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by Rebecca McQuillan
26 November 2019
Talking point: Phoney war

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Talking point: Phoney war

There was a revealing exchange on BBC Scotland’s election programme The Campaign the other night. 

Former Scottish Tory spin doctor Ramsay Jones was trying not to condemn outright the Conservatives’ indefensible falsified video of Sir Keir Starmer on ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

In the doctored clip, Starmer appeared to go all quiet and tongue-tied when asked a question about Brexit.

In reality, he had answered it immediately.

Jones as designated Tory was asked if he could offer a defence. “Not a total defence,” was his response.

He described fake news in general as “massively unnerving and massively wrong”, but went on to point out that the row the video created meant that many more people saw Starmer’s troubled performance than would otherwise have done.

Is fake news just clever PR, then, if it achieves its underlying purpose?

Fellow contributor Angela Haggerty strongly disagreed and of course, she’s right. Fake news is “massively wrong”, full stop.

For politicians to dabble in it, expecting to be caught out but doing it anyway, is to normalise it – and that’s a dangerous game.

It’s a game the Conservatives seem to relish playing. The party’s rebranding of their press office Twitter feed during the ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, to pose as an impartial fact-checking outfit, was blatant.

But even worse was ministers’ casual dismissal of the condemnation that followed.

The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, tried to defend the deception by saying it was a response to the “huge scepticism” among voters about what politicians say, a statement so epically hypocritical that it may have warped the space-time continuum.

The sense that basic standards are sliding hopelessly out of view was only increased when the Electoral Commission said it was powerless to do anything about it.

Raab claimed that “no one will have been fooled”. If that were true, then why bother doing it? The Tories’ account retained its ‘CCHQ’ Twitter handle, but not everyone will have noticed or understood the acronym.

It felt like a capitulation. The public discourse is awash with misleading information, including simulated news stories.

Online, every day is 1 April. Some fakes are relatively easy to spot, or so you would think, like the supposed Mirror piece appearing to show Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson firing pebbles at squirrels.

It got fewer than 1,000 retweets but was screenshotted and shared widely on Facebook and then appeared on Medium in a different faked form, prompting thousands more interactions. The comments revealed that some people believed it.

Fake videos in May, showing Democratic US Speaker Nancy Pelosi apparently losing the thread during a speech, were picked up by Fox News and President Trump, and discussed as if they were real.

Most concerning of all are so-called ‘deepfakes’ (simulated videos of public figures). Recent fake footage of Johnson and Corbyn endorsing each other released by thinktank Future Advocacy wasn’t quite believable, but in future, the deepfakes may look just like the real thing.

Social media users may think they can spot hoaxes but as the fakes become more sophisticated – lacing the lies with truth to increase plausibility – the harder it gets.

Like releasing an invasive species into the wild or interfering with the genome of a virus, we don’t know where all this will lead, but it is sowing suspicion and cynicism.

Politicians should be holding the line against such deceit, not wounding the democratic process by indulging in it themselves.

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Read the most recent article written by Rebecca McQuillan - The Holyrood baby turns eight: There’s no end to the cost-of-living crisis for Kirsty.

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