This is an Information War not an Election
So many paediatric A&E and PICU nurses with such a strong online presence.
This Smear Election is so riddled with disinformation it may not be happening at all. As [somebody’s] bots spammed out a spool of the same claims to try and derail the chilling photograph of four-year old Jack Williment-Barr sleeping under coats on a hospital floor in Leeds as he waited for a bed, despite having suspected pneumonia, you realised that whatever happens, the Conservatives campaign is over.
It’s not been a disaster in the way Theresa May’s was a disaster in 2017, touring the country trying to say nothing at all, shuddering with awkwardness and huddling in contrived Tory set-piece closed-door vignettes. No, this is a Boris-style disaster full of the unquestioned bravado of unmitigated privilege.
Disinformation 1: The photograph of Jack was a blow to the Conservatives on their weakest front, the total lack of public trust about their intentions for the NHS, and underlying that, their callous uncaring attitude about anyone who is vulnerable. It’s a scoop and a karmic revenge for the Daily Mirror, which is having a good election. After being banned from the Tories campaign bus for being proper journalists, the Mirror has hit back with a series of hard-hitting front-page stories.
It was followed up with ITV’s Joe Pike’s devastating confrontation of the Prime Minister, (looking Prime Ministerial presumably) as he first refused to look at the photograph then stole the reporters phone. The clip has now been seen by 8.7 million viewers and been re-tweeted 50k times.
That’s why the Clone Army was heralded.
But then the Tories spin machine began falling apart.
Disinformation 2: Matt Hancock, fresh from hanging about Fraserburgh harbour contemplating the value of our precious Union, was sped across to Leeds Hospital to take charge of the situation.
Sensing that the news day was falling apart for them the Tories resorted to briefing senior journalists (among them Laura Kuensberg and Robert Peston) that a Tory aide was “punched” outside the hospital by a leftwing activist, “a Labour Party thug”.
The claims were a complete fabrication as was exposed when video footage showed that the adviser was accidentally brushed in the face.
Kuenssberg and Peston are now full of (semi) remorse and rueful apologies, but their reach is huge (they both have over 1 million followers on Twitter) and they are considered by many to be reliable sources. They are after all the political editors of the BBC and ITV. Who wouldn’t trust them?
For the avoidance of any doubt: the fake news claiming that the sick boy on the floor of a hospital in leeds was staged by his mother is completely made-up. We know the story is real, and Dr Yvette Oade, the Chief Medical Officer at Leeds hospital has apologised. But the stories out there now.
The identical tweet claiming the mother staged the photo has been circulated on Twitter to millions of people. It’s copied and pasted, the accounts are targeting various influencers and it’s spewing out into the world two days before an election.
In the face of this, valiant efforts like Channel 4s Fact Check, Full Fact (the UK’s fact-checking charity) or the Ferret’s Fact Service check try and stem the flow. But in a post-factual world, who cares?
Full Fact stated:
“Earlier today many senior political journalists reported that a Labour activist punched an aide to Conservative Health Secretary Matt Hancock while he was visiting a hospital in Leeds.”
“This did not happen.”
But this is a post-truth world in which Michael Deacon, parliamentary sketchwriter for The Daily Telegraph, has written “Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic.”
Nothing could confirm this more than the Tories masquerading their Twitter account as a Fact Checking service.
Nothing Has Changed
This story, although it seems like the worst of a new form of disinformation has echoes back to 1992 when Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party issued a broadcast attacking the privatisation of the NHS under the Conservative government of John Major. The broadcast was based on the case of a five-year-old girl called Jennifer, who at the time of the election had been waiting eleven months for a simple operation on her ear.
Like today, the Conservatives and the media, sensing crisis, went into over-drive. The next morning, just a few hours after the broadcast, the story exploded in the Daily Express under the dramatic headline of ‘EXPOSED: Labour’s Sick NHS Stunts’.
Like today, the Labour Party are trying to defend the last vestiges of publicly cherished infrastructure in Britain. The NHS is the Black Rhino of public services and it has been contested since its inception.
This continuity (1992 – 2019) exposes the vulnerable underbelly of the Conservatives and the vultures of privatisation circling in the world of Brexit and US trade deals – versus the reality that the enthusiasm for privatisation has waned after three decades of experiencing its results.
Ever Diminishing Circles
This is all feeling quite dark. If its comic and chaotic it’s also serious.
The army of former paediatric A&E nurses are marching into a million Facebook conversations. Some will pick up that it’s a fabrication, many will not.
How did we get here?
The Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich first used the term post-truth in a 1992 essay in The Nation but we can see the ever decreasing circles emerging from key moments. Mine are: the General Belgrano reporting in the Falklands to the big lies of the Iraq War; to Swiftboating and the Trump-Brexit axis of lies; to the Cambridge Analytica black-ops to the coverage of the independence referendum.
We can see stage-posts of the the disintegration of public standards in politics and media.
Michael Gove’s comment in an interview that “I think people in this country have had enough of experts…” has to be a marker point in this process.
Ever-present in this process has been The Sun which this week published an “exclusive” about a “hard-left extremist network” at the heart of the Labour Party. The piece directed readers towards a website featuring a network map that it said had been compiled by ex-military veterans “in their spare time” to reveal “what they insist is now a party firmly in the grip of a hardline cabal”.
It was a fabrication worthy of Steve Bannon.
As the story was exposed to be riddled with mad conspiracies and extreme rightwing material among their sources, it was quickly removed from the paper’s site – but without acknowledgement or explanation from the papers Political Editor, Tom Newton Dunn.
How did we get here?
The term “post-truth politics” was coined by the writer David Roberts in an article for Grist in 2010. Roberts defined it as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation)”. It’s this world this grim election is grinding out in. It’s a world swirling with birtherism, climate change denial, flat-earth and anti-vaxx memes, and chemtrails. It’s a toxic synergy of conspiracy and tribalism, paranoia and bad faith mediated through the silo world of social media and energised by peoples increasing desperation. We quickly reach an end-point where all journalists are scum and all politicians are evil (except our own who are infallible). It’s a form of infantilism.
It’s not all dark.
It can be argued that the Tory lies and spin of yesterday were exposed by social media as much as they were dispatched by them.
But if bots and Tory liars and a compliant media are imposing this post-truth era on us, we are also complicit in sustaining it. As author and musician Darren McGarvey puts it:
“To beat fake news, we have to want the truth more than we want certain things to be true. We tend to draw attention to the fake news others buy into and spread. But the truth is: we’ve all done it. Fake news thrives on partisanship and confirmation bias. We all need to do better.”