How A Misleading Story About Animal Sentience Became The Most Viral Politics Article Of 2017 And Left Downing Street Scrambling
After fox hunting and the ivory trade hurt the Tories at the election, a misleading but hugely viral story about animal sentience has shown the power animal welfare issues on social media have to catch the government off guard.
The journalist ultimately responsible for the most viral news story in UK politics this year isn't a reporter at Westminster. He's a recent graduate called Daniel Wild in his 20s who works with his dad for FarmingUK, a small agricultural news website with three employees where a typical headline is "Campaign launched to encourage vulnerable groups to enjoy runny eggs".
Two weeks ago he published a short story on the site under the headline "MPs vote to reject inclusion of animal sentience in Withdrawal Bill", based on a press release from the RSPCA. The report didn't go into too much detail but it did discuss how Conservative MPs had voted down an amendment to Brexit legislation which would have incorporated a clause of EU law on to the UK statute book.
Wild, who has been working to boost FarmingUK's social media reach, noticed it doing well for his relatively small site. What happened next was more of a surprise.
First, a small left-wing viral site called the London Economic picked up the story and gave it a distinctly political twist. Then, days later, the Independent news website ran a series of articles with misleading headlines linking the issue directly to Brexit, and claiming Tory MPs had actively voted that animals could not feel "pain or emotion".
In a week where all attention would traditionally be on the Budget, officials at the top of Downing Street tried to contain the fallout from the story, while the Conservative party press office attempted to stop it spreading further, culminating in the environment secretary Michael Gove releasing a video clarifying that the government wanted "to make sure Brexit delivers not just for the British people, but for animals too".
They were responding to the most viral UK political news article of 2017 (a year that saw an unexpected general election, an enormous surge in social media support for Jeremy Corbyn, and a national debate over Brexit), one which misrepresented the government's stance on whether animals feel pain, and based on a wild interpretation of a relatively obscure House of Commons vote.
"I think the story has got out of hand," Wild, whose original piece accurately reported the vote, told BuzzFeed News. He said he was delighted to see his story get traction but was somewhat baffled by how it was rewritten with a political slant: "I didn’t expect the Independent to run with this story that we did and turn it into an anti-Brexit story." But he added: "They often do this – they’re quite known for it."
The explosive interest in the story shows how larger websites aggregate news from niche publications that have the potential to get widely shared: by picking out the juiciest lines from pre-existing stories and slapping on a much more viral headline, without necessarily referring back to the original source material.
While there's nothing new about bigger publications lifting stories from specialist outlets, the incentives of the internet have sped up the process and reduced the desire for nuance.
Wild is the junior member of the two-strong editorial team at FarmingUK. The publication is based in the corner of West Yorkshire he calls Cleckheckmondfax. It's a long way from the London offices where the news agenda is traditionally set, but in their own way the national media helped push this story into the public conscience.
The other member of the FarmingUK editorial staff – Wild's father, Keith – explained he wasn’t that aware of the site’s inadvertent impact on the UK political news agenda since he was too busy working on his company's other product: a monthly magazine called the Ranger, targeted at producers of free-range eggs.
Of the Independent, Wild said: "They’re just playing on their crowd on social media. It’s quite a shameless pro-EU paper, so they just play on the story."
He added that he'd been impressed with Gove's policies on improving animal welfare since he became environment secretary after the election: "I’m not a Tory supporter but I understand that they are trying to make this a more green-friendly country. It’s been blown out of hand."
The enormous online debate over the story also shows an online news industry where there are enormous incentives to exaggerate headlines in search of a viral hit; a government struggling to get its message across on a hostile internet; and a world where the technicalities of House of Commons legislation understandably make little sense to most of the public.
Analysis by BuzzFeed News shows how coverage by the Independent on the Commons vote spread across the internet, ultimately dwarfing any other political news story in the UK this year, despite its dubious provenance.
A comment piece originally entitled "The Tories have voted that animals can't feel pain as part of the EU bill, marking the beginning of our anti-science Brexit" has been shared more than 500,000 times on social media in the last three days, according to the news website's public statistics – substantially more shares than any news story about Theresa May, Corbyn, or Brexit managed in the last 12 months.
