A Child on a Hospital Floor: A Case Study
Charlie looks at one of the main news stories during the election campaign and considers how social media can be used and misused in incidents.
I am writing this on the afternoon of Election Day, so I don’t yet know if this story has impacted the election or whether it has had no impact at all. The story broke on Monday when Boris Johnson was stopped by ITV reporter, Joe Pike, and was shown a picture of four year old Jack Williment-Barr “sleeping under coats on a hospital floor in Leeds as he waited for a bed, despite having suspected pneumonia”. Boris was visibly shaken by the picture and at first refused to look at it, stumbled though his response and also pocketed the journalist’s phone. His reaction was then splashed all over the news, social media and papers. I thought it was interesting that this had all the elements of a social media crisis and followed a fairly predictable path.
At PlanB we have an exercise called “Outside Now”, which involves taking participants outside their building and getting them to discuss a number of scenarios which could happen if their building was on fire. Quick plug - it is one of the exercises in my new short business continuity exercises book, which will be out in the spring. One of the areas of discussion is the videoing of incidents on mobile phones and the possibility of journalists doorstepping senior managers to talk about an incident, which those on the ground have not had time to tell them about. Videos of the incident can be uploaded and then shared extremely quickly, and so the picture or video can reach lots of people before the organisation has time to inform all those who would be expected to be informed of an incident.
I thought Boris’ reaction was very human, in that he realised almost immediately that the picture would have a major impact on the Conservatives and panicked, tried to go into politician condolences mode and was just completely thrown by the whole event. What I find interesting in his reaction was that he believed the picture and didn’t question it. The journalist was a bona fide reporter, but there was no proof that the picture was not faked, or if it was a video that it was not deepfaked. He could have said “I will have to the check the authenticity of the picture before commenting”, in order to buy some time to compose himself and provide a better answer than he did. So, you might teach your senior managers that if they are doorstepped by a journalist and asked to comment on an event, especially if there is a photo involved, then they should ask to be allowed time to authenticate the photo or event before commenting on it.
The story of Boris and the picture dominated the next 24 to 36 hours of news. What followed next could only have happened on social media. It started circulating on Facebook and Twitter that the picture had been faked by the mother of the boy to discredit the Tories and to help Labour. The story was widely circulated by celebrities, journalists, and at least five Conservative candidates. The photo was not a fake, but I suspect it fitted the narrative of the time, in that politicians will do anything to get elected and this is just the sort of low trick the opposing side would do, especially if they thought they were losing. If individuals find a post on social media which seems to follow their beliefs, and it looks authentic, they will “like” it or repost it. This is straight out of the Trump playbook; if you claim something is fake news, try to discredit the damaging story and put doubt in people’s mind about whether it is true or not, your supporters are likely to believe you. You don’t care about what everyone else believes, because if they don’t support you, they are against you.
Whilst reading the papers on this event, I saw The Guardian said they had uncovered the source of the post, but they have not released the woman’s name as she had received death threats. She claimed that her account had been hacked and was not responsible for the post. These two facts are very typical of social media incidents, if people do something other people object to, they get death threats and when people are seemingly caught red-handed as the origin of a controversial social media post, they claim their account had been hacked.
As with all social media incidents, there is the vocal outrage from those involved or affected by it. Ian Lavery, Labour party chair, said: “The fact that Boris Johnson could not even bring himself to look at the photo was bad enough, but for his Conservative candidates to share a far-right conspiracy theory claiming it was a hoax is just sickening. These Tory candidates are not fit to be MPs. Boris Johnson must take action immediately.” When the circulation of the post was at its height, Wendy Maisey, standing in Warrington North, tweeted: “Disgusting what some people will do to sway an election.” Everyone likes to be outraged, pile in and have their say.
The old saying, “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers” was true in this case. As quickly as these stories appear, they fade away and are replaced by the next sensational story. Following the Boris and NHS story, a secret recording appeared of the Labour Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, saying to a Tory friend that the Labour party would not win the election. This was the main story up to the election, giving momentum back the Conservatives. I suspect that Corbyn was right when he said that the story was leaked to divert attention from the NHS story and get it off the news bulletins and front pages of the newspapers.
There are lots of lessons to be learned from this incident and how social media is used and misused in campaigns. In this event, as far as I can see, there was no central control who thought through it all, this happened organically by people supporting their cause. So, you may not be able to stop these events, but if you can understand what might happen then you are in a position to think ahead and respond appropriately.