How the government's 'fake news' rebuttal operation targets journalists on Twitter
"If you don’t want to target him... then don’t @ him at all"
Back in May this year I attended a lobby briefing in which the prime minister’s official spokesman was repeatedly asked to rule out accepting hormone-treated beef as part of a trade deal with Australia.
Their refusal to do so struck both myself and other journalists who attended the briefing as curious, so I tweeted out their response.
My Tweet was an entirely accurate account of the briefing, which was later reported in print by other outlets who attended the briefing.
However, a few hours later I suddenly noticed that I was getting a lot of replies which linked in the Department for International Trade’s Twitter account.
I then realised that the department had targeted me with a tweet, including a gif about hormone-treated beef.
This Tweet raised several immediate questions to me:
Why had they sent it to me in particular when several other journalists had tweeted the same?
Why did it not link to my original tweet or give any context for their followers?
Why hadn’t they contacted me directly rather than creating a gif?
What the hell is ‘Adam Bienkov hormone-treated beef’ anyway?
In order to find out I submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for internal communications within government about the tweet.
After waiting several months, during which they made some very strange attempts to avoid releasing the information (more of which at a later date) they finally sent me this redacted document, which I have reproduced in full below.
Message 1: [REDACTED] 21/05 15:43
Please can you put out the following immediately .@AdamBienkov hormone beef is banned in the UK. We won’t be accepting it in the Australia trade deal or any other. [yellow beef asset]
Message 2: 21/05 15:46
Message 3: [REDACTED] 21/05 15:46
Immediate means in the next 10 mins so 10 secs is fine. Tmv
Adam Bienkov on Twitter
“Boris Johnson’s spokesman refuses to explicitly rule out accepting hormone-treated beef as part of a trade deal with Australia”
This is a misunderstanding following a lobby briefing and we’re taking some calls in press office on it. [14.50]
Think it’s worth putting a straight tweet out? [14:50)
Message 2: [REDACTED]
Can we put it to bed? [14:51]
Ie strong response? [14:51]
Will have some language for you soon. [14:56]
We’re just getting this policy cleared. Hormone beef is banned in the U.K. We won’t be accepting it in this or any other trade deal. [15:06]
How would suggest we use – straight tweet? Picture card? Sorry feel free to point me to RSP if this is annoying. [15:00]
[REDACTED] - I think it is worth directing tweet at Adam, not sure if this is what you had in mind… but we should .@ him [15:26]
Yes ok [15:26]
Just getting clearance [15:27]
You could just do @adamxxxxx hormone beef is banned in the U.K. We won’t be accepting it in this or any other trade deal. [15:27]
Any pointy (SIC) down to asset arrow [15:27]
I don’t want to come across as targeting him. Would it be good to just add his handle on the bottom? [15:28]
Hormone beef is banned in the U.K. We won’t be accepting it in the Australia trade deal or any other. @AdamBienkov [15:32]
Does that work? [15:33]
If you don’t want to target him and its general and not in response to his tweet then don’t @ him at all [15:33]
I think we need to link it though right? It’s just the style [15:34]
Link it through? [15:34]
If you directly talking to him then it’s tradition on Twitter to start with .@AdamBienkov [15:35]
.@AdamBienkov Hormone beef is banned in the U.K. We won’t be accepting it in the Australia trade deal or any other. [15:39]
Think it’s worth putting out a tweet [14:52]
Message 2: Adam Jones
I do. Something really definitive and clear. As punchy as we can be. [14:53] Message 3:
Let’s craft language here. Hormone beef is banned in the U.K. We won’t be accepting it in this or any other trade deal. [14:56]
Message 4: [REDACTED]
‘Let’s craft language here. Hormone beef is banned in the U.K.’
Blending Chatham and NFU – might some of this wording help? I.e.
We have legislated to ban the import of hormone-fed beef and that ban will remain in place. Our world-class standards are not up for grabs [15:03]
Message 5: [REDACTED]
I actually think simpler is better [15:04]
Message 6: [REDACTED]
‘Let’s craft language here. Hormone beef is banned in the U.K.’
This works for me. DIT or Liz?
Message 8: [REDACTED]
I’ll run past [REDACTED] [15:06]
I’ll t-up [REDACTED] [15:06]
Message 10: [REDACTED]
‘This works for me. DIT or Liz?’
I’ve been thinking and I think dit is better [15:11]
Keep sos out of it [15:11]
So (pending clearance) we use this language… Hormone beef is banned in the U.K. We won’t be accepting it in this or any other trade deal. [15:17]
With this asset [15:17]
Message 12: [REDACTED]
So the [REDACTED] has cleared. The DD [REDACTED] but it’s definitely true, so ‘m happy for it to go if you are [REDACTED] .
Message 13: Adam Jones
‘Lets craft language here. Hormone beef is banned In the U.K.’
Yep I’d go with this. [15:23]
And defo DIT not Liz [15:24]
Message 14: [REDACTED]
‘So the [REDACTED] has cleared. The DD [REDACTED] but it’s definitely true, so ‘m happy for it to go if you are [REDACTED] .’
Who is the DD – [REDACTED]
How have I never heard of him. OK hang on. [15:25]
Ok – this is me officially overruling the SCS process and saying [REDACTED] approval is good enough. [15:29]
[REDACTED] also says we should add Adam B’s handle in. [15:29]
Message 17: [REDACTED]
Shall I message [REDACTED] [15:30]
I’m chatting with her now. Thanks [15:30]
.@AdamBienkov Hormone beef is banned in the U.K. We won’t be accepting it in the Australia trade deal or any other. [15:40]
This is what we’ll do. Note [REDACTED] I’ve changed “this” for the “Australia trade deal”. [15:41]
‘If you don’t want to target him… don’t @ him at all’
Because of the heavy redaction it’s impossible to know exactly who is corresponding with who in the messages (although Adam Jones, who is Liz Truss’ Special Adviser, is named).
However, it fits with a pattern of similar messages targeted at other journalists since the establishment of the government’s ‘fake news rebuttal unit’ several years ago.
This correspondence is illuminating in how it reveals the ignorance among officials about social media etiquette, the many levels of approval required for a single tweet, and the ultimately confusing and pointless end result.
Indeed, if you take a look through the replies to the Department’s tweet to me, it’s telling how that far from disabuse the public from the idea that the government intends to allow hormone-treated beef into the UK, it actually appears to merely confirm it in the minds of those replying.
All of which raises the question: Rather than setting up a unit whose job appears to be targeting journalists with gifs, wouldn’t they be better off simply giving straight answers to journalists in the first place?