Public Policy

November 8, 2019

UK General Election 2019: Truth vs bubbles and the role of the analyst


The starter pistol for the election has fired this week, with many parties not even waiting for the official kick-off. Campaign launches have been popping up across London, while the rolling news channels have flicked from one political speech to another, without leaving time for me to grab my lunch.

Also, within these first few days of what is to be a frantic election campaign, we have seen so many misfiring’s from the political parties that I’m sure none of them would have successfully arranged a bonfire night celebration.

What is clear already though is the battle between what political parties say both through the media and social channels, and the role of the media and commentators in cutting through the claims to find the truth. Whilst all political correspondents live for these days, I do not envy them for the coming five weeks and the level of fact checking that they will need to undertake.

Before I delve into what we have seen this week in more detail, I should make one thing clear. I don’t and have never had alignment to a political party. I can tell you that during the recent general and European elections I have voted for different parties across the spectrum. I would be the absolute definition of a swing voter.

Onto this week. The Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and even the Greens have all kicked off with an arms race to reach the highest billion-pound figure possible on pledges for public spending – I am wondering whether anyone will reach a trillion. Yes, austerity is at an end and this campaign will show the purse strings being loosened, but all this money needs to come from somewhere. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation has shown that whether it is Labour or the Conservatives that end up in Downing Street, public spending levels will return to the highs of the 1970s.

Whether it is NHS spending, grants for home energy improvements or renationalisation, there are big and bold numbers being thrown about. For 99% of the population, these heady numbers will mean little and remain intangible, but that doesn’t mean they can go un-checked. Quite rightly the Chancellor was blocked from using the civil service to provide an analysis of the Labour policies. But this leaves a vital gap to be plugged by the media and other independent bodies, to provide the analysis and fact checking. In a post-referendum and “Trump-era” and the lessons that should have been learnt from this, the need for fact checking has never been greater. I look forward to seeing Ed Conway on screen in the coming weeks with his touchscreen analysis and a lot of graphs!

In elections gone-by, the role of the fact checker has often focused on what is said and written by the political parties in the media and in their manifesto’s. But now the media and institutions must increasingly play this role on what is said across social media, and the trending bubbles of discourse that take place. And it hasn’t been a great start in week one…

This week, the Conservatives have been accused of misrepresenting an interview by Labour MP Keir Starmer that appeared on Good Morning Britain. With some simple editing, the party was able to take what was a smooth response to a question, to make it appear that Starmer had no clear response and position to the Brexit debate. Posted on social media, the edited interview would have reached out to the echo-chamber of party followers, with targeted voters also reached by some careful data crunching and a few thousand pounds. Enter uproar.

Very quickly, and thankfully the media were onto this, and not letting it go unchallenged. Followed by a few rounds of interviews by Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly the party quickly found itself on the back foot, and defending the use of the video and the social post.

In a separate social bubble, the BBC has analysed the viral reach of a misleading story regarding Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson and her husband. While not, as far as we know, driven by a political party, the false story was posted on 248 different Facebook groups and pages, received 47,000+ interactions, with a possible audience of 1.5million. In an election where constituencies can be won by merely a few hundred votes, false stories that deliver this reach have incredible potential in swinging the minds of voters.

We have of course heard some of this before (£350m a week for the NHS, Cambridge Analytics) but 2019 is post this. The media, institutions and voters should be wiser to this, but, as we have already seen, that doesn’t mean that parties aren’t going to try their best to push the boundaries.

These initial instances from the first few days throw up three key questions and trends that we are likely to see continue over the coming five weeks:

  1. The growing need and role of media and independent bodies to not only fact check and hold accountable political parties on what they say and write in traditional media, but to also challenge the echo-chambers of social media
  2. What will be the lasting impact of these pledges and stories in the minds of the voters? As voters line up to vote on the 12th December, is it the doctored video of Starmer, or the un-checked billions of pounds pledged that come to mind, or the further and deeper analysis that uncovers the truth
  3. How much will parties risk on this front during the campaigning? Where will we see the line drawn on putting out messages that may or may not go un-checked as parties simply keep calm and carry on, versus the risk of them then having to face down the media, commentators and ultimately voters on what they have claimed

My advice, strap in and be prepared for what will become a campaign of who can get the closest to a trillion, whilst avoiding as much scrutiny as possible from the media, commentators and voters.