Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson forced to deny shooting stones at squirrels after spoof story goes viral

Politician brands satirical article ‘very fake news’

Andy Gregory
Tuesday 19 November 2019 17:30 GMT
Jo Swinson address 'fake news' story which said she fired stones at squirrels

The Liberal Democrat leader has addressed a spoof story circulating online that she used a slingshot to fire stones at squirrels while referring to them as “pleb bunnies”.

Jo Swinson was asked by LBC‘s Iain Dale about her “attitude to squirrels” in response to a satirical fake news article which claimed to have unearthed “harrowing” private Facebook footage of Ms Swinson terrorising rodents in her garden.

The viral post is of a particular genre of social media hoaxes in which outlandishly fake headlines and stories are superimposed to appear as if they have been published by major news sites.

The fake story in question purported to have been published by The Mirror, and written by “Wurrence Telephene”.

Ms Swinson branded the posts “very fake news”, which she described as “quite sophisticated” and “worrying” ahead of the upcoming general election.

“They’re quite sophisticated and people do believe them,” the Lib Dem leader told LBC. “This isn’t the only one of the very fake news stories.

“There was one using the byline of an established journalist. There was one that used Peter Walker’s name from The Guardian and he had to go online to debunk it and say he never wrote it.

“I do think it’s worrying because it echoes what we’ve seen in other elections and particularly when you think about fake news and the technological possibility for deepfakes where videos can be faked, then there are questions about the role of publishers in circulating these things that aren’t true.

“It’s very difficult to prevent its spread.”

The hoax article quoted an RSPA [sic] spokesperson as saying in response to the non-existent footage of animal cruelty: “I’ve never seen anyone so alive with twisted pleasure at the thought of harming another living creature. The glee is palpable.”

It also featured a made-up quote from Ms Swinson saying: “I’m a crack shot. I don’t go for the head because that’s too clean a death.”

The plot thickened somewhat as one of the Twitter accounts sharing the post, published a screengrabbed quote from the fake account of Wurrence Telephene - who, if they exist, do not write for The Mirror.

The doctored images appeared to show tweets from "Telephene", which said: "An article of mine was spiked without explanation, how there are a handful of deeply abusive Lib Dem trolls denying my actual existence. Coincidence I’m sure.

"Either way I’m taking some time away from social media because this nonsense just isn’t worth it."

Despite the absurd nature of the articles, it appears that some social media users have been duped and are sharing the content to their peers as serious news.

Researchers at First Draft, a non-profit group fighting misinformation, found that the false story was originally circulated among anonymous pro-Labour accounts, confined to a fairly small section of Twitter.

However, on 5 November a Medium post appeared, pushing the same fake claims. It claimed to be written by a Miranda Joyce of the Milngavie Times, however neither the journalist nor the publisher exist. The Medium post has since been removed.

The post received few interactions until it was shared by a Brexit Party account on 14 November with nearly 9,000 followers.

It then picked up more than 20,000 interactions across social media.

Posts promoting the story can still be found across both Twitter and Facebook, despite both social companies vowing to tackle misinformation on their platforms.

Former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg became Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communications in October 2018.

In September Mr Clegg announced the company would not be fact-checking paid advertising from political candidates despite widespread outcry.

Additional reporting by PA

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