Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Online falsehoods and dark money targeting Bristol voters

In the key marginal of Filton and Bradley Stoke, voters' Facebook feeds are being filled with lies... but is it changing how they'll vote?

Adam Cantwell-Corn
28 November 2019, 5.37pm

This article is part of a collaboration between openDemocracy and the Bristol Cable

Up until the 2017 General Election, Daniel was anything but a floating voter, having been loyally Conservative his whole life. The 37-year-old solicitor was even a party member for a period. But his recent political history shows the contortions the country has found itself in since the EU Referendum in 2016.

“Brexit has morphed the Conservatives beyond all recognition,” he tells the Cable, and stopping Brexit is now his primary concern. To further that aim he has now joined the Lib Dems. But in a further twist, he is considering a vote for Labour in the marginal constituency of Filton and Bradley Stoke, held by the Tories and where the Lib Dems got just 6% of the vote in 2017.

Like millions of us, how he engages online in the run up to 12th December will be key in a campaign that will be fought through your screen as much as on the doorstep or traditional media.

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Hundreds of thousands have already been spent on paid-for adverts by the parties on Facebook and Instagram as they try to win votes, or at least put you off voting for rivals. Alongside parties, there are unofficial and affiliated groups and campaigns pushing various messages onto your feed, with varying levels of transparency, accuracy and ethical standards.

One thing is for sure, incidents like the Conservative Party’s Twitter account masquerading as FactCheckUK during the Corbyn v Johnson TV debate have cemented Daniel’s rejection of his former political home. “They’re just behaving like a bunch of students, like it’s all a big wheeze,” he says. “But it’s not, it’s people’s lives, the country’s future. If you’re going to start going around doctoring things and misleading people then I don’t know how we get past this.”

‘Some people now believe that Jeremy Corbyn wants to kill an eight-and-a-half-month-old baby’

Alongside the Facebook adverts of Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson or Boris Johnson’s face, or Labour’s plans for the NHS that float down his timeline and are transparently paid for by the parties themselves, Daniel is targeted by murkier interests based on a profiling of who he is, including as a parent. He sends me a series of screenshots of what he is seeing.

One ad is posted by ‘Parents Choice’, a page created in October under the ‘community’ category of Facebook. The post is labelled as ‘Paid for by Richard Patrick Tracey’ and has so far been seen by up to 60,000 people with a spend of £700.

Screenshot 2019-11-28 at 17.12.56.png

There is no mention or information on the fact that Tracey is a former Conservative MP and minister for sport under Margaret Thatcher. The page has spent £10,000 on Facebook adverts since October 11th.

There is no traceable information whatsoever on who is behind the posts being served to Daniel from ‘Capitalist Worker’, a page that has spent £1,500 on Facebook adverts attacking Labour since October.

Screenshot 2019-11-28 at 17.13.52.png

Neither is there traceable information on the groups pushing claims on Corbyn’s allegiance to the IRA, on Labour’s plans to make mortgages more expensive, or who is asking Daniel to ‘save Brexit’.

One post is from the Fair Tax Campaign, a group run by a former aide to Boris Johnson. But you’d have to take the step to search Google to find that out, as the information box provided by Facebook offers nothing of the sort.

It’s not just what parties and groups are doing online that is dismaying for Daniel. “You can share any old shit at all and people will have seen it and absorbed it before anyone can come back and say that’s not true.” Daniel sends a screenshot of a recent Facebook post by a relative about Labour’s policy on abortion.

The post refers to a Labour manifesto commitment to reform Victorian era laws technically still in force that criminalise abortion and restrict women’s privacy and choice over reproductive rights. Decriminalisation is supported by a range of institutions including the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association. But parts of the internet have been lit up with outrage, with anti-abortion campaigners Right to Life stating that Labour “have pledged to introduce abortion, on-demand, for any reason, up to birth.” While anti-abortion activists might not like Labour’s plans, there is nothing to suggest this is the case, or even that there will be any extension to the period that abortions can be accessed.

Screenshot 2019-11-28 at 17.14.46.png

Daniel recognises that his relative is hardly a social media influencer, but “as of this afternoon, some people now believe that Jeremy Corbyn wants to kills an eight-and-a-half-month-old baby, which is just bollocks,” he says.

Offline politics and campaigns have always been a dirty fight. But, they were also very public: whatever was said on leaflets or in the media was accessible to record, scrutinise and challenge. But social media has enabled a very private experience of elections, perhaps the most public event of all. No one execpt you can see what is on your feed, which means there are multiple barriers to find out what is being said, and by and to whom.

