After ‘deceptive’ election campaigns, UK fact-checking charity demands new ad laws

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The head of the UK’s leading fact check charity has called for immediate reform of the UK’s “dangerously out of date” election laws after a campaign in which political parties used tactics that were “deceptive and misleading and inappropriate”.

Will Moy, director of Full Fact, said the charity would be working with supporters in parliament to bring in new transparency rules on online advertising. The use of “doctored videos and manipulated videos” during the campaign was “beyond anything we have seen before”, he said.

Prime minister Boris Johnson made reference in October to a new ‘Electoral Integrity Bill’ and Full Fact said it would look at today’s Queen’s Speech for a commitment to genuine change. “If the government does not propose enough action then we will propose action ourselves,” he says. “We will, if necessary, draft amendments to any bill the government brings forward to ensure that there is proper transparency of election campaigning.” Full Fact has previously worked with Baroness O’Neill in the House of Lords to draft amendments to legislation.

Voters return to the polls in May for local elections and Full Fact is calling for more resources for the Electoral Commission which regulates party and election finances and standards. “We would like the Electoral Commission to play a larger role in understanding the role of online advertising,” says Moy. “They haven’t been given the resources they need to do that in such a fast-changing world when they have been running so many elections and referendums.”

The 2019 General Election campaign was fought out under the gaze of unprecedented amounts of media fact-checking. Yet online dirty tricks went up to a new level. Full Fact exposed Tory disinformation over plans to build new hospitals and increase the number of police officers. It called out Labour for online ads using an “unrealistic” figure on the cost of NHS drugs post-Brexit, and “exaggeration” in claiming millions of Waspi women are in poverty.

The Conservatives were caught out doctoring a video of Labour’s Keir Starmer and creating a derogatory “Labour manifesto” website designed to capture searches on Google.

“Principles which are set out in law for offline campaigning have not been applied online,” says Moy. “We saw all kinds of ways that the political parties pushed the boundaries of what’s possible online, either to make their argument or simply to get attention.”

He also says that the established rules on offline advertising were “fraying around the edges”, most obviously when the Liberal Democrats produced a series of leaflets designed to look like local newspapers. Moy says the law needs to be changed so that the authorship of the material is displayed in “big, visible, immediately identifiable ways”, not just in small print.

“Nobody should be looking at anything from a political party without instantly knowing that it’s from a political party,’” he says. “No sensible advertiser runs an advert which hides its brand and leaves you wondering what product it was meant to be selling. The political parties have tried to change minds without taking responsibility for the argument they are making.”

All this has happened in spite of a surge in public and media interest in specialist fact-checking services. Channel 4’s pioneering FactCheck and the BBC’s Reality Check were busier than ever.

During the campaign Full Fact partnered with Sky News and the London Evening Standard to analyse claims. It appeared each week on the radio shows of Eddie Mair (LBC), Stephen Nolan (BBC Radio 5 Live) and Eamonn Holmes (talkRadio). It worked with ITV News to scrutinise what was said in its leaders’ debate.

Full Fact operates from offices off London’s Pall Mall and has a team of 27, recruiting from organisations as diverse as the Office for National Statistics, the National Archives and the Press Association. Its editor Tom Phillips is a former editorial director of BuzzFeed UK.

On its website, the charity published 110 ‘fact checks’ which were integrated into Google searches and Facebook’s algorithms. The site had 2.5 million visitors and the charity was mentioned 4,000 times in the media. Its election work was backed by the Nuffield Foundation and 2,265 individual donors who responded to a request for support.

It was ironic recognition of the value placed on fact-checking when the Conservatives rebranded their official Twitter account to ‘factcheckUK’ in order to give added credibility to their rebuttal of comments made by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during a televised debate. Under the current arrangements, parties can almost do what they like. “Ultimately the political parties determine the standards that they adhere to in an election and the shape of the debate. It’s up to them to show self-restraint,” Moy says.

The ability of independent fact-checkers to understand the scale and scope of online political advertising campaigns appeared to have been aided by the introduction early in 2019 of the Facebook Ad Library, which gives information on party spending on individual ads.

But Moy says the data is far too limited. “It wasn’t possible to have an overview of the paid-for campaigning that was going on online [or] to fully understand who it was reaching and who was behind it, what they were trying to do and what difference it was making.”

Instead of this “mish-mash of voluntary transparency”, new laws must ensure that the platforms publish in machine-readable formats the full content, audience reach, spend and demographic targeting of online campaigns. But he says Facebook and Google “deserve credit” for “taking the initiative when parliament has done nothing to provide for election transparency”.

The campaign has further tested public trust in the media, with the BBC coming under attack from all sides. Moy says that journalists can do more to counter political disinformation, such as by limiting the practice of using anonymous quotes and by applying greater scrutiny to ‘right of reply’ comments. “[Political parties] know that you get a rebuttal quote at the bottom of any story and what you say in that quote largely is unscrutinised,” he says. “[This} can be used aggressively to get misleading messages to the public - which is the opposite of the purpose of journalism.”

As for the BBC, he thinks it needs to think carefully about the demands its multi-platform reporting model places on political journalists. “The major broadcasters are asking their political editors to do impossible jobs and be an expert on the political parties one minute, and then an expert on constitutional law, parliamentary procedure, trade negotiations, then social care policy,” he says. “[They do] a three-minute slot on BBC1 here, a quick interview on Radio 4 there, 800 words on this and a podcast on that. If you ask so much of anyone, however intelligent and knowledgeable, they will end up making a fool of themselves because the job is impossible.”

In 2020, Full Fact will launch its own training scheme for journalists and others to learn its fact- checking methodology.

With a majority government in place - a rarity in Full Fact’s decade-long history - Moy is expecting “a lot more domestic policy to fact check”. He points to the wider consequences of falling public trust in official information, such as parents refusing to vaccinate their children. To scrutinise such matters, Full Fact will press the government to “dramatically improve the quality of data it provides” relating to decisions on public spending.

“We are ambitious about learning the lessons from the (more than 4,000) fact checks we have done and demonstrating how we can make public debate better and more informed,” says Moy. “There is an opportunity for us with the team we have in place to make more of a difference than we ever have before.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.