A second post by the Independent on the same topic – originally with the factually inaccurate headline "MPs vote 'that animals cannot feel pain or emotions' into the Brexit bill" – was shared 180,000 times. Meanwhile on Wednesday, after the government had strongly denied the story, the Independent's sister site Indy100 published a name-and-shame list of the Conservative and DUP MPs who voted against the amendment, which was shared 73,000 times. Celebrities amplified the stories; one share of the story by comedian Ricky Gervais attracted more than 100,000 interactions. (Some, like Ben Fogle, even apologised for sharing the story after it emerged it wasn't accurate.)
Estimating actual traffic on the posts is impossible without access to the Independent's own analytics. If each share of the Independent's three stories on the topic had been seen by just 10 other social media users then the headline could have been seen by 7.5 million people.
Perhaps more than anything it shows how, when it comes to the British electorate, you can get away with an awful lot – but mess with animal welfare policy at your peril.
"I'm not surprised because a similar thing happened before in the election with fox hunting," said Charlie Beckett, professor of journalism at the London School of Economics, who suggested people were far more keen to share stories about mistreatment of animals than they were when the stories were about humans.
"Kittens and cruelty has a dopamine effect," he said. "Any kind of clear-cut social justice issue has phenomenal purchase in social networks, because people want to demonstrate their values. What can you be more angry about than sentient animals? You get a huge amount of traffic."
One Conservative MP, left baffled by the vicious response to what they considered to be a completely misreported story based on the thinnest of material, ruefully noted to BuzzFeed News that "this is how Labour must feel when the Daily Mail is attacking them".
Craig Oliver, David Cameron's former director of communications, suggested that Gove's complaints about the story's spread on social media were a case of "what goes around comes around", given the environment secretary's role spreading the Brexit campaign's claim that Turkey would be joining the EU.
On Friday, after a furious reaction from Tory MPs online to the way in which the vote had been portrayed, the Independent published a piece by the news website's fact-checking division, which contradicted many of the claims made in the original article.
"Campaigners – and some news coverage – initially said that the government had voted against recognising sentience," said its explainer. "The Independent was among publishers that reported the story in that way. But it became clear that this claim was not right, even though it had been interpreted by some campaigners in that way. (The Independent updated its coverage to ensure it was accurate)."
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Brexit is largely to blame for the confusion. The EU withdrawal bill, which will transplant much of EU law on to the UK statute book, has been making its tedious progress through the House of Commons in recent days.
Two Wednesdays ago, Caroline Lucas, the Green party's only MP, tabled an amendment to the legislation calling for an explicit commitment to maintain a clause of EU law that recognised that animals are sentient beings, "and not simply agricultural goods like bags of potatoes that could be maltreated with impunity".
She explained that the policy, originally introduced into EU law under the Labour government in 1997, recognised that "animals are aware of their surroundings; that they have the capacity to feel pain, hunger, heat and cold; and that they are aware of what is happening to them and of their interaction with other animals, including humans".
She said she understood the legal reasons why this specific line of text would not be directly transferred across after Brexit and accepted that the government had pledged to rectify this, but it was not enough for Lucas.
"I am not for a moment suggesting that the result of our not closing it would be that we all suddenly went out and started murdering kittens – no one is suggesting such a thing – but I am saying that this is an important protocol," she said, later adding that it is "almost by accident that the law will not be transposed".
The government, eager to avoid the legislation being bogged down, said animal sentience was already recognised by existing UK legislation, and ordered its MPs to vote against the amendment, which was defeated, insisting it would deal with it later.
It was, according to one Tory adviser, part of an effort to ensure the Brexit bill could progress with as few amendments as possible to ensure it made it into law.
"From our point of view we always recognised that it was something we would need to do more on," said one Tory adviser. "The government’s plan on the withdrawal bill is to get through without amendments."
But within hours of the Independent publishing its take on the news, Tory MPs reported their inboxes filling up with complaints from members of the public about the apparent anti-animal policy.
When some of the MPs looked up the story, they were baffled by the headline put on the Independent's social media accounts – where most potential readers would see it – which implied that hundreds of Conservative MPs had taken the decision to actively declare that animals cannot feel anything.
"MPs just quietly voted 'that animals cannot feel pain or emotions,'" said one tweet, using the word "just" despite the events taking place five days earlier and "quietly" despite the fact it took place in the House of Commons and was only not well publicised because mainstream journalists had failed to notice the very public vote the first time around.
Another tweet went further, claiming the Tories had "rejected all scientists" and said animals don't feel pain.
