Fake news, shoo! The UK's general election doesn't want you

At a time when "alternative facts" are real, it’s unclear how much of an impact concocted news will have on Thursday's election.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
6 min read
One Week Remaining Until British General Election
Barcroft Media
Watch this: How will fake news impact the UK election?

This is the first story in a two-part series that looks at the impact of social media and fake news on the UK election.

As the UK heads to the polls on Thursday, one thing's certain: Voters can't believe everything they've read about the candidates.

Since last year's US presidential election, the spread of fake news has been on everyone's mind. 2017 has been a hugely busy year for elections -- France held its own last month, Germany's is later this year and the UK wasn't even supposed to have one -- and false information continues to play a role. It's an age-old problem given a new lease on life thanks to the internet and social media sites such as Facebook .

Even as the election draws close, it's hard to work out how big a factor fake news has been during the UK general election and, if it has, whether any of the stopgap solutions put into place have had any role in reducing its impact. This uncertainty puts voters in the tricky position of having to navigate potentially propaganda-laden waters alone.

Most of the advice for tackling the spread of fake news has put the onus on voters to educate themselves, but more could be done. Fortunately, tech companies are starting to pick up the slack, and nonprofits and academics are helping.

Fake Donald Trump tweets from China

Fake news became a huge issue around the US presidential election last year and President Donald Trump has been suspicious of it ever since.


As for the politicians, they've been too busy campaigning, even though it seems like it would be in their interest to tackle the problem too.

"The fake-news phenomenon poses a serious threat to political parties and figures that need to protect their brands and reputations online," said Ryan Kalember, senior president of cybersecurity strategy at security firm Proofpoint, in a statement.

British citizens will cast their vote for their local member of parliament, and the leader of whichever party gains a majority of elected MPs will become prime minister and form a government.

The election, ironically, scuttled Parliament's efforts to address the fake-news problem. After one of its committees published evidence about its impact, the inquiry was canceled (along with all other ongoing inquiries) because of the imminent dissolution of Parliament.

Damian Collins, the MP chairing the committee, has been a fairly lone voice among British politicians in recognising the extent of the problem.

"Although we are unable to complete these important inquiries, there is no bar to our successors in the next Parliament taking up the evidence received … and finishing them," he said in a statement when the inquiry was abruptly concluded. "Given the importance of all these subjects, we hope that the new Committee will do so."

For most inquiries, the new committee members will likely be able to pick up where their predecessors left off if the new government decides to pursue them. But with an imminent election, the problem of fake news is even more urgent than it was before. Unfortunately, with no conclusion reached in time, the British public are just riding this one out.

And what an awkward ride it's turned out to be.

Fake-news savvy

Warnings over fake news are everywhere, and the message is getting through. A survey of 2,000 British adults conducted by broadband comparison site Broadband Genie found that 68 percent of people are either very or somewhat concerned that fake news could have an impact on the general election.

But awareness of the problem is only one factor. According to the same survey, 26 percent of people are "not at all confident" they could identify a fake news story if they came across one. Facebook has published its own advice around this, and Full Fact, a nonprofit and nonpartisan fact-checking organisation based in the UK, is also trying to help.


Facebook published ads in British newspapers to help people avoid fake news.


"Nobody wants to mislead their friends," Phoebe Arnold, head of communications and impact for Full Fact, said in an interview. "Full Fact has worked with Facebook in the UK on tips for spotting fake news to remind people that online, if you're not sure, don't share."

Facebook and Google have funded Full Fact and First Draft, a global network of news organisations to fact-check manifestos, debates and news stories. As part of this project, for instance, Full Fact verified claims about the NHS made in a video published by the Conservative party that was shared on Facebook 9.8 million times.

Searching for answers

To gauge the impact of fake news, researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute have turned to Twitter, which allows access to 1 percent of its global daily data for free. (Facebook doesn't allow for its data to be viewed.)

The researchers have been watching and analysing the spread of "junk news," as they call it, by monitoring automated bots. The ongoing project isn't just monitoring the UK general election. It's also covering France and Germany earlier this year.

In a report published Tuesday, they identified 11 percent of content shared around the election as being junk news, with the level of automation increasing as the campaign went on.

On the whole, bots generated a fairly small amount of content about British politics , the researchers found, and the content they were promoting was fairly well spread across political parties.

Automated accounts affiliated with the Labour Party were more successful, however, at generating traffic on the whole. "Those accounts are absolutely, categorically nothing to do with us," said a Labour spokesman. "We don't have any accounts like that and we don't run anything like that."

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives did not respond to our request for comment about their own policies on fake news.

The Oxford team's project has now spanned multiple elections and so they are able to compare activity they are seeing right now to automated activity in other elections.

"This study shows that the situation in the UK isn't as bad as it was during the US presidential campaign, and is more in line with recent findings from elections in France and Germany, but there is still an issue more generally over the quality of information being shared by social media users," said Professor Philip Howard, senior researcher on the Oxford team.

UK social media users share a higher percentage of junk news content than social media users who are actively discussing German politics and French politics during election periods, they discovered, but less than those in the US.

Fake news content circulated in the UK also tends to be much more difficult to spot than stories published in the US, said Monica Kaminska, a member of Howard's team and Doctoral Researcher in Cyber Security, said in an interview. "They tend to rely on numbers but add commentary -- it certainly requires closer scrutiny," she said.

American fake-news stories, on the other hand, tended to rely more on "emotive language" to get their point across, she added.

No end in sight

Perhaps the real test for tackling fake news this year will be the German elections in September.

Of all the countries with elections this year, Germany is taking the hardest line on fake news. The country is not content just to sit back and let social networks decide when and how they deal with fake news, and is making the spread of misinformation illegal.

Legislating around the issue is one solution, and while some of the responsibility for the problem could and maybe should be shouldered by social networks, Kaminska calls for more collaboration between academia, nonprofits and tech companies. "A good starting point would be sharing more data," she said.

The UK's innovation fund Nesta suggests a number of ideas -- a mix of human-led fact-checking by organisations, crowd-led fact-checking as used by the likes of Snopes and FactCheckEU.org, and tech-led solutions like the AI-focused "Fake News Challenge," which is looking for ideas from the industry.

For now, though, the election is upon us, and the hope is that the public hasn't been manipulated and misled. This game of whack-a-fake-news-mole will likely continue even after the campaign games are over, and the trick will be to limit the harm done.

It's important for politicians, parties and democracy that the damage is limited, warned Kalember. "Any kind of online brand sabotage can be catastrophic for election successes and long-term public trust."

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