General Election 2019: How Social Media Spreads False News

Facebook and Twitter posts, claiming to be from a “good friend” of a “senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital”, began circulating Monday evening on December 9. The identical posts attempted to cast doubt on the family of four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr, who was admitted to hospital with suspected pneumonia.

GlobalData’s technology deputy editor Rob Scammell investigates how fake news is spread.

The false Leeds hospital story has been shared thousands of times on social media, despite Leeds General Infirmary confirming that there was a shortage of beds and apologising to the family.

So where did the fake story come from, and how did it spread so quickly?

According to researcher Marc Owen Jones, who studies the spread of false information on social media, Pearson was instrumental in amplifying the low-level chatter spread by smaller accounts. This amplification resulted in more users cut and pasting the false message to share with their friends.

There is no clear evidence that bots – automated accounts – were used to spread the fake Leeds hospital story. Jones told Verdict that it’s impossible to know if the accounts used were “bots per se”, adding that they “could be sock puppets” – an online identity used by a real person for the purpose of deception.

“But without a smoking gun we do not necessarily know whether the tool is automation or more manual – [which is] arguably irrelevant,” says Jones.

That’s because the end result is the same; the disinformation campaign successfully shifted the narrative away from bad publicity for the Conservative Party.

Earlier on Monday afternoon, the news cycle was dominated by Boris Johnson refusing to look at the picture of Jack Williment-Barr, before pocketing the phone of the journalist interviewing him.

“We can say definitively it’s a coordinated influence campaign perpetrated by unknown actors, but ones that want to whitewash Johnson’s mistakes. We are pandering to the narrative, set by the disinformation senders,” says Jones.

Former GCHQ intelligence officer Malcolm Taylor says that the ‘dead cat theory’, in which a more sensational story is introduced to divert the conversation away from a more damaging one, “may be significant”.

“The picture [of Jack Williment-Barr] seems genuine and is clearly political, and so spreading doubt about its provenance is a way of deflecting from it,” says Taylor, who is now director of cybersecurity at ITC Secure.

Scammell concludes: “While there is no proof as to who is behind the Leeds hospital disinformation campaign, it is clear to see which party benefits. Instead of talking about a sick child laying on a hospital floor and the NHS funding gap, the conversation shifted to questioning already established facts.

“For journalists, it’s a Catch-22: it is necessary to call out disinformation, but doing so can achieve the objectives of the disinformation campaign.”