How disinformation became a winning strategy

The Conservative victory in the UK election was driven by hatred of a broken political process inflamed by disinformation and media cynicism, argues Adam Ramsay of openDemocracy. Britain’s prime minister made politics awful, then asked people to vote it away.

The recent UK election was a quarrel about the character of politics. On the one hand, the Labour Party argued that it can be used for good, ‘for the many’. They promised to transform lives and communities, to take action on climate change and poverty. The Conservative Party, conversely, claimed that politics is bad. They promised to banish it from your life, to ‘get Brexit done’, so that we can all forget about it and get on with Christmas shopping.

The Conservative strategy was, therefore, simple: wage war on the political process, on trust, and on truth. Ensure the whole experience is miserable, bewildering and stressful, then ask voters to make it go away.

At the heart of this strategy was a campaign of disinformation and deceit.

According to independent fact-checkers, 88% of Conservative party Facebook adverts in the recent UK election contained lies, while only 7% of Labour’s did. During the first leaders’ debate, the Conservative party press office changed its Twitter account to ‘FactCheckUK’, granting itself a big tick, implying that it’s a verified, independent fact-checking service.

Boris Johnson was sacked from two previous jobs for lying to his bosses. His most famous contribution to journalism was the invention of the Euro-myth: laughable lies told by Britain’s press about the EU which framed England’s understanding of it for decades. He is famed for leading a campaign with a fabricated statistic on the side of a bus. Before becoming prime minister, he was already notorious for being wayward with reality. But in this election, he and his team and their fleet of well-funded outriders took lying from a character trait to a brutally effective political strategy.

‘All these policies are flying around’

On a rainy day in Crewe in the north of England, two days before the election, the devastating impact of these online lies became clear. Interviewing people on their cigarette breaks outside the concrete offices of the outsourcing company ATOS, I heard complaint after complaint about not knowing what to believe any more.

‘Am I receiving accurate information?’ asked Jade. ‘All these policies are flying around.’ Wes used very similar words, but went further: ‘There’s all these facts flying around on social media – you don’t know what to believe.’ He said he read about the election every day, and had come to a firm conclusion: ‘Policies? Democracy? Sod the lot of them – I don’t believe any of it.’

I’ve spoken to strangers in the street about politics regularly since 2003, in every corner of the UK and across the world, from Bethlehem to Boston. And I’ve become accustomed to the resigned disengagement of the late neoliberal era: ‘They’re all the same’, used to be the most common complaint, a version of the iconic slogan of capitalist realism: ‘there is no alternative’, the product of a society where decision making had been privatised.

In more recent years, as austerity struck and wages contracted, this shifted to ‘I don’t trust any of them.’ But in this election, that ratcheted up a notch. There is a new catchphrase, often almost spat with fury: ‘it’s just a pack of lies’ said Ian, outside a chain pub in the northern English town of Hartlepool.

Like many people I spoke to, there was a recognition of difference: ‘The worst is that top one, I call him Boris Karloff’, he said. But the effect of this wasn’t to make him vote Labour. It was to ensure that he, a long term Labour voter, now had so little faith in politics that he wasn’t sure if he’d vote at all.

In 49 of the 56 seats Labour lost to the Tories, turnout was down. One Labour activist, who had spent Election Day in an outer London commuter town reminding traditional Labour supporters to vote, told me that huge numbers of people who had backed the party in the past chose not to take part this time. In the constituency he was campaigning in, Milton Keynes North, turnout was down by 3.3%. The Conservatives got the same vote as in 2017, but their majority increased, also by 3.3%.

Perversely, the rage with politics has more of an impact on the left: the idea that the state can be used for the public good dissolves in a vial of distrust.

Campaign technologies and the far-right

That a mainstream political party in a major European country should win a sizeable majority based on a campaign intended to foment fury with politics is something that should concern us all. And so too should the tools it used.

Two years ago, whilst posing as a potential funder at a rightwing political event in London, I met a former employee for Theresa May who had recently taken a job with a company called UK Policy Group. He told me that he did the sort of public relations that you can’t commission – the kind of work where one chooses one’s clients.

A quick search of the UK company register and pooling knowledge with the NGO Spinwatch revealed that UK Policy Group was a new, British arm of an American company called Definers Public Relations. At the time, it was most famous for running the smear campaigns against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Definers subsequently changed its name after accusations of anti-Semitism: it was hired to spin for Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and was caught passing round a file about the Jewish billionaire George Soros, a significant funder of various groups who had been involved in highlighting the scandal in the first place – including openDemocracy.

I adopted a similar persona at the recent World Congress on Families in Verona, a gathering of ultraconservative and far-right parties from around the world. There, I met a tech-savvy political operative connected to the Tea Party and a range of Republican Political Action Committees in the USA. This man, Darien Rafie, was a specialist in getting bulk-emails through Google’s hate-speech filters, and using cutting edge data-extraction technology to prepare ‘get out the vote’ operations for Trump ahead of the 2020 elections.

