Back in 2011, DEMOS produced a report titled Truth, Lies, and the Internet, after research revealed many young people don’t both to ‘fact check’ the information they find online and can’t recognise propaganda or bias when they come across it. As a result, they’re too often influenced by information they should discard and are taken in by scams, half-truths, hoaxes and mistakes. They also can’t navigate the finer points of argument and debate.
Sadly, as I discovered this week, it’s not just ordinary young people who fall into this trap. Journalists can succumb hook, line and sinker too.
When #UKIPEastLondon trended on Twitter after the account posted a string of racist and homophobic comments, I did some quick checking and found UKIP doesn’t have an East London branch, so @UKIPEastLondon couldn’t possibly be a genuine UKIP account. I quickly realised that – once again – some anti-UKIP troll had set up an account claiming to be an ‘official’ UKIP account, with logo and all, purely to make trouble.
The way the scam works is the trolls play nicely at first, tweeting and re-tweeting genuine UKIP members and building up a following before going nuts and spouting all manner of offensive views which they insist are ‘real party policy’ and ‘what people in UKIP really think.’ The fake tweets are quickly picked up by others and used to heap opprobrium on UKIP.
As a late-night exercise in damage limitation, I put out a Tweet warning that @UKIPEastLondon was not a genuine UKIP account and was not run by the party or any party member. Whoever is behind the account Tweeted me back, claiming they were ‘Richard Hamilton, the deputy chair of the Bethnel Green and Bow branch.’ In a separate Tweet to followers, ‘Mr Hamilton’ also claimed I had called them personally and asked them to stand down as a UKIP member.
Well, we don’t have a Bethnel Green and Bow branch either, so that was clearly another lie. And called him? How could I when I didn’t know who he was and certainly didn’t have his phone number?
That a few gullible Tweeters who don’t really know what UKIP stands for could have been taken in by all this was one thing; but the story was picked up by first the Independent, then the London Evening Standard, IBTimes, and Pink News.
The way every one of them reported the story left me incredulous.
All did so in such a way that allowed people to believe the fraudulent Twitter feeds had in reality been officially sanctioned, even going so far as quoting the author of the fake accounts and allowing his words to go unchallenged. They repeated his lie that he was involved in a non-existent branches and referenced our fictional phone conversations. Pink News scraped the deepest depths of the barrel, shamelessly listing the names of UKIP MEPs and prospective Parliamentary Candidates who were still following the account, thereby implying that whether or not they believed the account was genuine, they agreed with the views the account espoused.
Not one of the journalists concerned bothered to contact me, or UKIP HQ (or in the case of Pink News any of those they ‘named and shamed’), to clarify the story. Instead, they took the word of the troll at face value. Despite clear evidence that UKIP had been the victim of a Twitter troll sting, all four journalists implied in their articles that UKIP was nevertheless somehow responsible by claiming UKIP had ‘disowned’ the account. How can UKIP disown something we never owned?
Talk about not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Basically it seems anyone with an axe to grind against UKIP can pretend to be a UKIP supporter, spout the most vile filth, and get what they will no doubt see as ‘positive’ press coverage, no questions asked.
This incident is particularly sinister as we’ve since learned that the man behind the fake account is in all likelihood a criminal who has already pleaded guilty in court to a string of online offences. He is currently on bail awaiting sentencing while additional, apparently more serious offences are taken into account. Arguably, the journalists concerned have incited hatred by colluding with a man convicted of inciting hatred.
So, to go back to my original point, clearly even trained journalists are not immune to scams, hoaxes and propaganda on the Internet. In this case, they were all so keen to believe the worst about a political party that has recently won two Parliamentary by-elections and is soaring in the polls that they appear to have actively encouraged them: they couldn’t abandon fast enough all they ever learnt at journalism school about facts and checking your sources. I find that deeply depressing. It is neither good for journalism, nor democracy.