News Brief
Disinformation

Hour by hour: How disinformation swept the UK internet in the election’s final days

In the febrile final 72 hours of Britain’s snap Christmas election, a tide of disinformation began sweeping across the UK internet, with Conservative-leaning trolls and bots coming out in force.

Here’s a timeline of what happened.

Sunday December 8, 11am

It started with a photograph. A mother’s picture of her sick son sleeping on the floor of a hospital in Leeds. It was published by a local paper, the Yorkshire Evening Post. The boy, Jack Williment-Barr, 4, was hooked up to an oxygen supply. His doctors thought he might have pneumonia, but an overstretched emergency room meant Jack was forced to sleep on a pile of coats while he waited for a bed.

The hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr Yvette Oade, issued a statement confirming the incident and apologizing to Jack’s family. “Unfortunately, the unit was also experiencing exceptionally high levels of demand which meant that Jack was required to wait in the clinical treatment room in the pediatric emergency department until a bed became available,” she said.

Sunday December 8, 8pm

Jack’s story was swiftly picked up by national newspaper the Daily Mirror. It wasn’t long before fake news surrounding the incident began to circulate.

“The Punch That Never Was”

Monday December 9, 10am

As the public reacted to the photo, criticism of the UK government’s cuts on the National Health Service began to mount. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was dispatched to Leeds to visit the hospital. A small gaggle of Labour supporters gathered outside.

Monday December 9, 4pm

As Hancock left, one Conservative aide accidentally brushed past a protester’s gesturing hands. Hancock’s representatives told prominent journalists that the adviser had been punched by a Labour protest outside the hospital. The journalists immediately tweeted out the story.

Shortly after, a video of the incident emerged, clearly showing the encounter as accidental.

A UK independent fact-checking service called the incident “the punch that never was.”

It was the first fake narrative in what was to become a tidal wave of troll and bot-led disinformation surrounding the sick boy.

Fake news about the boy’s photo being staged

Monday December 9, 4:40pm

Later that afternoon, a young ITV reporter, Joe Pike, questioned the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the picture of the boy. “Have you seen the photo, Prime Minister?” Pike asked, gesturing at it on his phone. Without glancing at it, Johnson replied: “I haven’t had a chance to look at it. I’ll look at it later.” When Pike persisted, the prime minister took the journalist’s phone and pocketed it. The video of the encounter has now been viewed 11.4 million times.

 

Monday December 9, 8pm
As the evening of December 9 wore on, criticism of Johnson’s response mounted, and news outlets around the world began picking up the story. “A journalist tried to show Boris Johnson a photo of a sick child on the floor of a British hospital. The prime minister took his phone,” a Washington Post headline ran.

Monday December 9, 10pm

In apparent response to the bad press surrounding the boy’s picture, Conservative bots and trolls began to mobilize. One woman’s Facebook account in West Sussex, hundreds of miles away from Leeds, claimed that the boy’s mother had faked the photo.

“Very interesting,” the woman’s post began. “A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital – the boy shown on the floor by the media was in fact put there by his mother who then took photos in her mobile phone and uploaded it to media outlets before he climbed back on to his trolley.”

On Twitter, prominent right-wing journalist Allison Pearson tweeted: “So I have detailed explanation from paediatric nurses explaining why photo of child on the floor is “100% faked. I will put in @Telegraph on Weds,” Pearson’s promised article hasn’t yet materialized, and she later deleted the tweet.

Tuesday December 10, 12am

A Twitter account with the handle @medwar93 then claimed to be “a former paediatric A&E and PICU nurse” and tried to debunk the image by suggesting the boy’s oxygen mask looked staged. Another Twitter user noticed that @medwar93 had also claimed to work “in supply chain” for Jaguar Land Rover for 35 years.

 


Another popular post called the boy’s situation “a fake story” and claimed the boy’s mother was a Labour activist who “used her childs [sic] poor health to score a political point by placing him on the floor.”

Tuesday December 10, 3am

Marc Owen Jones, an Assistant Professor in Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Doha, was among the first to notice how the posts were being picked up.

Tweeting in the middle of the night, Jones said: “The exact same tweet is mentioned on dozens of fairly dodgy looking Facebook accounts,” he said. “Hello multi-use bots.” Jones also commented on Pearson’s involvement: I’ll wager @allisonpearson is perhaps the most influential proponent of the faked floor theory,” he tweeted.

Tuesday December 10, 7pm

It emerged that five Conservative candidates joined in the fray, using social media to spread claims the boy’s story had been faked or staged. The Guardian spoke to a woman who wrote a post claiming to be a nurse, who said her account had been hacked. “I was hacked. I am not a nurse and I certainly don’t know anyone in Leeds,” she said. “I’ve had to delete everything as I have had death threats to myself and my children.”

Tuesday December 10, 11pm

The BBC’s Newsnight program tracked down the woman who posted the first fake story to her Facebook account. She told the BBC her account had been hacked. Digging deeper, newsnight found that the woman’s son, Oliver Hepburn, was also Facebook friends with the Conservative health secretary, Matt Hancock.

 

As tensions ran high, the false narratives claiming that a boy’s suffering in an overstretched hospital was staged, created a trick-mirror atmosphere where nothing seemed true.

The UK’s independent fact-checker confirmed there was no evidence Jack’s photo was staged.

On 10 December, the Editor of Yorkshire Evening Post, James Mitchinson, wrote an open letter to his readers in response to accusations Jack’s story was faked.

“Because it is irresponsible – and reckless – to take one person’s word and take it as fact, we immediately checked the veracity of the assertion with the hospital. That’s not a boast, by the way, just bog-standard journalism,” Mitchinson wrote.

“What we are dealing with is quite simply: a very poorly little boy in a place that cannot give him the care he needs.”

“Whatever you do, do not believe a stranger on social media who disappears into the night.”

We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. Accept our use of cookies, Privacy Policy and Terms of Use