In the UK, televised leadership debates have started ahead of the general election on 12 December. This week, prime minister Boris Johnson faced Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition and, while both men turned in dull performances in front of the home and studio audience, the programme was notable for a subplot that displayed social media’s pernicious teeth in all their rotten glory.
On Twitter, “factcheckUK” popped up as a handle criticising Corbyn and retweeting praise for Johnson. Hmm. Well, it sounds trustworthy but what exactly is Fact Check UK? An independent arbiter of the facts and figures quoted during the heat of rhetorical battle? Nope. OK, then – maybe a right-leaning think-tank spinning against Labour’s big-spending pledges? Try again. In fact, it was the official Twitter account for the press office of Johnson’s Conservative party, which had changed its name to FactCheck UK for the duration of the debate. Wow.
When questioned about this the next day on BBC TV, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that “no one gives a toss about the social-media cut and thrust”, reframing the journalist’s question as if it concerned the minutiae of online debate rather than simple truth (also, though: wow). The facts are that this was in extremely bad faith and done extremely badly by the Conservative press office – the account is followed first and foremost by journalists running their own fact checks on its announcements and spin, so how could this possibly have ended well? More sadly and essentially, however, this is a scornful piece of future-shock jerrymandering that signals a political universe in which facts have become mere canon-fodder in a larger war of bullshit. We should all give a toss about this and other contemptuous breaches of public trust. Always read the label.