Network of X users smears politicians with deepfake clips - 9 minutes read

Labour’s Wes Streeting among victims of deepfake smear network on X

1 day ago

By Marianna Spring, BBC disinformation and social media correspondent

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage and Labour's Wes Streeting were targeted with deepfake clips

A doctored video of Labour's Wes Streeting has been pushed to X users - making it seem as though he called fellow politician Diane Abbott a "silly woman". A network of X accounts has been creating and sharing such clips of politicians ahead of the general election - and then posting misleading comments alongside to bolster the impression they are real.

I have been tracking down some of the people behind the network and unpicking their tactics. Has their trolling gone too far?

The doctored video of Mr Streeting features him on the BBC's Politics Live show. As the presenter discusses Ms Abbott, the footage is made to sound as though Mr Streeting is saying "silly woman" under his breath - but he never said those words.

The clip was posted on X - formerly Twitter - by a user called Men for Wes who, in the comments, expressed outrage at the "really nasty people" in the Labour Party. Other users swarmed in the comments to endorse the clip as real.

One account going by the name “Murray” falsely claimed to be a BBC Politics Live "floor manager" saying: "This is legit". Others said, “I can deffo hear Wes Streeting calling Diane Abbott a silly woman” or “You can clearly hear he said silly woman what an utter disgrace you are Wes Streeting”.

One falsely suggested the BBC “pulled the episode” of Politics Live from iPlayer, which could discourage people from checking.

The account sharing the fake video of Wes Streeting called him a "disgraceful human being"

This clip and several more about other politicians were recommended by X in the feed of one of the BBC's Undercover Voters - 24 fictional people with social media accounts, created to investigate what content is recommended to different types of voters during the election. The profiles are private, with no friends. They just like, follow and watch relevant content.

The videos recommended to the Undercover Voter profile have racked up tens of thousands of views and led to politicians such as Mr Streeting denouncing them as false.

Marianna Spring explains the Undercover Voters project in 60 seconds

Some X users pointed out they believed it to be faked, some responded with abusive remarks - and others were clearly confused about what to believe.

The BBC identified some of the users responsible for these videos, who describe their approach as "shitposting" - a term which usually refers to posting large amounts of ironic, low-effort content to derail productive discussion, distract people and provoke a reaction. This can come from people of all different political perspectives - and doesn’t have to be about politics.

But while some of their fake clips are clearly absurd and satirical, others falsely portray candidates saying politically damaging things, while in the comments, the network of X users works to make them appear believable.

Some of the clips make inflammatory comments related to the war in Gaza. As well as Mr Streeting, they have targeted Reform UK leader Nigel Farage and another Labour candidate, Luke Akehurst.

An X user called chai_ste - who re-shared the clip of Wes Streeting with the question “is this real?” - also shared a different doctored clip of Mr Akehurst, whose outspoken support for Israel and its actions in Gaza has made him unpopular with the Labour left.

A fake clip of Labour candidate Luke Akehurst falsely portrayed him calling voters "thick"

This clip falsely portrays him as bragging that he will be elected by "thick" Geordies who think Gaza is a footballer.

The fake floor manager "Murray" was this time a “sound engineer” who again posted that “this is legit”.

Other accounts, which seemed to be in on the joke, posted asking, “is this real?” and the original profile replied saying “I haven't seen any source to disprove it as of yet!” Another said: “I’m sure he just misspoke.”

There’s also evidence several of these accounts were involved in another deepfaked clip of Sir Keir Starmer. It was about the Rochdale by-election earlier this year and falsely suggested Starmer called Labour supporters "beyond thick" and suggested that “as long as we’re scoring points with Israel they’ll be happy”.

Some X accounts post misleading messages under faked clips to bolster the impression they are real

Several hours after they were originally shared, the doctored clips of Mr Streeting, Mr Akehurst and Sir Keir were labelled as fakes by X’s reader-operated fact check service, while X also applied a warning to the clip of Mr Akehurst saying it was “manipulated media”.

