Twitter warns Conservative Party over "misleading" temporary profile changes - BLM partner Steve Kuncewicz explains why

Campaigning for the 2019 UK General Election is now well and truly under way, with social media being one of the key battlegrounds and platforms for delivering agile content to an engaged audience. However, against the ongoing debate over the (lack of) regulation of political advertising in both the UK and US other than through broadcast, the Conservative Party has been warned against “attempts to mislead the public” in the wake of the rebrand of one its official “CCHQPress” Twitter account to “factcheckUK” for the duration of the recent Johnson/Corbyn Leaders’ Debate. Shortly after the broadcast ended the account returned to the branding its 76,000 followers were used to, after an hour of promoting pro-Tory statements prefixed with the word “FACT”.

Twitter has recently moved to ban all political advertising on its platform and amidst a storm of criticism from all corners of the media, made its own position on the matter very clear – “any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information – in a manner seen during the UK election debate – will result in decisive corrective action”.  The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s response was dismissive, suggesting that “no-one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”, but other more formal responses seem to suggest that the Tory Digital Team may have seen this tactic as within their remit. Calls for the Electoral Commission to investigate have underlined the fact that they have no role in regulating election campaign content, but have seen it call upon “campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly and to support campaigning transparency”.

In the absence of the ASA or Electoral Commission being able to step in and force a change in behaviour, Twitter may be in a unique position to act if this happens again. It has recently taken the drastic move of banning all political advertising from its platform, and its warning to the Conservatives emphasises the fact that it has global rules in place which prohibit “misleading behaviour”, notably through Verified Accounts with the fabled “Blue Tick” – this in itself carries an implicit endorsement that any account awarded one is genuine, and although the CCHQPress account name wasn’t changed during the debate, leading some to doubt the effect of making cosmetic short-term changes on a profile upon its audience, the fact that those cosmetic changes sought to portray this account as a presumably-neutral fact-checking organisation during a campaign where the issues of trust and truth are at the centre of the public debate to disseminate partisan statements in support of one particular party presented as “facts” suggest a considered communications strategy, one which has drawn specific criticism from the PRCA – the world’s largest PR professional body, who referred to obligations within its own code of conduct that oblige PR professional to “fight disinformation, not purvey it”.

Twitter is caught in the middle of this debate, as well as a wider discussion around the regulation of political advertising in the social media age. It hasn’t hesitated in taking wide-ranging action on the issue, and although many have already said that it could have done more in this particular situation, it has also been clear that it wants to foster political debate through earned rather than bought reach, taking “decisive action” hasn’t yet seen the US President’s profile suspended for a breach of the Twitter Rules, regardless of widespread calls to do so.

Suspending the Conservative Party’s profile for a breach of the Twitter Rules would be a drastic step, but it’s not out of the realms of possibility against the wider landscape in an increasingly fraught campaign.

Abuse of a verified profile is more serious in Twitter’s estimation, which may draw a similarly serious response. For now, the wisdom of the crowd appears to have won out, and it’s doubtful that we’ll see the tactic repeated, but we may see other attempts to play around the edges of the law Twitter writes for itself through its own terms & conditions.

Many users may not read terms & conditions, brands and political parties will be well aware, and now perhaps a little more hesitant on pushing this particular envelope.

Steve Kuncewicz is head of creative, digital and marketing law at insurance risk and commercial specialist BLM.

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