29 November 2019

#FactCheckGate: communications disaster or PR genius?

Farrer Kane PR Assistant Barbora Bute reflects on social media and the commodity of trust as the country prepares to go to the polls

Ahead of the UK's first December general election in almost a century, we all expected the ITV leadership debate last week to be a talking point. But on social media, it wasn't a particular policy or catchphrase that got its own hashtag; instead, it was the Conservative Party's Press Office that got us all talking. After CCHQ Press changed its Twitter handle to 'factcheckUK', #FactCheckGate quickly seemed to overtake #ITVdebate in the rankings.

Some argued that this was an abuse of public trust; we'd reached a dystopian, post-truth future, where political parties dealt in disinformation rather than honest promises to the public. While politicians defended the incident in interviews, a few other commentators pointed out that trust in genuine fact-checking platforms could plummet as a result of the manoeuvre. Others still theorised that this was not a PR disaster, but a clever move by the CCHQ Press to distract us from the debate itself. And this web became even more tangled when the actor Ralf Little changed his Twitter handle to 'Conservative Press Orifice' to satirise the impersonation: his account was mysteriously suspended, and his own name became another trending hashtag during the backlash.

What can we learn from this episode, with all its multiple interpretations, layers, twists and turns? What can it tell us about the twenty-first century landscape of social media on the one hand, and the age-old problems of honesty and authority on the other?

Ultimately, #FactCheckGate drives home how quickly a crisis can escalate: a name change becomes a hashtag, which then becomes national news. Of course, the political significance and timing of this particular incident was a major factor behind how much attention it received. At the same time, it's not difficult to see how #FactCheckGate could worry anyone with a social media account and a reputation to uphold. It's not only a straightforward lie that can get you trending for all the wrong reasons, but something as accidental as a misplaced word or confusion over a username. It's now commonplace for a company's online conduct to make it into the news, which is made even more likely by the fact that an uproar makes for a better story than positive engagement; typically bad news is good news as far as the media is concerned!

An interesting aspect of this phenomenon is what it means for the relationship between the traditional and social media. With each one blurring into the other, a social media presence or at the very least, social media strategy, is no longer an add-on or nice to have, but almost obligatory and in need of careful planning and prescience. Language has always been open to interpretation, but social media brings another layer of plurality to the field of communications.

It's become almost impossible to take a step back from our online selves and communities; even if we manage to minimise the time we spend looking at screens, it's difficult - and impractical - to imagine a world where we only communicate in person or on paper. This is the backdrop against which fears about 'post-truth' and disinformation have fermented. But in this new world, what has become more important than ever is authority. #FactCheckGate proves this, since it got the response it did because many saw it as a direct threat to authority and trust. And so, our appetite for views we can trust, even if we disagree with these opinions or don't even notice our hunger, can only grow as we enter 2020 - whoever wins the election.