The row over animal sentience that’s taken place over the last week is a story of our times. It’s estimated that two million people saw one version or another of the bogus reports that Conservative MPs had “voted that animals cannot feel pain” – a catchy but false claim.
There were a number of factors driving the story. The General Election campaign saw phenomenal viral success for negative stories about the prospect of a free vote on hunting, and the failure to specify an ivory trade ban in the manifesto, so there’s a specific appetite among the British electorate for news on animal rights, and such widespread negative headlines do political damage. Canny left-wing campaigners saw the opportunity to misrepresent the recent Commons vote to generate another such story, and some newspapers – such as The Independent and the Evening Standard – followed suit, albeit for the different reason of wanting a clickbait headline to try to drive ad revenue. Once it had started spreading, the story snowballed with the support of a range of celebrities on Twitter.
We can wish that our political opponents were more truthful, and that papers like the Independent were less desperate. We can wish that celebrities would check the facts before spreading claims that turn out not to be true. But we cannot rely on any of those changes coming to pass – people are people, some are actively bad and plenty more are just a bit lazy, and that’s unlikely to change.
So what can Conservatives do about such stories?
Given that things like this keep happening, there needs to be more acute awareness in government of potential problem stories coming down the track. Having someone on our own side whose role is to observe events with a cynical eye and imagine what the other side might do – ‘red teaming’ in American strategic jargon – as well as close monitoring to try to spot possible viral stories in their early stages would both be valuable.
Rapid and active rebuttal online, to challenge and overturn those bogus stories that do get up and running, is also worthwhile. It’s common to seek corrections from newspapers, but the animal sentience row is the first time that I can recall celebrities being publicly challenged and eventually persuaded to correct the record on something like this.
Carrie Symonds, the CCHQ Director of Communications, deserves praise for her response to the issue – few political spinners would feel confident wading into the risky waters of debating famous comedians and TV stars on Twitter, but Symonds did so and has scored some victories as a result. Michael Gove has also gone on the offensive against the untrue stories, and quite a lot of grassroots Tories have got involved in the issue online, too – which is far better than letting an untruth spread for fear of getting into an argument.
More fundamentally, there’s an uncomfortable truth to realise. A story like this – untrue, negative, deeply damaging, and a targeted slur on the character and values of Conservative MPs – successfully goes viral in part because of our Party’s reputational problems. If people find it plausible, or even just possible, then they are less likely to question it and more likely to share it.
Spotting such stories early, and working hard to nip them in the bud, is valuable and important. Changing people’s view of Conservatives to the point at which they don’t find such untrue slurs believable in the first place, however, is the real challenge.