Study reveals Tories ran disinformation campaign with ‘impunity’ during 2019 general election

Prime minister Boris Johnson speaks to supporters during a visit to Sedgefield Cricket Club in Count

Prime minister Boris Johnson speaks to supporters during a visit to Sedgefield Cricket Club in County Durham. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby. - Credit: PA

The Tory Party used a campaign of 'overt disinformation' with 'impunity' during the 2019 general election, a study has revealed.

Researchers from King's College London warned the campaign may have undermined public trust in government messaging during the coronavirus pandemic.

Research found that the Tories had used a campaign of 'overt disinformation' with a 'new level of impunity' to secure votes.

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During the 2019 election, Boris Johnson's campaign was caught out using a doctored video of Sir Keir Starmer and posing as a fact-checker on Twitter during a leaders' debate.

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'Even if some of these tactics are not novel, the impunity with which they were employed appears new, at least in the UK,' the report added.

'When found out, Conservative Party representatives were unapologetic for rebranding their Twitter account as a fact-checking site, and for editing video footage of the interview with Sir Keir.'

A clip of Sir Keir was edited to show him failing to answer a question on the EU as shadow Brexit secretary when he had actually responded to it in a live television interview.

The report also said 'disinformation' was being spread by 'domestic political actors' and the media and that party adverts had consistently broken a five-step disinformation checklist.

Author Francesca Granelli, from King's College's Department of War Studies, told The Independent: 'What's happening is they are seeing other people's elections and certain traits are being picked up and run with. Some things are good and some are bad.

'I'd like to think the UK is not as bad as in other countries – the US is leading the way with that very muddy space.'

In other research, fact-checking organisation First Draft said that although every party published misleading adverts during the campaign, the Tories were 'by far the most frequent'.

The Independent reported that 88% of the Tories most shared online adverts between December 1 and 4 contained misleading information, compared to 6.7% cent for Labour.

Authors noted that the government 'wants citizens to believe the message that it is 'succeeding' in controlling the epidemic, despite its recent electoral record of using disinformation tactics and admitting it unapologetically'.

They also said that since the 2016 EU referendum, which has seen two general elections, two Conservative and two Labour leadership elections, party-political campaigning was 'continuing for a lot longer than it normally would'.

A spokesperson for the Conservative Party said it rejected what it called 'wild assertions'.

'All Conservative Party advertising was labelled, following best practice on digital imprints,' he added.

'We are delivering on the promises the British public elected us on, getting Brexit done, investing in our public services and levelling-up across the country.'

The research classed disinformation as a deliberate lie or misrepresentation, while misinformation can be created or spread accidentally.

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