When I started thinking about the Election I thought that it would be good to write a series of blogs exploring how the environment was being treated, both in the Manifestos and in the Campaign. But, as has happened with Brexit over the last nearly four years now, other things keep catching my eye.
Once the Tories reveal their manifesto I will do some compare and contrast on environmental policies – suffice to say that offerings from the Greens, Libdems and Labour hold few if any surprises – aside from the fact that Labour in the end decided not to enter the Tree-Planting bidding war, and merely said they would plant lots of new trees.
The thing that has really come to the surface this week has been what I call Tory Dirty Tricks. Now you may think, isn’t that just what Tories do anyway? Well, yes… but this week has seen them take this to a new level of egregiousness. Of course, Propaganda is as old as politics – and all parties, all persuasions use it to some degree. I’m old enough to remember those billboard adverts telling us “Labour isn’t working” back in 1979, during that fabled Winter of Discontent. While the strikes were real, the label was itself a creation of the right wing media, and it resonated with the public, fed up with a Labour Government fighting with the Unions – who were supposed to be its friends.
Somehow billboards covered in pictures showing ridiculously long queues for the job centre, where it was obvious who was putting across the message, seem quite quaint by today’s standards. We’ve been treated with two examples this week of propaganda of quite another stripe – more akin to the sort of thing Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL does to swing elections – otherwise known information warfare or psyops.
Firstly during the Leadership Debate the Conservative Press Office twitter account rebranded itself as a fact checking website, and proceeded to spew falsehoods about Labour’s policy positions. This, as digital law expert and commentator Paul Bernal points out, is in direct contravention of Twitter rules on verified (blue tick) accounts. Further, Bernal notes that it undermines legitimate fact checking sites – and this may actually have been the reason they did it. Twitter told them off but took no action to stop them.
As if spurred on by the fact that they got away with this brazen act of propaganda (way beyond what might be termed Fake News), the main Conservative Party account activated a campaign on the day Labour launched their manifesto. This was based on the hashtag #costofcorbyn, but it built upon a previous action on the 10th November, when the Tories launched a website called http://www.costofcorbyn.com – which various frontline Tory politicians promoted during the Sunday round of political programmes, when they spread the lie about Labour’s £1.2Tn spending plans. This website is actually there to grab personal data (Add you name to Stop Jeremy Corbyn!) so gullible voters can be targeted with much more propaganda via email or micro-targeted Facebook ads (yes we’re back to Cambridge Analytica again) – the website is there essentially as a “lead capture trap”, for gathering personal data. So far, typical Dominic Cummings.
What happened yesterday was far more concerning, in that the Conservatives created a fake website by buying a relevant web domain LabourManifesto.c.o.uk and using this to attack Labour and Corbyn specifically. Once you get to the website it’s made reasonably clear that it’s a spoof/fake. But the tweets that the main Conservative Party account put out all through the day yesterday did not make that at all clear. Far from it. It was obvious that they were trying to deceive. Here’s one of the offending tweets.
When I mentioned that I had reported this and several other tweets to twitter for misleading voters, various people suggested that it was obviously a spoof and all part of the electoral cut and thrust. This is nonsense. Social Media operates on the basis that people have limited time to scrutinise what passes in front of their eyes, and that much information (including ads) is absorbed subliminally. This is why so much advertising spend is now focused on social media, and is increasing every year. This is why advertising is such a huge industry!
We’ll see whether Twitter takes any action – but I’m not holding my breath. No doubt further emboldened by the fact that they have once again got away with something that would never be allowed in a newspaper or tv ad, we can only guess what will come next.
Perhaps they have created some “deep fake” videos of Jeremy Corbyn building a bomb for the IRA. Or uttering some foul anti-semitic remarks.
It doesn’t really matter what the next move is. The point is that the Tories (so far only them of the main electoral contenders) have decided that there are no lines that cannot be crossed, all tactics are acceptable to use, because winning is all that matters. When you consider this in the context of suppressing the report on Russian interference in UK elections, the Parliamentary dirty tricks around prorogation; and abandoning efforts to get the Brexit deal through Parliament, in favour of this election, a clear pattern emerges.
The only thing that Johnson cares about is winning, even if that means undermining and damaging what is already a crumbling edifice of democracy – and democratic accountability, in particular. Obviously there are policies (which we shall see clearly once the Tory manifesto has been published) that everyone should be worried about. But actually I think these are less important than what’s happening now.
Because the idea that elections are “no holds barred”, any tactics can be used, will become the norm if we allow it.
As I wrote previously, I thought people argument’s in favour of a second EU referendum were deeply flawed, principally because nothing had been done to stop the widespread cheating and lying that epitomised the first one. That point still stands. But what is clear is that the Tory team running this campaign (many of whom worked in the Vote Leave campaign team) is using exactly the same approach as they did in the Referendum.
Well… it worked for them last time, didn’t it.