Following my investigation, the Men for Wes account has been suspended by X and the videos from its account are no longer visible on the site. Some of the other profiles also appear to have been removed.

This group of accounts regularly interact with one another, amplifying and engaging with each other’s posts in this way. Some appear to co-ordinate their posts on a Discord server - an instant messaging and chat community - which refers to them as a "Shitposting Army".

Several of these X users post frequently about their concern for Palestinians in the war in Gaza, as well as posting in support of Jeremy Corbyn and left-leaning Labour politicians. At least two of the people who appear to be behind some of the accounts seem to be based in the UK and in their twenties and thirties.

The Men for Wes account declined my request to speak on the phone several times and declined to disclose their identity, but agreed to answer my questions by messaging.

They said they aimed to provoke attention and "muddy the water" for viewers. They described this as a "corrective" to the ways that politicians "misrepresent who they really are" and rejected allegations they were a threat to democracy. They condemned any hate directed at politicians shared by other accounts.

One X user posted a deepfake claiming to be leaked audio of Sir Keir Starmer disparaging voters after the Rochdale by-election

They claimed a politician they supported had previously been targeted by misinformation, but in that case it had been spread by people in power and mainstream media outlets rather than "random Twitter accounts".

The user running the chai_ste profile, who also declined to give their real name, poked fun at the question of whether this network of accounts had taken “shitposting” too far.

They mockingly claimed to be following a “handbook from the Labour Party” and saying they were advised to post some “obviously fake videos” in among their “tasks” from the party, “so that it doesn’t become very obvious what we are really doing”.

A doctored clip of Nigel Farage was one of the more obviously satirical creations of the network.

The video edited the Reform UK leader's words from a clip making light of the incident where a milkshake was thrown over him, so that he appeared to make an obscene reference to bodily fluids.

But the comments around other videos, bolstering their claims of authenticity, appear to be causing real confusion among some people.

While the videos and false posts confused some users, others called them out as fake

One user called Nigel, who responded on X to the post about Wes Streeting, told me he initially believed the video could be real. The 64-year-old said he intended to switch from Conservatives to Labour for the first time but said videos such as this could undermine their support.

“This sort of thing is damaging. It seems everywhere you turn folks are out to get the Labour front team. I’ve been told by more Labour voters not to vote Labour than Tory voters!” he said.

Another social media user - who asked to remain anonymous - contacted me to say he had been following several of these accounts with concern since the faked clips of Sir Keir emerged.

He said: “Their tactics on how they'd push each fake were pretty calculated. It's frustrating as there are people in my life who have fallen for this kind of thing before."

Lots of the comments do feature users calling out the content as fake, however.

X and Discord did not respond to the points raised by the BBC. X says publicly how “defending and respecting the user's voice is one of our core values”.

Discord says online its guidelines "ensure everyone can express themselves and find community — but not at the expense of anyone else".

For this story, we examined the social media feeds of three Undercover voters in Halifax

The Undercover Voters are fictional profiles designed to represent a range of voters in battleground constituencies across the UK. They follow, view and like content relevant to their character, informed by data and analysis from the National Centre for Social Research.

For this story, I examined the feeds of the profiles of some of these fictional voters in Halifax, which has been a target for the Conservatives and is currently held by Labour.

Kieran - a disillusioned voter in his twenties - is following lots of content about civilians killed in Gaza, as well as content about boycotting Israel. His feed on X was pushed these doctored clips of Mr Akehurst and then Mr Streeting.

Another Undercover Voter called Patricia has viewed posts supporting Israel and opposing antisemitism. She has seen critical posts which reused old clips of politicians expressing support for Palestinians. These included abusive and Islamophobic remarks in the comments, but I found no evidence of a similar network of accounts sharing doctored clips or comments in the same way on her feeds.

The third Undercover Voter character in Halifax is 44-year-old Maryam, who is quite disengaged in politics and undecided about who she wants to vote for. She has not been recommended this content so far.

Source: BBC News

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