CCHQ, the Conservative press office which coordinates the party's national campaigning activity, temporarily rebranded its Twitter profile last night to FactCheckUK.
The rebrand occurred shortly before the first leader's debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, broadcast on ITV last night, but CCHQ reverted to its original profile shortly after the one-hour clash came to an end.
During the debate CCHQ chose to abandon the visual identity and logo on its Twitter profile in favour of the words 'factcheckUK', accompanied by a white tick on a purple background with the strapline 'From CCHQ' in small text below.
Its Twitter name was also changed to factcheckUK – although its Twitter handle remained @CCHQPress during the temporary rebrand – and political statements from the account were prefixed with the word 'FACT' throughout the debate.
Genuine, independent fact-checking organisations, such as the charity Full Fact, criticised the move while the debate was still in progress, calling it "inappropriate and misleading".
It is inappropriate and misleading for the Conservative press office to rename their twitter account ‘factcheckUK’ during this debate. Please do not mistake it for an independent fact checking service such as @FullFact, @FactCheck or @FactCheckNI— Full Fact (@FullFact) November 19, 2019
Speaking in tomorrow’s 'General Election Panel', Sir Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former director of comms, called the moment one of the big campaigning stories of the week.
He told PRWeek: "For me, it begs the question: if this is what is out in the open, who knows what it going on at a hyper-targeted level, not seen by the media? As anyone in PR knows – trust is a valuable commodity that is hard to put a price on, perhaps because it is priceless."
There was also anger and criticism from other industry professionals.
If @CCHQPress thought changing their name but not their handle still meant it was clear the account was CCHQ, why on earth did they change it in the first place? If not to mislead, then what?— Alex Myers (@AlexMyers) November 20, 2019
Some members of the public responded to the social-media tactic by changing their own Twitter profiles to FactCheckUK which others impersonated CCHQ's traditional handle and profile to make pro-Corbyn statements.
The humorist and writer/producer Charlie Brooker made a reference to George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 in his response.
We have always been at war with Eastasia.— factcheckUK (@charltonbrooker) November 19, 2019
Twitter and Electoral Commission warning to CCHQ
In a statement this morning, Twitter reprimanded CCHQ and said it was committed to facilitating healthy debate during the general election.
The social-media platform also warned the Conservatives that it would take "decisive corrective action" if the party attempted to mislead voters again, although it did not specify what action it would take.
Twitter said: "We have global rules in place that prohibit behaviour that can mislead people, including those with verified accounts. 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."
But FullFact's chairman, Will Moy, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that Twitter could have taken more decisive action while the debate was in progress by forcibly restoring CCHQ's original profile.
"They could have forcibly re-named the account"— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) November 20, 2019
Will Moy, from @FullFact, says Twitter should have done more about @Conservatives re-branding their press account "factcheckUK" during last night's election debate #r4today | https://t.co/TJ5uw4lejP | @JustinOnWeb pic.twitter.com/R82Osexj24
The Electoral Commission said voters were "entitled to transparency and integrity from campaigners in the lead-up to an election" so they could make informed decisions, and urged parties to act responsibly.
CCHQ was contacted but had not responded to PRWeek at the time of publication.
However, Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly, who has responsibility for the party’s social-media output, defended the rebrand on the BBC's Newsnight last night, telling presenter Emily Maitlis in an interview: "The Twitter handle of the CCHQ press office remained CCHQPress, so it's clear the nature of the site."
Meanwhile, speaking this morning on BBC Breakfast, Dominic Raab also defended the move, and claimed: "No-one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust."
"No-one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust"— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) November 20, 2019
Conservative Dominic Raab defends rebrand of party Twitter account as 'factcheckUK' during TV debate, calling it an "instant rebuttal mechanism" for "nonsense put around by Labour"https://t.co/HVs6HmvGvr #bbcbreakfast pic.twitter.com/4ZrIwVn8iX
Click here to subscribe to the new, FREE public affairs bulletin to receive dedicated public affairs news, features and comment straight to your inbox.
Make sure you register for the site to access more than one story per month.
To submit a news, comment, case study or analysis idea for the public affairs bulletin, email Ian.Griggs@haymarket.com