At the World Congress on Families, Rafie told me how he gave regular advice to the European campaign group CitizenGO, who are famous for their brutal online campaigns. After waving a large theoretical cheque in front of CitizenGo’s iconoclastic director, Ignacio Arsuaga, he bragged to me about his organisation’s connections with far-right parties across Europe, and said he could spend my donation on smearing their opponents in the coming European elections.

Arsuaga introduced me to a senior figure in Spain’s far-right party, Vox, who compared CitizenGo to an American Super PAC, the new form of political action committee notorious for running bare fisted smear campaigns in recent US elections. Definers, whose UK staffer I met in London, is connected to the Super PAC America Rising.

A few days later, I was sat in the foyer of a swanky Spanish hotel with the smooth, American accented Vox spokesman Iván Espinosa de los Monteros. I asked him how many seats he expected his new party would get in the election:

‘We’re coming from scratch. There are 350 seats. It’s going to be a big number,’ he replied.

‘Are we talking three figures?’ I asked.

‘Not three,’ he said, ‘but the high twos.’

He invited me to Vox’s rally in a bullring south of Madrid that weekend, which he was compèring. A Spanish colleague sat apart from me and translated a string of sexist creeds into my Whatsapp. A man in front draped himself in a flag on which he’d written ‘Espagna de Facha: Vox’. Nationalist chants echoed around the steep stadium, and Spain’s new far-right force was convinced it was rushing towards a massive breakthrough.

In the elections which followed, though, something extraordinary happened. Turnout increased by 5.3%. Huge numbers of new voters showed up to block the first serious far-right party since Franco. Vox did get into the Spanish Congress, but they won only 24 seats: hardly the ‘high two’ figure numbers that Iván had assured me.

Speaking to me for this piece, Espinosa said he’d never heard a sexist comment at a Vox event.

But the story doesn’t end there. In November 2019, with no party managing to pull together a coalition government, Spain had a second election. This time, growing disillusionment with politics meant that turnout fell and Vox’s vote increased. They won 52 seats. ‘Seems like I was right about my number prediction’, Espinosa said to me, this week.

Manufacturing disillusion

In a sense, Vox was lucky. As a marginal party, it was able to tap into the distrust generated by the failures of other parties – the Catalan conflict, the difficulties of the Spanish economy, and persistent corruption scandals.

When Boris Johnson came to power in the UK in summer 2019, he was in a very different position: in government. As well as tapping into frustration at Theresa May’s failure to pass a Brexit deal, he had the levers to actively manufacture disillusion. By proroguing Parliament, spinning lies through anonymous media briefings, and railing against parliament, he waged war on faith in democracy.

Alongside this government-led war on truth and trust, Tories and their supporters launched an armada of outriders. Throughout the election, my inboxes filled up with screengrabs of Facebook adverts that friends and contacts were seeing from previously unknown groups, attacking Labour. Some of these pages were policy led. Others were more toxic: one page I uncovered promoted on Facebook an image that seemed to be calling for the assassination of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

When I investigated who was behind these pages, all of them presented themselves as grassroots groups. But in more than one case, I quickly found links to Britain’s organised right, to the public relations industry, and to the UK’s nexus of dark-money funded think tanks. Using the monitoring website Crowdtangle, I tracked the reach of these pages and found them spreading attack messages across the country: from the day the election was called to the day of the vote, videos posted by these pages were viewed 16m times – and it’s not possible to trace how many saw their images, gifs and memes. By contrast, anti-Brexit and pro-Labour outriders only managed around 4.7m video views.

It is pages like these that filled Jade’s Facebook timeline with spurious information. And Wes’s. And millions more besides. They helped create the sense that ‘they’re all liars’. They were designed to drive down turnout and up support for the ‘strong man’ who wasn’t promising too much, but who pledged to get politics out of your face rather than using it to improve your life.

Disinformation and the mainstream press

In the run-up to the election, a leading conservative commentator in the UK, the Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne, took aim at his colleagues. Writing for openDemocracy, he accused them of becoming ‘part of Johnson’s fake news machine’.

‘Dodgy stories and commentary linked to Downing Street or government sources started to appear in the press and media after Johnson installed his own media team,’ Oborne wrote. His criticism, though, wasn’t targeted so much at Boris Johnson – though that came later. Rather, he complained that his fellow journalists were too willing to repeat the claims of anonymous government sources, ‘feral smear merchants’, as he called them on TV. And when the government is led by a notorious liar, that opens up a motorway for disinformation.

After openDemocracy published the story, the ITV news editor, Robert Peston, wrote us a response, defending the use of anonymous sources. ‘Democracy is served’, he wrote, ‘when we know how people in politics think and speak.’

It was a statement that would come back to bite him. Three days before the election, a video circulated of Peston’s ITV colleague Joe Pike attempting to show Boris Johnson a photo on his phone of a sick child forced to sleep on the floor of a full hospital. Johnson refused to look at the phone, and instead took it and thrust it into his pocket. The exchange was seen by millions online, and became the main story of the day.

