What can we do when fake news is uncovered? In his election campaign, Boris Johnson shamelessly uses fabricated facts to create support for Brexit and turn people against his political opponents. And, in doing so, shows SEO skills we did not expect him to have. On the long-term effects of a disinformation bubble.
Even during his time as an editor and columnist, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, was known for his sensational topics. During his campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum and the 2019 elections, he added fuel to the fire many times with entirely made-up facts, fabrications and even his own “fact-checking” portal.
A memorable example? Johnson’s campaign bus he used for a tour. The following sentence was printed two storeys high on the vehicle: “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”. This slogan quickly spread widely during the Brexit campaign. 350 million pounds. This number was often used by opponents to the concept of a united Europe as an argument. The problem is that the number was not just misleading but simply incorrect. Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-European party UKIP at the time, freely admits this in a live interview.
This did not harm Johnson’s popularity. And, according to a survey carried out by King’s College London, around 42 percent of Brits still believe this amount to be correct now. 67 percent of active voters in Great Britain are aware of the statement.
Johnson’s response to the statements debunking this myth showed unexpected online skills: he never addressed the accusations of the journalists directly and skirted around the topic. Until he gave an interview with the British newspaper THE GUARDIAN in which he set out to clear everything up. But only for himself. Not for the public. Replying to the mundane question of “What do you do to relax in your free time?”, the Prime Minister commented confusingly: “I build things. I build models of buses.”
In detailed and seemingly disconnected sentences, Johnson describes his hobby and leaves the interviewer irritated. Tabloid publications used the bizarre conversation in headlines. And thus achieved exactly what Johnson had planned: the search results on Google shifted in his favour. Thanks to his amusing bus interview, they moved away from the unpleasant (for him) reports about Johnson’s campaign bus. This was targeted manipulation to camouflage disinformation.
But Johnson continues to develop his “fake news” strategy: in addition to lots of false statements, Johnson’s party recently created another furore. BBC articles which had originally reported critically on the policies of the Tory leadership were cut by Johnson’s team to make the message appear as if it were the opposite. The videos were used as election advertising.
Deliberately misleading people on websites is also part of his repertoire. The Tory party made use of a trend established by independent quality media outlets: fact checks.
During Johnson’s TV debates, the Tory party press office changed the name and logo of its Twitter account to “factcheckUK”. As such, it used the guise of neutrality to distribute opinions and “alternative facts”.
The Tory party also paid for search results on Google. If a voter wanted to find out about the Labour manifesto, they would find a fake website at the very top, which featured only the alleged manifesto of the party. Authored by the Tory party press office. An information war that Boris Johnson did not ignite. However, he did add flames to the fire.