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'Organic but organised': How misinformation is spreading in the UK election campaign

A photo of a young boy on a hospital floor and a punch-that-wasn’t have shaped the debate ahead of tomorrow’s election.

CONCERNS HAVE BEEN raised about the impact misinformation could have on the outcome of the UK election.

There is much debate online about the veracity of claims and images being shared in recent days.

One of the central stories in this conversation involves the image of a four-year-old boy lying on the floor of a hospital in Leeds. The photo of Jack Williment-Barr has sparked outrage – but it also provoked claims it was staged.

Many people said Jack’s story was symbolic of the cuts made by the Conservative Party to the health service in recent years. At the same time, a large number of accounts spread the notion that it was misinformation shared to damage the Tories ahead of tomorrow’s election.

When Joe Pike attempted to show Prime Minister Boris Johnson the image on Monday, the Tory leader took the journalist’s phone and put it in his pocket.

Johnson initially refused to talk about it but, when pressed by Pike, took the phone out of his pocket, looked at the image and said: “It’s a terrible, terrible photo. And I apologise obviously to the families and all those who have terrible experiences in the NHS.”

The journalist who broke the story, Daniel Sheridan of the Yorkshire Evening Post, said the image is genuine and noted that the hospital has apologised.

Sheridan said he verified that the image was real before the story was published. He contacted Leeds General Infirmary about the photo, which was sent to him by Jack’s mother Sarah.

Jack was rushed to the hospital by ambulance on 3 December with suspected pneumonia. Sarah claimed that her son was left in a clinical treatment room for over four hours and laid down on a pile of coats on the floor for comfort.

Dr Yvette Oade, Chief Medical Officer at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, confirmed that Jack’s family had received an apology after the incident.

“We are extremely sorry that there were only chairs available in the treatment room, and no bed. This falls below our usual high standards, and for this we would like to sincerely apologise to Jack and his family,” Oade said in a statement.

Sheridan said Sarah had no issue with the treatment Jack was given by the doctors or nurses, but wanted to highlight that the NHS was “in crisis”.

‘I’m a former nurse’ 

Despite the hospital’s statement, rumours that the image was staged gained traction earlier this week. 

Posts with the exact same wording, purported to be written by current or former nurses, claimed that the image was staged. Some of the posts were shared thousands of times on different accounts on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

very int Source: Facebook

former nurse Source: Twitter

Some people with large followings on social media – such as Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson (47,500 followers) and former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen (3.9 million followers) – shared the theory that the image was staged, as outlined by Professor Marc Owen Jones and others on Twitter.

Allegedly hacked 

Storyful has traced what appears to be the first Facebook post of this type to a woman in England. The post appeared on her account just after 8pm on Monday and quickly gained traction, being shared hundreds of times.

The original post said “I am a nurse myself” and mentioned a “good friend” at who worked at Leeds General Infirmary. It claimed the boy in the photo “was in fact put there by his mother who then took photos on her mobile phone and then uploaded it to media outlets”.

When contacted by Storyful, the woman claimed her account was hacked and that she didn’t share the post herself, something that has yet to be verified. The woman claims to have received death threats and said she has contacted the police about the situation.

“The woman was incredibly upset by this, she said her account was hacked, she said she has received death threats and contacted the Metropolitan Police – so there’s a human element to it.

“Her view is that her account was hacked and used in a malicious way,” Joe Galvin, Director of News at Storyful, told TheJournal.ie. He said the woman in question didn’t have a large following and the fact the post “rapidly proliferated” would suggest “a coordinated effort”.

“It grew from that and ended up being shared hundreds of times, possibly over 1,000 times. There’s no evidence of bot accounts, it looks to be predominantly Conservative supporters who were really sharing it as a method of highlighting what they feel is inaccurate.

We don’t know how coordinated this was in terms of being spread, that’s the unanswered question, but it would appear that there was some coordination in it spreading so rapidly.

Galvin noted that in the past the Conservative Party has encouraged supporters to share specific messages on Facebook and other platforms. He said the sharing of posts about the image of young post “probably organic – yes organised, but organic”.

At the time of publication, Facebook had not responded to a request for comment about the alleged hacking or death threats. 

The platform has a number of measures in place “to fight the spread of false news” and said it “building new products to curb the spread” of misinformation and “helping people make more informed decisions when they encounter false news”. 

Aggressive enforcement  

Galvin said dealing with misinformation is a huge challenge – even if a story is debunked, many people who saw posts containing false information won’t see a later clarification and the lie often continues to be shared.