In an attempt to clean up the mess, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was dispatched to the hospital, where he was met by a protest. Here is how Peston himself, as well as the BBC political editor, the political editor of The Sun and one of Peston’s ITV colleagues reported what happened next.

Pushed by the country’s leading political journalists, the story that a protester had punched Hancock’s advisor went viral. It was seen by millions, as was the claim that Labour had paid for taxis to send a hundred protesters to the hospital.

There was a problem, though. Footage emerged showing that the reality was very different. There were only about five people protesting, and none of them had punched anyone. The story was a lie, invented by the Conservative party press office to distract from an image that summed up a decade of under-investment in the National Health Service. The journalists who had amplified this disinformation apologised for their mistake – precisely the error Oborne had warned them about – but whether any lessons have been learned is another matter.

Generally, however, the main broadcasters in the UK do not actively spread disinformation. While the UK’s biggest newspapers are a question for another day – The Sun, published what was literally a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory the weekend before the election – British TV and radio journalists have had a different role in the construction of political cynicism. They have not lied so much as bought into the idea that all politicians are the same, behaving as though it is their job to treat outright fabrications and ambitious policy proposals as the same category of claim. This bullshit balance and general sneering is just as significant as disinformation and smearing.

The night before the election, for example, the BBC’s ‘serious’ channel, Radio4, broadcast a montage of moments in the election aimed to make the point that all the protagonists had misled voters in different ways. Those who cut this clip together were very careful to ‘balance’ their coverage, criticising each party equally. No doubt they are dedicated to what they see as impartiality.

But once you understand that the key Conservative campaign message was ‘don’t trust politics, get it out of the way’, while Labour’s was ‘trust politics to transform your life’, you can see this for what it was: an advert for Boris Johnson. This message was the main theme of most coverage of the election, and it pointed directly to the Tory slogan: ‘get Brexit done’.

In general, the BBC had a poor election. A large percentage of its audience concluded – with good reason – that it was biased against Labour, or at least unable to cope with Johnson’s onslaught of lies. Trust in the BBC fell by 7% over the course of the election, with less than half of British views now seeing it as impartial. But this subtler tilt in its coverage – its promotion of political cynicism, its obsession with personality over policy – is much more serious than any other issue of potential unfairness in its reporting.

One of the most striking features of my conversations with people around the UK ahead of the general election was just how furious people are with this coverage of politics. ‘Childish’ was the most common word. ‘We just switch off’, one woman said.

Again and again, people complained that reporters did little to tell them what politicians were actually proposing to do for the country. Instead, they focussed on personalities, sniping and bickering. And this trend, to cover politics as though it is reality TV, rather than a negotiation about how we live together, is surely the most significant way that the media drives alienation and disengagement. It rides alongside disinformation and dark money as the horses of our democratic apocalypse.

Possible futures

There are two possible paths forward.

One was outlined to me whilst I was undercover in Italy by the Trump campaigner I met, Darien Rafie. He said he was CTO of a voter contact tool that his company would be using in the 2020 elections in the US. ‘There is a lot of stuff to be done with mobile phones and geo-fencing areas’, he said, not knowing my phone was recording in my pocket.

‘Say there’s a rally somewhere, like one of these big Trump campaign rallies, what we’ll do is we’ll draw a polygon around that event and then we’ll register all the phones that were there…’

‘So we get it all and then we follow those phones home, and then we know who they are, and what they do, and now I know what your Netflix unique ID is, and I’ve got your Facebook unique ID, so then I can communicate with you through a whole variety of ways.’

‘it’s very scary. Because you can correlate it to personal information very quickly. And then you can figure, OK, this guy likes Stranger Things…’

A couple of months after my conversation with Rafie, the US website ThinkProgress revealed a transcript that showed former Trump aide Steve Bannon claiming that CatholicVote – one of the organisations Rafie works with – tracks who goes into church, via their phones, and extracts data, presumably for Trump’s re-election campaign.

‘If your phone’s ever been in a Catholic church, it’s amazing, they got this data,’ Bannon said. ‘Literally, they can tell who’s been in a Catholic church and how frequently.’ This information was then used to target ‘get out the vote’ adverts in the mid-term elections in Iowa, Bannon claimed.

‘We can do it in Europe too’, Rafie told me of the tech.

Without action, Europe will slide into this geofenced future. Poisoned with disinformation, people are being persuaded to turn against increasingly unresponsive democratic structures. After generations of neoliberalism, citizens have become alienated from their states. Surveillance capitalists have the power to stoke their rage and to redraw the boundaries of their communities.

The fightback, therefore, is not a defence of our current institutions. To defeat disinformation, we must build political structures that connect people to the practical reality around them. We must nurture a verdant democracy that outgrows their cynicism. People are right to hate our outdated political systems. Unless democrats win the argument to replace them with real and deep democracy, we will lose.

This piece is published collaboration with openDemocracy.

Published 22 December 2019
Original in English
First published by openDemocracy / Eurozine

Contributed by openDemocracy © Adam Ramsay / openDemocracy / Eurozine



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