An unexpected lesson learned at the first UK general election debate

November 25, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

The main takeaway from the first debate between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, held last Tuesday, is quite clear: Fact-checkers can always be surprised by politicians.

The UK Conservative Party’s press Twitter account rebranded itself to look like a fact-checking organization. And fact-checkers did not appreciate this attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

As an IFCN fellow, I had the chance to be at Full Fact, a fact-checking charity in London, during the first debate for the 2019 UK elections. I got to watch this deception unfold live.

The debate started at 8 p.m. Full Fact’s strategy, carefully planned in advance, was quite simple. During the evening, a Google Doc would be used to document claims heard from both sides that could be fact-checked.

Any available fact-checker or volunteer in the newsroom used the GDoc to pick a claim and start working from there. The focus would be on tweeting facts and figures that were already researched by the Full Fact team. A roundup article with new and old content would then be written to go out early the following day, so every British citizen could wake up with their facts right.

A huge amount of pre-planning took place in order to execute the live fact-check.

“There is comparatively little that we genuinely do live,” said Full Fact’s Head of Special Projects, Joseph O’Leary, who has been with the team for 8 years. “The main planning that goes into it is essentially organizing all the content we’ve already written which can stretch over a year or two because by and large the leaders in the debates can be expected to repeat what they’ve said before,” he added.

Roles are assigned to the team members who will be on site for the live fact-checking – one person to note down the claims, one to post on Twitter and various fact-checkers and volunteers to begin fact-checking the claims. This time around they also pulled a few fact-checkers off the live bit to focus on the themes emerging from the debate – such as Brexit and the NHS – and start on a small write up on that, which was then added to the final roundup. They also made sure one person focused on watching the whole debate, uninterrupted.

An additional tech tool, Alpha, produced by their automated fact-checking team, was also used to extract the subtitles from the debate so the fact-checkers could go back and see exactly what claims were made. “If we’d heard a claim, we’d use the timestamps in Alpha to guide us to where we need to actually listen back,” said Joseph.

This was not the first time Full Fact conducted a live fact-check. They are even used to it, after having faced four UK election periods.

Broadcast live on Britain’s ITV, the debate was hot from the word go. Brexit, the National Health Service, the economy, inequality and many other topics came in fast as the two politicians verbally battled it out on stage. During the one hour debate, Full Fact’s team rated only one fact as definitely true.

Several of the claims made by politicians during the evening were a mixture of true information with false or misleading conclusions. Corbyn, for example, said it will take Johnson seven years to negotiate a “Canada-style” trade deal.

According to Full Fact, it is correct that the EU took seven years to negotiate a trade deal with Canada but that can’t be used to conclude that any UK-US trade deal would take as long to hash out.

Johnson, on the other hand, claimed that the UK government’s program for having 40 new hospitals is going ahead.

According to Full Fact, six hospitals in England have been given money to upgrade their buildings within the next five years. Up to 38 hospitals are being given money to develop plans for their hospitals between 2025-2030, but not to actually begin any building work.

During the night, fact-checkers also used content from their archives and tweeted out context URLs about six claims they heard during the debate — perfectly executing the plan they had for the night.

But something peculiar happened.

Fifteen minutes after the debate started, when I was just starting to follow the #ITVdebate hashtag on Twitter to see the public’s reaction to the spectacle, Full Fact’s CEO, Will Moy, motioned for me to approach him.

The Conservative Party’s press Twitter account (@CCHQPress) had rebranded itself to look like a fact-checking organization. It changed its Twitter header image and profile picture.

Instead of the usual white and sky blue, the party colours, the new images were a medium purple color with check marks on them and the words ‘factcheckUK,’ which it also used as its new name. Its handle remained @CCHQPress.

Everyone in the Full Fact offices seemed to freeze for a second in disbelief.

Immediately Moy drafted a tweet about what he considered to be an imprudent action taken by the Conservative’s Press Office.I dived on social media to search for what people were saying about it. The question in my head was: “Did the public know they were being duped?”

After a few minutes, while Full Fact’s team quickly recouped and tunned back into listening to the debate, I realized that, thankfully, that in most posts, people were outraged. They had spotted the deceit and some of them were even calling for Full Fact to make a comment.

A nascent industry in my home country of Kenya, fact-checking has not reached the level of recognition that it has in the UK. So this was a vibrant and completely new experience for me. I had not anticipated a political party caring enough about the influence fact-checking has on public views and perception.

And it was thrilling to see a Full Fact tweet about this case highly shared. The post condemning such behavior gained more than 20,000 retweets in a few hours, making clear that the idea of trying to mislead the public in such a way is wildly inappropriate in the UK, especially when it puts the work and reputations fact-checkers at stake.

“Why would a self-respecting, serious political party masquerade as something else to get its campaign points across?” asked Moy when he appeared for a TV interview the following day. Twitter also called out the act as deceptive and issued a warning that any repeated attempts to trick the public would be met with “decisive corrective action.”

This felt like a foreshadowing of what I could soon be grappling with back home.

Up until this moment, everything was pretty much nostalgic in my life as a fact-checker for PesaCheck. This has definitely changed.