Fake news, emotions, and social media

When the dust settles, the 2019 General Election will likely be remembered as the first UK ‘fake news’ campaign. With the Conservatives investing particularly heavily in their digital campaign, the party engaged in a range of misinformation tactics. These included the doctoring of a video of Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, to make him look “lost for words”, and the rebranding of the Conservative press office twitter account as UK FactCheck. The Liberal Democrats were criticised for distributing campaign materials resembling local newspapers, a strategy also used by local Conservative and Labour candidates.

In the era of social media, the extent to which misinformation gains traction depends largely on the emotional resonance of the narrative underpinning it. As Alfred Hermida put it in his book, Tell everyone, “Emotions play a vital part in the social transmission of news and information. Interest, happiness, disgust, surprise, sadness, anger, fear and contempt affect how some stories catch on and travel far wider than others.” The fact that political behaviour is shaped by our emotional attachments is not a new phenomenon. What is new is our ability to widely share stories that feel true to us – what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has referred to as our “deep stories.” As numerous studies have found, the rise of social media has led to widespread sharing without verifying the accuracy of information.

In the UK general election, the interplay between emotions, fake news and the “deep stories” about politics was perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the story of four-year old Jack on the floor in Leeds General Infirmary. On December 8, the Yorkshire Evening Post published a report detailing how Jack, under observation for pneumonia, “was forced to sleep on a cold hospital floor for more than four hours because of a shortage of beds.” The story was accompanied by an image taken by his mother. It showed the four-year old, attached to a drip, lying on the floor on a red winter coat. The story gained quickly gained traction across social media platforms, as Labour supporters urged voters to back the party to address the crisis in the NHS.

Jack on the hospital floor swiftly became the Aylan Kurdi of the general election. By showing the plight of one individual, the image dramatised the larger “deep story” that resonated with so many voters: a story about how cuts to the NHS are endangering the lives of ordinary people. While the Labour Party fought to place the NHS centre stage of the election debate throughout the campaign, the image of Jack did far more than any planned interventions to call attention to the health crisis.

On December 9th, the story took another turn. In an interview with ITV’s Joe Pike, Boris Johnson repeatedly refused to look at the photo of Jack, ultimately pocketing the reporter’s phone. Subsequently, the Prime Minister was widely berated for his lack of compassion. Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the Prime Minister “just doesn’t care,” while Liberal Democrat Tim Farron raised concern about a “shocking lack of empathy.” The story of Jack came to fit into a deep story about the Prime Minister’s human failings, encapsulated in his inadequate emotional response to the tragedy of the sick boy on the hospital floor.

Later that same day, however, posts on Twitter and Facebook appeared, suggesting that the image of Jack was staged. The original post stated: ““Very interesting. A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital – the boy shown on the floor by the media was in fact put there by his mother who then took photos on her mobile phone and uploaded it to media outlets before he climbed back onto his trolley.” Identical messages were swiftly posted by hundreds of users, suggesting an orchestrated misinformation campaign. However, the original source of the story came forward to say that her account had been hacked, while a hospital spokesperson confirmed that the incident had actually taken place. Nonetheless, the post was shared at least 200,000 times, including by high-profile journalists and politicians.

In an investigation, the fact-checking organisation FullFact found no evidence that the sharing was done by bots, suggesting instead that “what can appear to be bot-like behaviour is often carried out by real humans” – in this case, older and less social media literate users who simply wanted to share the news. If accurate, this indicates that Conservative supporters were keen to spread this story because it resonated with their deep story – the idea that the opposition might wilfully manipulate the news to influence the election.

More than anything, the controversy over Jack in Leeds General Infirmary dramatises the instability of truth claims in an emotionally charged social media ecology, and the continued vital role of conventional news media in their insistence on sticking to the facts.