Britain’s Dirty Election

New York Times, By Peter Geoghegan and Mary Fitzgerald
29th November 2019

A serial liar. A campaign of online disinformation. The risk of foreign meddling. Sound familiar?

LONDON — Pity British voters.

Not because they face a choice between two historically unpopular candidates for prime minister — the Conservative incumbent, Boris Johnson, and Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn — on Dec. 12. Nor because they are being forced to trudge to polling stations for the third general election in five years, this time in the depths of the miserable British winter.

Pity British voters because they are being subjected to a barrage of distortion, dissembling and disinformation without precedent in the country’s history. Long sentimentalized as the home of “fair play,” Britain is now host to the virus of lies, deception and digital skulduggery that afflicts many other countries across the world.

In this as in other respects, Mr. Johnson — a serial liar who lost his first job as a journalist for inventing quotes — resembles President Trump. And Britain, whose election is breaking down under the pressure of manipulation, increasingly looks like the United States. Truth and falsehood have become malleable concepts. Anything goes.

Social media is the staging ground. During a recent TV debate between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Corbyn, the Conservative Party renamed its Twitter account factcheckUK, which it then used to push out partisan messages designed to look like independent verification.

When called out, the Conservatives doubled down. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that voters “don’t give a toss” about what happens online. His cabinet colleague Michael Gove went even further, refusing to rule out repeating the trick. (Twitter upbraided Britain’s largest party for infringing its rules but stopped short of taking any action.)

This was far from an isolated incident. Barely 24 hours after the televised debate, the Conservatives set up a fake website for those looking for the opposition Labour Party’s manifesto. The party paid Google to ensure that its site — which accused Labour of having “no plan for Brexit” — appeared at the top of internet search results. And in recent days, Conservative activists have bought Facebook ads impersonating the Green Party in an attempt to “split the anti-Tory vote.”

Mr. Johnson and his party are not the only culprits. Pro-Labour groups that are officially separate from the campaign have spent heavily on often aggressive digital ads. Anti-Brexit tactical voting sites have been accused of misleading voters in crucial constituencies. And the Liberal Democrats — pitching themselves as the party of “Remain” — have distributed election pamphlets that look like real local newspapers.

The effect of such stunts is less to actively counter opponents’ political arguments — how many of the fabled floating voters who historically decide British elections get their views from largely anonymous websites or fake newspapers? — and more to undermine trust in politics itself.

And it seems, at least in part, to be working. As one voter said recently, she was voting for Boris Johnson precisely because he is a proven liar. It shows, she said, “he’s human.”

It isn’t supposed to be like this. Britain has lots of regulations governing its politics, including restrictive spending limits and campaign finance transparency requirements. But these rules are designed for a predigital age.

Election candidates, for instance, are legally required to ensure that all their printed election material is clearly labeled: A leaflet pushed through a voter’s door has to say who paid for it. But online political ads do not even have to carry an identifying imprint or provide more than the most cursory accounting of how money is spent.

The internet is not Britain’s only conduit of disinformation. The nation’s print and broadcast media has lately been prolific in amplifying messages that are at best debatable, at worst downright false.

In office, Mr. Johnson has adeptly exploited reporting conventions to spin favorable narratives. Britain’s daily news agenda has often been dictated by a source in the prime minister’s office (widely assumed to be Mr. Johnson’s Machiavellian senior adviser Dominic Cummings). Reports based on this source have falsely accused political opponents of dishonesty, of “foreign collusion” and of leaking top-secret government documents.

The Conservatives have also continued to benefit from an often unquestioning press. A party release that claimed that Labour’s spending plans would cost £1.2 trillion ($1.6 trillion) was widely reported as fact, despite the lack of any evidence. Even criticisms of such false claims serve to amplify the original message.

The government, meanwhile, has done all it can to avoid scrutiny.

Mr. Johnson took the highly unusual step of delaying the publication of a report into Russian meddling in British politics, a decision Dominic Grieve, the onetime Conservative legislator now running as an independent who oversaw the report, called “jaw dropping.” And the party’s manifesto — unusually released on a Sunday to avoid, some said, the full glare of the public’s attention — was so short on detail it was branded “remarkable” by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent watchdog.

Making matters worse, regulators and public bodies are sitting on a number of other potentially critical inquiries into British democracy. An announcement about a possible criminal investigation into the relationship between Mr. Johnson and an American tech entrepreneur, Jennifer Arcuri, has been delayed. And three and a half years after the Brexit referendum, a police investigation into the official Leave campaign — which Mr. Johnson headed — is yet to deliver its findings.

As a result, the British electorate is dazed and weary. Arguably the most significant election in a generation — to Brexit or not to Brexit? — has been reduced to social media sound bites devised by well-paid political consultants. It doesn’t matter whether the message is false; all that matters is that it is repeated often enough.

All this deception, distortion and disinformation might well help the Conservatives, whose poll lead has barely budged despite its dubious campaign, win the general election.

But at what cost?