Just 48 hours before Thursday’s election in Britain, a photograph of a sick child lying on a hospital floor in northern England went viral and dominated the media.
The opposition Labour party and left-wing press said the picture demonstrated the damage done by Conservative-led austerity and mismanagement of the National Health Service (NHS), a major campaign issue.
Despite the hospital apologising to the family, thousands of social media messages — including one copied and pasted hundreds of times in a few hours — alleged the image was staged.
“I was amazed by how a crude campaign of disinformation (such as copy and paste) can so quickly take hold in a febrile environment,” Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha who tracks disinformation online, told AFP.
The opposition had previously accused the ruling Conservative party of throwing “low blows”.
On the day the Labour manifesto was published, the Conservatives launched a website using the “labourmanifesto.co.uk” domain name.
A “labour manifesto” query on a search engine took web users directly to the site.
“Here is everything you need to know about Labour’s Manifesto – https://labourmanifesto.co.uk”, the Conservatives tweeted 30 minutes before Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn presented it.
Visitors to the site were met with the words “No plan for Brexit, Higher taxes, Two more referendums,” in capital letters, next to a picture of Corbyn.
The Conservatives were also accused of creating a website in the name of a Labour candidate from central England calling on voters to “STOP Jeremy Corbyn”.
The Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have also been accused of giving out misleading figures on television on health and safety issues.
The finance minister said the number of homeless people had “almost halved” since 2008, when Labour was in power – a false statement, according to statistics.
Nearly 90% of the 6 000 Facebook ads broadcast by the Tories during the first week of December contained or referred to misleading statements, according to a count by First Draft, a British group that tackles misinformation.
The Tory party was also criticised when it renamed its press office’s Twitter account during a debate between Johnson and Corbyn to “FactcheckUK”, mimicking a news checking site.
Twitter said afterwards it would take action if there was another attempt to “mislead” voters.
But Johnson has also been on the receiving end, with Channel 4 News mistakenly subtitling a quote from the prime minister as “people of colour” instead of “people of talent” during a talk about immigration.
The channel apologised but not before the clip had gone viral.
Despite the quantity, the campaign has not witnessed anything new in terms of disinformation methods, said Owen Jones.
“Some of the most prominent were the use of faked screenshots,” said the researcher, citing a fake tweet purportedly sent by Corbyn that circulated after the London Bridge attack in late November.
Corbyn was alleged to have accused the police of “killing” the terrorist, a message supposed to demonstrate his sympathy towards Islamist terrorists.
Hyper-realistic doctored videos known as deepfakes have yet to hit the mainstream, according to Owen Jones, with some activists preferring older media, such as paper and ink.
Some 15 constituencies have been targeted by the three main parties with fake newspapers that were difficult to distinguish from the genuine article, according to First Draft