These social media ‘bubbles’ are amplifying political tribalism, says Daniel. “We’ve turned into football supporters now. We don’t care how our team wins, as long as they get the result.”

Among the mix of adverts and messaging, are the various sites jostling for position in the effort to help voters tactically decide how to mark their ballot.

Daniel’s Facebook profile picture is overlaid with an image of the tactical voting website getvoting.org, run by Best for Britain. The anti-Brexit group has courted controversy by advising people to vote Lib Dem in swathes of seats where in 2017 the party came way behind the two main parties.

This included Filton and Bradley Stoke up until 27th November when the recommendation changed to Labour. The same change was made at the start of the election in Bristol North West following a “human error”.

Aware of the controversy, Daniel had previously told me: “If the other websites got behind Lib Dems, then I’d have no hesitation to go Lib Dem, and likewise if Best for Britain got behind Labour then I’d have no hesitation voting Labour.” Having now seen the change, he says: “I’m relieved really. With all the sites now aligned it makes my decision easier.”

‘Tories will allow me to live basic, warm, housed and able to feed myself. Labour won’t….’

“I’ve always voted Labour,” but not this time says Vanessa*, a Filton and Bradley Stoke resident. “I’m voting Tory because I believe they are being straight with us,” she tells me. I got in touch having seen her commenting on Jack Lopresti’s Facebook page, the Conservative candidate standing for re-election. The page is full of combative discussions and Vanessa says she has been subject to offensive behaviour.

Vanessa is a pensioner living in a housing association flat subsidised by the council. She receives benefits, including the 25% discount on council tax for single occupants. Facebook is the main source of her information, and she is worried after seeing that Labour supposedly plans to scrap this discount. “If JC [Jeremy Corbyn] gets in, he will ruin the country and I will see my discount as many others for council tax taken away, putting me and many others on the breadline. As I said, at least the Tories will allow me to live basic, warm, housed and able to feed myself. Labour won’t….” one of her comments reads.

The claims originated from an article in the Daily Express citing the Conservative party under the headline ‘Three million pensioners could face council tax hikes under Labour, Tories warn’. The Conservative Party then shared the article, which was in turn shared by the candidate Jack Lopresti and seen by Vanessa on her feed.

Screenshot 2019-11-28 at 17.15.38.png

Fortunately for Vanessa, this isn’t true. Full Fact, the respected fact checking organisation, have determined that this is categorically not Labour policy.

I ask Vanessa which messages are particularly resonating with her. They mainly come from Lopresti’s feed, she says, citing the Tory plans to recruit more nurses. These plans have been exposed as vastly exaggerated, but that message hasn’t got through. Vanessa also mentions that the Tories will “get Brexit done and unleash the potential of the country!” which is the message Boris Johnson rolls out at every opportunity.

The rumour mill

Screenshot 2019-11-28 at 17.16.39.png
A post from the Conservative candidate: an obvious spoof, or a misleading message?

While a lot of online information is seemingly about national issues and pushed by groups or parties, there are also aspects of the online information war that are ‘organic’ and unique to the fight for Filton and Bradley Stoke. In one particular case, Lopresti is on the receiving end of falsehoods that are spread, intentionally or unknowingly, by anti-Tory voters or Labour supporters.

Following a five-year Bristol Cable investigation into a local business, charges and legal sanctions under the Modern Day Slavery Act were brought against Jack Lopresti’s uncle. There is no evidence of the MP’s involvement in the business or exploitation, and this is clearly stated in all pieces by the Cable and other media that picked up the story.

However, his association to the family is fuelling rumours that he was in fact involved. One Facebook comment says: “Yes he was a slaver, genuinely had people living as slaves to work on his ice cream business”, another says: “I hear modern day slavery is a big vote winner”. In a clear example of how difficult it is to police everything that makes its way on the web, the Cable has corrected these claims on our platforms, but there is no way to see each and every time it is repeated.

More than rough and tumble

Just as doorstep canvassers wearing rosettes will inevitably tailor their pitch to who is in front of them, much of what happens on social media can be categorised as smart, though rough and tumble, campaigning. The critical distinction is that the public, regulators and journalists can see what parties are saying and what they are spending, IRL and online. The same cannot be said for the dozens of Facebook pages with murky or totally opaque interests pushing questionable messages on a “more you pay, more people you reach” model.

As regulators and the public struggle to keep up with the mass and nature of digital information, the question is what impact it will have, and how will we know?

*Not her real name

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