Rethinking impartiality in an age of political disinformation

Since 2010 political parties have stopped holding daily press conferences during election campaigns. Ahead of the last four elections, they have concentrated their efforts on carefully controlled events and rallies, along with more sophisticated online and social media campaigning.

This trend continued into the 2019 election campaign, but a more cynical approach to electioneering was evident, with parties pumping out disinformation to enhance their electoral prospects.

There were, of course, old-age disinformation techniques from all political parties, such as Liberal Democrat leaflets featuring highly misleading opinion polls or exaggerated claims by the Labour party about the future costs of the NHS in a Tory post-Brexit US trade deal.

But, above all, the Conservative party led the way in ruthlessly spreading disinformation, from repeatedly making dubious claims to avoiding scrutiny from particular news organisations, programmes and journalists. For example, a Full Fact study concluded that 88% of its Facebook adverts between 1 and 4 December were misleading.

The Conservative party used the latest digital tools to mislead voters and undermine opponents. During the first televised leaders debate between Johnson and Corbyn, for example, the Conservatives turned its Twitter profile into a fact-checking service, which undermined the impartiality of independent fact-checking sites. The party also bought websites – such as – which contained false information about Labour’s manifesto proposals. It forced Google to suspend eight websites set up by the Tories less than two weeks before election day.

While these new disinformation tactics have attracted some criticism, perhaps more significant was the party’s relentless use of misleading claims about their policy plans. On Brexit, for example, the likelihood of getting it done quickly was highly misleading since negotiations with the EU are likely to continue for years. Similarly, they promised to build 40 new hospitals when, in fact, funding was only available for six costing 2.7bn with £100 million for seed funding to explore building 34 more hospitals in the future.

In the face of such brazen disinformation, how can broadcasters maintain their legal obligation to impartiality while also hold parties to account?

The BBC, in particular, has been under sustained attack about its inability to stand up to the agenda-setting power of the Conservative Party. It has sought to feature Reality Check – its fact-checking service – more prominently in routine coverage. As I argued in the New Statesman during the campaign, while fact-checking is welcomed journalistic initiative, broadcasters – not just the BBC – need to be bolder and more strategically aware of how to effectively counter disinformation.

Many journalists have attempted to challenge dubious claims, but found it difficult to do so in a sustained way. And yet, the democratic implications of not holding parties to account are profound. Focus group research during the campaign, for example, showed people were horrified when they learnt Brexit would not be achieved any time soon. Similarly, when voters heard Conservative candidates promising to build 40 new hospitals, how many of them knew it was just six if only some outlets fact-checked the claim?

This points to the limits of fact-checking news after it has been aired or published. When the BBC’s Reality Check corrected a Question Time audience claim that the Labour Party will increase income tax for people earning under £80,000 per year the morning after the programme was broadcast – as it did during the campaign – the impact on the millions watching (and re-watching the clip later on social media) was almost impossible to counter.

So how can broadcasters effectively counter political disinformation?

In my view, they need to be bolder in how they interpret impartiality. So, for example, rather than allowing politicians to freely repeat the phrase ‘get Brexit done’, this could have been robustly countered on screen with a strap line. Rather than broadcast live interviews with leaders, they could have been pre-recorded and fact-checked during the programme. In live TV debates fact-checkers could have appeared in the programme in order to directly challenge claims.

There also needs to be greater sensitivity in fact-checking reporting because repeating claims may amplify disinformation. When the Conservatives’ claimed the Labour manifesto cost £1.2 trillion, for instance, fact-checkers contesting this figure may well have undermined Corbyn’s economic credibility by re-stating the eye-catching trillion pound figure. In other words, political parties could be making cynical assertations – alleging Labour spending will exceed a trillion pounds – knowing full well it will stick in voters’ minds more than the correction of it.

No doubt broadcasters will face party political flak – notably the BBC – if they adopt a more adversarial fact-checking style in election reporting. But if they all signed up to it, this approach would soon become normalised in routine campaign coverage.

In my view, broadcasters need to be better prepared to combat party political disinformation if they want to more effectively serve their audiences. Over the next two years, Dr Maria Kyriakidou and I will be researching how political disinformation can be effectively countered as part of a new AHRC research grant.