The Conservatives have come under fire in the last couple of days over their Twitter debacle. For those fortunate enough not to have followed the events, during the televised debate between Corbyn and Johnson on ITV, CCHQ altered their Twitter profile so as to appear as if they were an independent fact checking organisation, called FactcheckUK. The Twitter 'blue tick' gave the impression that this was a real organisation, verified by Twitter. True, tweets also displayed the CCHQ handle, but this is much less prominent, and many users would not even know who CCHQ are. In any case, it is very difficult to imagine a motive for this change other than to deceive. What's more worrying is this isn't a one off event. It's a pattern of behaviour we are seeing increasingly often, and unless I am mistaken, it is all coming from broadly the same group of people with the same campaign strategists. Conservatives are using either fake institutions or falsely appropriating the credibility of real ones in order to disguise party propaganda as trustworthy independent analysis.
The first examples of this were during the 2016 referendum campaign. Vote Leave, an organisation largely run by Conservative strategists, notably including Dominic Cummings, produced leaflets encouraging voters to support Brexit as a means of helping the NHS. They produced leaflets which used a (slightly changed) NHS logo, using a leaflet format (font, colour scheme, layout etc) almost identical to those produced by the NHS. These appear to have been distributed in hospitals, with the words 'Help protect your local hospital' on the front. In doing so Vote Leave were misusing the institutional kudos of the NHS to add credibility their material. True, the leaflets also had the Vote Leave logo, and you might think that many people would realise what was going on. But some might not, which is why such deceptions can be effective. Indeed, Vote Leave were called out on this by the Treasury Select Committee during the campaign for this very reason, as can be viewed here:
Another, somewhat less egregious example of this behaviour during the campaign was this leaflet sent to households shown on the right here. The title page reads 'EU Referendum Facts', and the leaflet uses the independent sounding address www.eureferendumfacts.org, but the material was in fact produced by Vote Leave.
This strategy appears to have been repeated after the referendum, albeit with somewhat more organisational effort. In 2017, Conservative MEP and former Vote Leave committee member Daniel Hannan set up the pro-Brexit think tank IFT, whose launch event was attended by Boris Johnson. The organisation was initially called the Institute for Free Trade, but the organisation had to change its name. This is because the word 'Institute' is a protected title only given to reputable academic institutions publishing high quality research. The organisation managed to keep its acronym by changing their name to the Initiative for Free Trade. Once again, the effect of the exercise would have been to use misleading naming or presentation to pass of partisan material as that of a reputable, non partisan organisation.
There is a certain irony to all of this. Michael Gove famously said in 2016 that people had 'had enough of experts' from institutions 'with acronyms', and amongst many this remark has become symbolic of a particular style of politics. But in reality, those who practice that style seem to be fully aware of the power and kudos that can come with expert analysis backed up by trusted and respected institutions. This is why the strategy they seem to be pursuing is so dangerous.