LONDON ― As Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn play out the drama of Britain’s general election, there’s one figure who looms ominously large off stage.
Donald J. Trump is of course not a direct participant in the contest for prime minister of the UK, but his presence has been felt from the moment the race was called.
Last month, Trump took the unprecedented step of intervening in the country’s election to declare that Labour leader Corbyn would be “so bad for your country ... he’d take you into such bad places.”
In a phone call to talk radio station LBC, the president also told Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party and one of his closest British confidants, that he should team up with Johnson’s Conservatives in an electoral pact. The pair of them would be “an unstoppable force,” Trump said.
Within days, Farage did indeed agree to target his troops at Labour’s constituencies, while standing them down in Tory-held seats. By focusing attacks on Brexit-backing working-class areas, that decision alone could swing the election toward a possibly historic victory for Johnson.
In a bid to counter the pincer-movement, Labour points out that Trump is so unpopular with voters in Britain (67% have a negative opinion of him, according to YouGov) that anything he says actually helps their cause.
Labour has also seized on the president’s line this summer that the country’s publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) could be “on the table” in any post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and U.S.
Some Downing Street insiders believe that Trump actually didn’t know what the NHS was when he blurted out his remark in a press conference in London in June.
But suspicions that American private health care companies could asset-strip Britain’s prized health service have been fueled by a Channel 4 TV documentary revealing UK and U.S. trade officials discussed drug pricing in private meetings.
Just as dominant as Trump in this election, however, have been Trumpian tactics. Chuka Umunna, a Liberal Democrat candidate, has been among those pointing out Johnson’s refusal to publish a secret report into alleged Russian interference in UK elections, including the EU referendum of 2016.
He said Johnson is “following the Trump playbook.” And after Hillary Clinton called for the report’s publication, his party said the PM is “morphing into Donald Trump more every day.”
Mistreatment of the media is another trait. Just as the president refuses to take questions from reporters like CNN’s Jim Acosta, Johnson has barred the left-leaning Daily Mirror newspaper from his election campaign bus. Ian Murray, executive director at the UK’s Society of Editors, said the ban was “a disturbing development.”
Most of disturbing of all, for many, has been the deployment of disinformation. In an effort to throw everything they can at the Labour opposition, Johnson and his team have repeatedly resorted to “fake news” tricks and dark arts online.
The first hint of things to come was just weeks after Johnson became prime minister. His party ran a Facebook ad that featured the BBC logo and a headline saying his government was giving a “14 billion pound cash boost for schools.” In fact, the BBC story referred to 7.1 billion pounds, half the amount claimed. The independent fact-checking site FullFact said said it was “wrong to misrepresent the work of independent journalists in this way.”
In the election campaign itself, the Conservatives produced a video that doctored a breakfast TV clip to make a Labour spokesman look like he hadn’t answered a question on Brexit. TV host Piers Morgan criticized the Tories for their “fake news” manipulation, but party Chairman James Cleverly defended it because Labour wasn’t “credible” on Brexit.
Yet the aftermath itself generated a huge amount of publicity for the original fake video. Many in Labour were unnerved by what they saw as a deliberate feedback loop by the Tories, exploiting Twitter and Facebook algorithms that effectively push engagement with controversy. The story and its followup ran for days.
The Conservatives were undaunted, and then used a live TV election debate to deploy their latest weapon: changing their official Twitter account name to “factcheckuk.” The falsely named account pushed anti-Labour propaganda and even claimed Boris Johnson had “won” the TV debate.
The move was deliberately designed to tweak the tail of political Twitter, which many Conservatives believe has a pro-Labour bias. A raft of checking websites has sprung up in recent years to offer the public independent verification of political claims. The BBC’s Reality Check, not-for-profit FullFact and fact checking sites on Channel 4 News and the Guardian were all outraged at the tactic.
The Tories defended themselves because they felt they had been for weeks the victims of fake news in the election, arguing Labour’s claims about a Trump takeover of the NHS were plainly false. One Tory official told HuffPost UK: “We felt we had to fight fire with fire.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab summed up the mood when he said “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust.” He added: “We are not going to be a punchbag for the nonsense put out by the Left that goes unchallenged.”
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who helped create the world wide web, described the renaming of a Tory Twitter account as a fact checking body as “impersonation.” “That was really brazen,” he told the BBC. “It was unbelievable they would do that.”
The UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals sent a letter of complaint to the Tories, accusing them of “state-sponsored misinformation and the deliberate undermining of truth.” Even some Tory MPs felt the trick was a step too far, with former Commons Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans saying “you don’t need to rebrand your Twitter page” to highlight the opposition’s flaws.
Twitter, Inc.’s UK site issued a rare reprimand, warning that any “further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information — in a manner seen during the UK Election Debate — will result in decisive corrective action.”
But for Conservative party officials, the job had been done. And as Tory Chairman James Cleverly stressed, this was not just kids on his digital team going rogue. “The digital team have a remit. I set the remit,” he said.
Johnson himself adopted his usual tactic of appearing not to know what his party had done in his name. When confronted about the fake account, he said, “I haven’t followed this Twitter stuff with the attention you would like. ... I will apprise myself of the detail of this.”
The misinformation still keeps on coming. When Labour launched its manifesto of policies last week, the Tories tweeted a video of one of its former MPs to make it look as if she was saying that same day the party could not stick to its promises. The Conservatives were forced to delete the tweet.
The party also created a fake website to make it look like it was Labour’s official website. It paid Google to promote “labourmanifesto.co.uk,” a site that says Labour wants higher taxes and has no plan for Brexit — toward the top of its results for people searching for the opposition plan.
Originally, the site had in small letters “a website by the Conservative party” and has since changed it to make its origins clearer. European Parliament MP Guy Verhofstadt said the tactic was “dystopian” and reminiscent of communist Eastern European regimes.
The trick also exposed gaps in Google’s own policing. Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech.com, told HuffPost UK that it appears no one at the company appeared to vet the Tory ad.
“This approve now, remove later approach is used by a lot of social media, ad networks, and user-generated content platforms that deal with a high volume of content,” he said. “Those who abuse these platforms can often reach a significant number of people before they’re reprimanded and their content removed.”
As it happens, real fact-checking websites have been rigorous in pointing out the false claims and over-claims in all the manifestos of all the parties. The Tories’ own plans included a centerpiece announcement that they would hire 50,000 more nurses, but it swiftly turned out that 18,500 of those were existing staff they hoped to persuade not to leave the health service.
Will Moy, the CEO of the fact-checking website FullFact, told HuffPost UK: “What we have not seen is deliberate made-up news created for profit or by people outside the democratic process, as we saw in the U.S. in 2016. The biggest risk to people in the UK right now is being lied to by their own politicians.
“So far in this election we’ve seen false information and dubious campaign techniques from all sides, whether that’s using unjustified figures or publishing misleading campaign material. We are concerned that whatever government gets elected may have forfeited the trust of voters.
“We know that election messaging often ramps up in the last few days before polling day. In the final weeks of the campaign, we’re going to be looking closely at everything from how online ads are being used to what the leaflets being pushed through people’s letter boxes say.”
In one ironic twist, the UK government has its own official “Don’t Feed The Beast” website, which advises the public “just because a story appears online, doesn’t make it true.”
“When shared, disinformation can take on a life of its own, and have some serious consequences,” it adds.
In this British election, those words already have a hollow ring to Johnson’s opponents. The only question is whom the beast will eat next.