feelings known.
“I would urge the Conservatives and everyone else to take note of the angry reaction and think twice before doing anything else that could look like an attempt to deceive voters.
“We are going to carry on checking the statements made by all sides in the important election campaign, and calling out falsehoods when we see them.
“The public can help us and other genuine fact-checking sites fight misinformation by telling us about dubious claims, then sharing our work.”
BBC Reality Check
The BBC’s Reality Check service was first run during the 2015 general election and again for the 2016 European referendum, but was made a permanent part of the news service in January 2017 as part of the news analysis team.
The team has five dedicated members of staff including an editor and a correspondent working on domestic stories. It has another six working on global stories aimed more at the BBC’s international audience.
But for the election campaign, leading up to the poll on 12 December, the team is extending its hours and producing “much more” coverage, borrowing staff from across BBC News with fact-checking, stats and policy interests.
Finlo Rohrer, news analysis editor, told Press Gazette there has “always been a need” for fact-checking services and the recent growth of the sector is a “recognition of the need for it as much as it is some ballooning of fake news”.
He said there is much more work to do in the UK fact-checking the words of mainstream politicians and other public figures than tackling any deliberately false stories put out online.
But this balance is different for BBC teams elsewhere in the world where deliberate disinformation is more rife, Rohrer added.
“Clearly we live in times when the discourse around politics is intensely contested but the readers and viewers remain just interested in getting to what the truth of it is, understanding stuff in the proper context and just [getting] information which is going to be useful to them in a really simple way.”
Fact Check NI
Northern Ireland’s first independent dedicated fact-checking service launched in 2016 with funding from the Big Lottery Fund.
As well as providing other services similar to the other fact-checkers, including free tools and information so ordinary people can check claims made by politicians and the media, Fact Check NI provides training in local communities.
Co-founder Orna Young told BBC Radio Foyle’s Breakfast Show the Conservatives’ actions were an “abuse of the term fact-check” and “could be considered deliberately misleading”.
“This goes to a wider issue in terms of public trust and confidence in politicians and political processes.”
Some national newspapers do their own “fact-check” articles online, most notably the Guardian which ended its Reality Check blog in 2016 but is currently doing similar work for the election.
In an editorial the Guardian said last week that misleading claims by politicians “must not escape challenge, while efforts by journalists, and charities such as Full Fact, to supply voters with accurate information must be redoubled.
“Attempts to withhold or mislead must be remorselessly exposed,” it said, adding that it would “do what it can to help” throughout the election campaign.
Picture: Reuters/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo