Fact-checking the election campaign: online ads, fake Twitter accounts and doctored videos

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First Draft, a global non-profit organisation that tackles online disinformation, is keeping close tabs on disputed content and media manipulation during the general election campaign.

Investigations from their collaborative CrossCheck project – in which newsrooms around the country share tips, emerging narratives and insights – have yielded a number of interesting stories.

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Over the next few weeks we will be detailing both the sophisticated and primitive tactics being employed online.

How the parties are using online ads differently

The new digital battleground for the hearts and minds of voters is being waged through online ads. On Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter and Snapchat, anyone can bypass the traditional distribution lines of newspapers and broadcasters to post a political missive faster, easier and more directly than ever before.

By reaching out to narrow subsets of the population, anxieties and wedge issues can be triggered without any appreciable oversight and for a low cost.

This has been going on for years but stories like the Cambridge Analytica scandal have led to greater transparency from the tech giants in allowing anyone to see political or issue-based ads. And this election is the first time anyone can see what ads the campaigns are promoting.

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Political parties in the UK’s general election have adopted vastly different ad strategies. Between November 5 and 13, the parties veered between micro-targeting and a firehose approach on Facebook, Instagram, Google and Snapchat, according to First Draft analysis of their ad libraries.

During this period, the Lib Dems ran some newly-created 1,551 advertisements over the first week, but the Conservatives were the biggest spenders over the period, pumping more than £50,000 into their 56 adverts.

From soft colour palettes to macho slogans, Facebook’s Ad Library is offering up fascinating insights into the tactics the mainstream parties are deploying towards different parts of the population.

Boris Johnson and the Conservatives' election message is clear (Photo: Getty)

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One Conservative ad running on Facebook and its owned-subsidiary Instagram depicting Boris Johnson has exclusively reached male users under 34. With neon graphics and a rousing 80s soundtrack, its message is to back the party leader to ‘Get Brexit Done’.

But a different version of the same ad has exclusively reached men and women over the age of 55 — this time with classical music and a softer colour palette. As well as Brexit, it mentions the NHS, schools and safer streets, described in the ad as the ‘real issues’.

Andrew Neil under fire for posting doctored video

A pro-Conservative Twitter account called “News Addict” shared a video of a BBC interview with Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in the House of Commons, on the day the party’s campaign was launched. The video however had been edited to make Blackford appear flustered and unable to answer questions about the NHS.

Veteran BBC reporter Andrew Neil was caught out by the misleading footage and retweeted it, which led to widespread criticism and was followed by an apology.

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Ian Blackford struggled under Nick Robinson’s tough questioning but I now realise the previous tweet on this was edited to make it look worse than it was. This gives a better flavour. I will delete previous and also post whole show so you can see interview in full https://t.co/WUjyQlwdsr

— Andrew Neil (@afneil) November 9, 2019

The video has been viewed more than 22,000 times. Doctored videos and targeted misinformation campaigns have been a feature of this election campaign, with thousands of users and some media houses either deliberately or inadvertently posting and sharing misleading information.

Can the real Wayne Bayley please stand up?

A fake account impersonating Wayne Bayley, a short-lived prospective parliamentary candidate for the Brexit Party from Crawley, was suspended on Tuesday November 12 after posting several insulting tweets targeting Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.

Farage announced on Monday that his party would not field candidates in constituencies where the Conservative Party had won in the past, thereby removing around 300 of their prospective candidates from the campaign.

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An unverified account called @Wayne_BayIey responded to the announcement by sharing a tweet from Farage’s account with the caption “F*** your election strategy and F*** Boris”, and continued publishing foul-mouthed tweets criticising Farage’s announcement.

Hundreds of Twitter users interacted with the tweets, assuming them to be genuine, which caught the attention of several news organisations. First Draft chose not to link to these stories to avoid amplifying the misinformation.

The fake and the original accounts were virtually indistinguishable, with one username @wayne_bayley and the other @Wayne_BayIey. Both were created in 2019.

Nigel Farage speaking at a Brexit Party event (Photo: Getty)

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First Draft was able to verify that @wayne_bayley was indeed the original account. The fake account used a capital ‘i’ in place of the ‘l’ in ‘Bayley’, and by mapping the real Bayley’s social media presence for additional context.

A spokesperson from the Brexit Party confirmed that @Wayne_BayIey was fake, and Bayley himself told First Draft: “Somebody created a fake account and they posted several things that are not true on my election campaign and on being refunded by [Nigel] Farage.”

The fake account was later suspended by Twitter.

First Draft is a global non-profit that tackles disinformation and media manipulation. CrossCheck is our global network for collaborative reporting and research between newsrooms.