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Were Fears Of Disinformation During The Election Exaggerated?

7 min read

Politicians were bracing themselves for a tidal wave of foreign-state disinformation in the run-up to the General Election.

But interference on such a scale has either gone unnoticed, or not yet happened. Has the UK catastrophised the disinformation threat? 

“I would say so yes,” says the Alan Turing Institute’s Sam Stockwell. “And certainly speaking to people in government, like at the NCSC [National Cyber Security Council], Cabinet Office and others, they seem to be echoing similar sentiments.”

There has been some disinformation: suspicious TikTok accounts appear to be pushing Reform UK content. In early June a video was shared on social media of Wes Streeting appearing to insult Diane Abbott on an episode of BBC Politics Live. A video of North Durham candidate Luke Akehurst was later shared on X, appearing to mock residents as “thick Geordie c***s”.  

The Russians generally don't create these situations; they then pour fuel on the fire when a situation exists

However, according to Martin Innes, whose team at Cardiff University have been closely scanning the media landscape for signs of interference, these are the only “relatively sophisticated” deepfakes he has seen in the election. “None of them have really had an impact," he says.  

Innes points to a growing distrust and cynicism among the public that may be rooting out disinformation more effectively. For example, a community note on the Akehurst deepfake flagged that the Labour candidate had been wearing a remembrance poppy – which did not tally with the date of his supposed comments. 

“My impression of where the public on social media is at the moment is: quite low trust and high cynicism,” he says. “It's not great for politics. But more generally in terms of defences against disinformation, that low trust, high cynicism standpoint that people seem to be adopting might actually be quite helpful.” 

A former Facebook employee adds that social media companies have become well-oiled machines in tackling disinformation.  At the 2019 General Election, they recall Facebook having 50 different teams – some tackling suspicious accounts, others concerning content and others political ads – joining a call twice a day to share updates. 

“Essentially, that was a war room that would apply for that election. And now all the platforms have something similar when there's a high-profile election that swings into action”.  

Though TikTok has only been around five years, this has already been dubbed “the first TikTok election”, with both the Conservatives and Labour opening accounts soon after the election was called.  

TikTok says the company has multiple teams who focus entirely on detecting, investigating and disrupting covert influence operations. In the first four months of 2024, TikTok disrupted 15 influence operations and removed around 3,000 associated accounts. The company recently announced it would release reports of the covert influence operations it has disrupted once a month, rather than once a quarter.  

Google has 20,000 people working to counter disinformation worldwide. Teams attend ‘daily stand-ups’ on disinformation threats. Among various pre-established policies, YouTube has recently introduced a function where a video is flagged to the viewer if it has been manipulated.  

However, Dr Pia Hüsch, a research fellow in cyber at think tank RUSI, says she “does not think this has been a social media success story”.  

“We've seen a lot of voluntary pledges, particularly within that AI type context. But at the same time, we also know that a lot of staff have been made redundant. And a lot of ethics and other oversight boards have been reduced in size,” she says. 

Bill Browder, the American political activist who has been the target of a Kremlin disinformation campaign, simply thinks Russia has its sights set elsewhere in this bumper election year. 

“I don't think the Russians really care about the election because there's no difference in Russia policy of the two main political parties. It doesn't matter to them. This is just more of the same,” he says.  

Bill Browder (Credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo)
Bill Browder (Credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo)

“They care very profoundly about the US election because Trump said he would cut off military funding for Ukraine. They care about the French election because Marine Le Pen is a big friend of Russia, they care about the German elections, because the AFD is wanting to cut off Ukraine. In other places they get more bang for their buck.” 

In 2018, Russian news outlets Russia Today and Sputnik published 138 separate and opposing narratives about the Salisbury poisonings across 735 articles in the four weeks following the incident, a study by King’s College found. However, Russia’s influence over our media landscape has declined after Ofcom revoked Russia Today’s broadcasting licence over the Ukrainian war. 

“[The Salisbury disinformation] wasn't pushed by an anonymous this, that or the other, it was pushed by Russia Today,” says the former political adviser. “It was amplification of stuff that they were pushing out anyway. And obviously they're not able to do that to the same degree because of sanctions.” 

Apart from D-Day – where Rishi Sunak caused an uproar by leaving the celebrations early for a TV interview – this election campaign has been void of the seismic moments that lend themselves to misinformation spread. 

“That's partly to do with the low-key nature of the election,” says the former political adviser. “There just isn't the same sort of issues blowing up – the fast-moving news stories where organic misinformation rather than disinformation can spread, where everyone's focused on the same story and therefore rumours kick off”.  

However, Innes accepts bots are currently seeking to manipulate opinion on social media – especially on X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok.  

“We talk about them surging and swarming, so if they see a hashtag they’ll swarm around that to boost it and try and boost their own following,” he says. “We also see them surging around key politically contentious events”.  

Some point to the rise of the Reform Party as evidence of foreign interference. In recent weeks, the BBC has identified dozens of accounts posting messages of support for Reform, with social media users claiming these are bots intent on exaggerating the popularity of the party.  

Nigel Farage, Leader of Reform UK (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)
Nigel Farage, Leader of Reform UK (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

A YouGov poll released in June showed support for Reform was higher among 18 to 24 year olds than for the Conservative Party. While bots may have swarmed and surged around Reform, the former political adviser thinks the UK could be experiencing its own genuine move to the right. 

“The UK is unusual in harder right parties not being popular among young men in particular,” they say, speculatively. “If you look at European countries, or you look at the US, actually that message does resonate much more strongly than it does in the UK with that demographic. There’s no particular reason why the UK should be an outlier on that.” 

Whether Reform’s surge in popularity was promoted by fake accounts is inconclusive. However, Browder warns that with two weeks to go until the election, there is still time for Russia to act.  

“The Russians generally don't create these situations; they then pour fuel on the fire when a situation exists. I don't think even Nigel Farage knew that he was going to create so much momentum for himself, but now that he has, I'm sure that the Russians would be interested in it because that's going to upset the status quo,” he says. 

While disinformation campaigns may initially be failing to dupe voters, they may be perpetuating a general mood of distrust and cynicism for politics. For hostile states seeking to sow divisions in the UK, this will be chalked up as a success. 

“I'm concerned around the information space and how [disinformation] is going to damage the ability for voters to get access to legitimate, authentic and accurate information,” Stockwell says. “But also just generally their ability to discern the truth, their apathy towards politics and the election itself.” 

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