“A piece of misinformation that goes viral is very hard to contain, no amount of debunking will prevent it from being shared – that’s the challenge,” he explained. 

According to the Reuters Digital News Report (Ireland) 2019, over one-third (37%) of people in Ireland said they use Facebook as a news source and 12% use Twitter for this reason. Six in 10 (61%) people questioned sad they are concerned about what is real and what is fake on the internet.

When asked about how it helps stop misinformation from spreading on its site, a Twitter spokesperson said: “We’re committed to improving the health of the public conversation on our service, particularly during elections.

“To this end, platform manipulation is strictly against the Twitter Rules. We will take aggressive enforcement action if we identify this behaviour on our service.”

The spokesperson added that Twitter has a number of measures in place to ensure a “healthy, open, and safe” online debate about the UK election.

The punch-that-wasn’t

The hospital photo wasn’t the only story making headlines this week in terms of false information being spread.

On Monday a number of political journalists including the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston tweeted that a Labour activist allegedly punched an advisor to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, citing Conservative sources.

Video footage of the incident showed that no punch was thrown and the advisor had instead walked into the outstretched hand of the man in question (about 35 seconds in).

Both Kuenssberg and Peston later corrected themselves, saying no punch was thrown, but the initial claims had already been shared thousands of times.

Many people were critical of the fact two experienced and influential journalists shared the claims without first confirming what happened.

Galvin said given how easily false information can spread, regardless of the account from which it originates, it’s “dispiriting” to see respected journalists “who should know better, parroting a party line”.

There are two sides to the disinformation coin – coordinated campaigns that are run by political parties or bad actors to get a particular message out and what I suppose you’d call the classic ‘spin’ element – journalists being hoodwinked by spin doctors or party figures; the classic ‘unnamed sources’ being quoted, that kind of stuff.

When rumours of the punch-that-wasn’t started to circulate online, Galvin said Storyful rang West Yorkshire Police who said they were not aware of any such incident taking place. He said journalists always need to be rigorous when verifying a story but that this is particularly true ahead of an election or referendum.

He said, even after the story was debunked, the claim was still being shared on social media and had a “huge impact on the online debate” in recent days.

“It’s dispiriting to see mainstream journalists making such basic errors in their reporting at such a crucial time,” Galvin added.

International influence

Concerns have been raised in recent years about potential international interference in election and referendum campaigns in recent years after US intelligence agencies accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 election which saw Donald Trump become president.

Galvin said there hasn’t been much evidence of international interference in the UK election campaign, bar Reddit accounts with links to Russia sharing alleged plans by the Conservative Party to privatise the NHS.

He said it’s “incredibly important” for social media platforms to have measures in place to stop the spread of misinformation, particularly given the impact it could have on the outcome of elections.

However, he said legislation is needed in this area as self-regulation “just doesn’t work”.

Policy decisions need to be made at a government level that will regulate these platforms, and then social media platforms can make decisions on that basis instead of on-the-fly and getting them wrong.

Galvin said the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum were likely somewhat influenced by misinformation. He said while the spread of misinformation is also a concern in Ireland, it’s “easier to influence the outcome” of an election or referendum when it’s a simple choice of yes or no, or one person over another.

“[Ireland] should be concerned about it, but I don’t think we’re as under threat as other countries. The PR-STV system offers a little bit more protection, it’s not as easy to undermine it as with a binary yes or no choice.”

A general election is expected to be held in Ireland next year. Galvin said “certainly we should expect to see some level of disinformation at play” during the campaign, but “because we’re a small country at the periphery of Europe, we possibly aren’t seen as a major target like the US or UK” in terms of international interference.

He said the far-right and alt-right are still “fringe” movements in Ireland, but they are growing, noting: “They do have an impact on our discourse, that was writ large during the debate on Direct Provision.”

He said certain accounts with large followings can help the spread of misinformation – something platforms are trying to address but are struggling to keep on top of.

“Platforms are making decisions without a total grasp of where we are. There is a need for Irish and EU law and regulations so platforms can’t have any excuse. As long as platforms have to self-regulate, they will continue to make mistakes, it’s a big challenge.”

Will you be staying up to keep track of the election results tomorrow? At TheJournal.ie we’ll be liveblogging all night to bring you all the major developments as they happen. Before dawn on Friday we’ll break down exactly what you need to know about the results and the likely consequences for Brexit.

Our overnight team will also be bringing you a special early morning edition of our weekly The Explainer podcast on Friday – and if you’re a subscriber to our Brexit newsletter you can expect a bumper edition into your inbox too before your first coffee of the day has cooled.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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