At Reform Political Advertising, we’re a bit nervous of buses. Ever since the big fat £350m lie on the side of a big red bus rolled into Westminster, we’ve been keeping a wary eye out and, sure enough, three turn up at once. There’s the Conservative bus, which likes to pretend it isn’t a bus at all, the Lib Dem bus, which claims that it’s far more likely to turn up than you thought but never does, and the Labour bus, which is late because it’s busy telling all the other buses they’re on the wrong route.
These are the higher profile examples, available to anyone who can access the web generally and the Facebook ad library specifically, which means anyone. Nothing – beyond complaints, unfailingly ignored – can be done about them, however, as election advertising isn’t regulated, a position that the government defends on the grounds of ‘free speech’. We have never made, and never will, a case against any kind of political opinion or position, no matter how offensive to many, only that factual claims in election advertising must be accurate, the position taken by the House of Lords’ recommendation and so fatuously dismissed by this government, and the position that nine out of ten voters think should happen (YouGov 2019).
Our case, which we have been making for several years, is that this situation is widely exploited by most political parties and organisations as we have demonstrated in our reports into nefarious activity from the last General and local elections. (For the record, the Green party and some other political organisations have signed our pledge committing to best attempts at factual accuracy).
What is coming to our attention, however, or more accurately what we have unearthed thanks to friends in lower profile places, is political activity that is in many ways worse than the examples we have referenced above, because it is surreptitious, insidious, long term, manipulative, deceitful, largely undetected, impervious to criticism and immune to complaint, and it very probably affects the outcome of local elections.
You won’t find it in the Facebook ad library, nor on the sides of buses or bus shelters, nor in your local newspaper, but it is, or purports to be, ‘your local news.’ There will be many such now, as they are proven successful; we have selected one because it is a particularly egregious example of the genre. Arise, albeit you have some distance to travel, North Shields Life (NSL). This website, its recently spawned sibling Cullercoats Life, and associated Facebook pages consist of unfailingly negative stories about opposition candidates or councillors, dramatically inaccurate crime and polling statistics, and imaginative interpretations of council policies.
NSL has been the subject of:
- Several articles in the local paper Chronicle Live; example here;
- A complaint from ‘Who targets me’ here;
- A formal complaint to the North Tyneside Council;
- Correspondence from ourselves, pointing out the inaccuracies and failure to identify its political provenance;
- A complaint / report to Facebook on two occasions on the grounds that NSL is (presumably registered as) a news / media site when its role is political.
All of which have failed to make any impression. The sites remain and continue to publish highly selective and frequently inaccurate ‘news’, its real source entirely undisclosed. (As an aside, declaration of source in digital election material is anyway not required and the Elections Bill, which inter alia brings forward this requirement at least ten years late, is so poorly drafted as not to require identification of the political party concerned). We believe the principal author/ proprietor of these sites and messages, albeit not identified in Facebook’s background material, is Liam (a frustrating four letters short of accuracy?) Bones, a North Tyneside Conservative councillor elected in 2021 by a slim margin. Our point, however, is not to pursue Mr. Bones individually, but to pursue as assiduously as resources allow his ‘permission’ to publish these masquerades. As we have pointed out, sites such as these are largely under the influential commentator radar and entirely unregulated; it is that combination that makes them so dangerous.
We write on the day of the announcement of Twitter’s acquisition by Elon Musk, amidst his declaration of the platform’s ‘town square’ status and crucial role in free speech, together with some speculation on the return of Donald Trump to its pages and a general acknowledgement of Twitter’s potency in political debate or declaration. It is clear that this whole political communication territory is one of the most significant that society and its political servants (ha ha) must address, or perhaps suffer, over the coming years. The Online Safety Bill, ‘cancel culture,’ mis-and-disinformation, the Brexit bus, the sale of Channel 4 and the integrity of political statements at the highest level are all representative of an information war under intense scrutiny. We are clear where we stand: an attack on deliberate falsification in election material is far from an attack on free speech in social or political debate. We simply request that the right to be heard is balanced in this context by a requirement for facts to be right, too. Besides, we ponder the value of a ‘free speech’ defense when speech in the U.K. is already restricted by at least two pieces of legislation.
Twitter is, of course, a massive irrelevance to most. We finish where we started: not in San Francisco, nor in Westminster, but in Tyneside and in places like it where, every day, ‘news’ is suborned, some people are duped and some elected to office as a result. This is the position that the government is doing its utmost to protect and while the mainstream media and its influencers write about Elon Musk and Twitter, the voters of North Tyneside must endure the grim realities and fantasies of Liam Bones and North Shields Life.