Fact-checkers’ attempts to check rhetorical slogans and misinformation

The Conservative Party’s decisive win has been widely attributed to simple, forceful rhetoriconline misinformation and dirty tricks that ‘wrong-footed’ the mainstream media, although they were not the only party implicated. It was also an election where fact-checking was more prominently featured than in the past, albeit partly because its profile was raised by one of the dirty tricks. Fact-checking journalism originated in a desire to go beyond reporting claim and counterclaim and examine how well-grounded politicians’ rhetoric was in evidence. However, both rhetoric and online misinformation present challenges to how fact-checkers have operated in the last 10-15 years they have been with us.

Firstly, the practice has traditionally been focused on claims about policy pledges and the incumbent party’s record in government – and the three main fact-checkers have run over 50 checks between them on Conservative policy claims alone – but it can be difficult or contentious to identify the unstated factual claims behind a rhetorical slogan. In 2017, ‘Strong and Stable’ was largely (and fatefully) taken to be a personal credibility claim for Theresa May in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, and therefore based primarily in subjective judgements. Having said that, connected claims about May’s record of successful negotiation were not checked, whilst claims about Corbyn’s popularity within his party, past voting record and personal associations were. The slogan that connects ‘Strong and Stable’ with ‘get Brexit done,’ however, is the contrast offered for both – a ‘coalition of chaos’, which perhaps resonated more after 30 months of a minority (and divided) Conservative government.

Reality Check gamely had a go at fact-checking ‘get Brexit done’, pointing out that Brexit wouldn’t be done and dusted on the day the UK exits the European Union, and that there will be years of negotiation and debate still to come. Although the article repeatedly says that Brexit won’t be done when the UK leaves, it takes the form of an explainer, with no ‘verdict’ section. However, it does indirectly address the implicit claim of the rhetorical slogan, which is the dubious assertion that the only thing making Brexit difficult and intractable is parliamentary deadlock.

Although a distraction from policy substance, then, process – the horse-race, relative popularity, questions of who could win, and not only win but form an effective government – was a key part of the persuasive discourse, but the most contentious claims appeared not in the mainstream media but in targeted leaflets and Facebook adverts.

The second challenge for fact-checkers is that they tend to focus on claims that politicians make in mainstream media appearances. Therefore fact-checkers do echo the news issue agenda, but they don’t follow it slavishly. As in 2017, attention to process claims in fact-checking was a fraction of that in the news media (about 8% compared to around a third) but there was a clear shift in focus from the accuracy of opinion polls to focus instead on parties’ dubious claims about tactical voting in campaign literature.

In this though, the Conservatives were only picked up for a very minor miscalculation of required swing and for oversimplifying the effect of a vote switch, and it was the Liberal Democrats who were accused of the most egregious misuse of voter intention polls (by both Reality Check and Full Fact). However, it is not straightforward for fact-checkers to get access to these targeted and local materials, and they have to depend in part on the audience sending examples in or posting them to third party repositories.

Fact-checkers also tried to address purposeful disinformation and more well-intentioned misinformation online, but they rarely detected the problematic material themselves. Full Fact was the only fact-checker to address material from social media in 2017, positively assessing a viral video. This time they were expecting to find deepfakes, but only found an obviously digitally manipulated video of Dianne Abbott superimposed with clown make-up, with sound removed and subtitles added to attribute different words (shared by a Facebook page dedicated to attacking ‘antifa’), but with obvious ‘satirical’ (or perhaps ‘shitposting’) intent rather than to deceive.

It wasn’t just rogue partisans found circulating dubious material, of course – a misleadingly edited video of Jess Phillips that was circulated by the Conservative press office (@CCHQ) and main Twitter accounts “made it appear as if she said Labour couldn’t deliver the promises in its 2019 manifesto.” Full Fact clarified that it was on old clip of her talking about manifestos in general. In this instance the fact-check forced a correction. However, corrections can be meaningless when the original posts have already been widely shared, and an unrepentant attitude can be detected in @CCHQ defiantly changing its Twitter name back to FactcheckUK to announce the Conservatives as the winner of the election, suggesting that negative verdicts and corrections are no longer feared or avoided.