FactcheckUK: How Twitter’s rules let Tories convincingly rebrand as fact checkers

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 19 November 2019 23:40 GMT

The Conservatives have been attacked over a trick that saw them rebrand as supposed fact-checkers on Twitter and then use that account to post anti-Labour propaganda.

The strange plot has been criticised as "misleading" and "dystopian" and comes amid increasing concern about trust and truth in the general election campaign, particularly on social media.

The change was made at the beginning of a televised debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. The account was used throughout the debate to attack Mr Corbyn and his party and endorse Mr Johnson and the Conservatives, occasionally using the language of fact-checking but often simply sharing straightforward political posts.

The Tories used the account to remove the branding most associated with the party, and so potentially give the impression that it was not being run by one of the parties involved in the debate – as it was – but instead an independent organisation that was using its account to check facts without bias.

  1. What did the Tories do?

    At the beginning of the debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – the first televised debate of the general election campaign – one of the official Conservative Twitter accounts changed much of its branding.

    The account had been devoted to the press operation within Conservative Central Headquarters, or CCHQ, before the debate, and switched back to it after. But while the debate was on, it changed its name, image and other branding to suggest that it was in fact an independent fact-checking service.

    It went on to publish a number of tweets in that vein: posts that looked as if they were being posted by a media organisation, but all of which in fact attacked the Labour Party. At the end, it declared Boris Johnson the "winner", with that post like all the others appearing as if it was an independent and fact-based judgement.

  2. How was it so convincing?

    By using an existing account, the Tories were able to borrow the authority that the CCHQ Press Twitter page had accrued, even with the new and unrecognisable name. That meant that many of the things that might indicate a fake account was being used – such as few followers or no verification tick – were not present, and the account did appear authentic.

    Chief among those are the small tick that appears next to a verified user's name on the account. Twitter's verification scheme is intended to allow it to identify accounts that have been checked and confirmed to belong to the person they claim that they do – which the Tories were able to exploit to give them the checkmark that suggested they had been verified as factcheckers, when in fact they had been verified when they were explicitly and openly the press account.

    Twitter specifically says that the verification tick is intended to allow people to know that a given account is "authentic". So users are encouraged to see it as an indication that the information contained on the profile – if not in the posts – is legitimate.

    The party also made no reference to their better-known names in the wording around the tweets. There was no mention of "Conservatives" or "Tories" on the account.

    Instead, the only nominal disclaimers made mention of CCHQ, an initialism that few onlookers were likely to see, let alone recognise.

  3. Why is that allowed?

    The party were able to make the account so convincing by exploiting a specific part of the rules around verification: it is possible to change most parts of your account without losing that tick, even if it means that the profile is no longer resembles its appearance when it was originally verified.

    The only part of an account that must stay the same to keep the verified tick is the username or handle. The Conservative account did not change that – it stayed as CCHQPress – and so it did not lose its verified checkmark either.

    But the handle is written smaller than any other identifying details, might not be obvious to anyone looking at the account, and in this case did not use any of the more common names for the party.

    But all of the other parts of an account – the name used to identify it, the profile photo and the banner image, as well as the actual tweets featured on the profile – are allowed to be changed at any time. This is presumably to allow for genuine alterations such as the updating of a picture or name, but allows the system to be exploited as it was during the debate.

    Twitter has come into criticism over the system before. Users have suggested that verification implies a certain endorsement – though Twitter is clear that it does not consider it that way – and the company has stopped taking requests for verification of new accounts amid concern about what it actually means.

  4. What was the reaction?

    Legitimate fact checking services, commentators and politicians all attacked the move, calling it "inappropriate" and "dystopian".

    The move was swiftly criticised by fact checking organisation Full Fact, for instance.

    "It is inappropriate and misleading for the Conservative press office to rename their twitter account ‘factcheckUK’ during this debate," it wrote on Twitter. It ask users not to mistake the account "for an independent fact checking service" such as its own.

    European Parliament Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt branded the move "dystopian" and said "not even Orban or the Polish PiS would dream this up, let alone do it".

    Twitter has not yet commented on the move, whether it will change its rules or if the Conservatives will be punished for exploiting its systems.

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