The story spread far and fast, despite a concerted fightback by Conservative HQ, which commissioned special videos and coordinated tweeting by Tory MPs. "It's totally shocking that you can 100% misrepresent the government's position on this," said one senior Downing Street figure, who was furious at the Independent's coverage.
Gove issued a written ministerial statement to deny the story and wrote to reassure Tory MPs. May denied the story at Prime Minister's Questions. But, with the Conservative party still lacking a dedicated digital campaign chief, none of this gained anything like the same traction as the original story.
Meanwhile, headlines on the Independent's pieces were toned down long after the they had already gone viral. The original news story falsely claimed an anti-animal clause had been voted "into the Brexit bill".
On Thursday, after days of criticism, it was revised to be about MPs who "refuse to recognise that animals feel pain".
For some Tory MPs this didn't come soon enough. Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes, shared an example of the feedback she had received from the public after they read the stories.
"Since the vote, and subsequent media spin on it, I have received hundreds of emails and social media messages," Caulfield told BuzzFeed News. "Many were simply asking the question, but other felt the need to become personal and in some cases malicious. I think that this is a very bad example of how the media can portray an issue, which many, many people care about, in such a disingenuous way that people become very angry and sadly take things too far.
"It is all well and good that media outlets apologise for these things, but how many people will have seen the original headlines who will never see the correction and continue to believe fake news? In the age of 24-hour online news I can see that the race to be the first to put out a story could lead to lack of source checking or thought as to consequences."
A spokesperson for the Independent apologised for the headline, blaming human error: "While The Independent accepts that a headline originally used with our report on animal sentience did not correctly reflect the article itself, to suggest that it amounted to a deliberate attempt to mislead or deceive is manifestly wrong. The mistake was due to a human error, which we regret. The headline was updated on Thursday when the matter was brought to our attention, with a note acknowledging the change at the foot of the piece."
However, they also criticised those who attempt to shut down reporting of the issue rather than deal with the issues raised: "It is not in question that MPs voted down an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which would have specifically recognised animal sentience. Our article on this decision was accurate and rightly reflected significant concern among campaigners and the public. Sadly, it can be preferable for politicians and their advisers to attack media companies and attempt to shut down debate (often amplifying their message through other media outlets), rather than engage with the legitimate questions raised."
The story would never have gone viral if it didn't have a ring of truth to it – and it shows the dire public perception of the Conservative party on much of the internet, especially around animal welfare issues.
Several Conservative MPs have told BuzzFeed News that they believe two highly viral issues involving animals – a pledge to hold a free vote on hunting and the failure to include a policy on banning the ivory trade – cost the party its majority at the general election.
They said the issues were raised, unprompted, by voters while they were out campaigning. During the general election, according to BuzzFeed News figures, more people shared stories about the Conservatives’ decision to back a free vote on bringing back fox hunting than about the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Victoria Borwick, the Tory politician who lost the Kensington constituency by 20 votes, was a leading proponent of the antiques industry, which lobbied heavily against an ivory ban. Animal rights groups have told BuzzFeed News they paid for targeted online advertising against the Conservatives in the constituency (without the knowledge of the successful Labour candidate), which they believe could have swung the vote.
Since the election the Tory party has internally decided to put animal welfare issues – such as CCTV in abattoirs, taxing plastic bottles, and finally banning ivory – at the top of its agenda. Officially, its policy on legalising fox hunting remains in a state of limbo, although the government has no intention to hold a vote and any motion would almost certainly be defeated.
The RSPCA said it had been surprised by how some outlets had interpreted the sentience vote, even though it still wants further action.
"The so-called 'fake news' that has been out there this week relates to some people's interpretation of what MPs meant when they voted against including animal sentience in the bill, i.e., some people imagined (incorrectly) that the MPs were voting that animals weren't sentient/can't feel pain," explained an RSPCA spokesperson.
"But the issue that animal sentience is not sufficiently covered in the existing legislation remains valid and is not 'fake news' and our press statements and social media posts have been very clear about the issue."
What's more, the disputed reporting has had the inadvertent side effect of forcing the issue to the top of the political agenda – prompting videos from Gove promising to make Brexit work for animals.
Ultimately, though, the story is a test of whether the Conservatives, traditionally the beneficiaries of a newspaper industry that skews right, can get their message to the public in an online media world where the most surefire way to go viral and get traffic is to produce the most negative possible headline about the Tories, regardless of its accuracy.
In short, if you are a member of the British public who relies solely on social media channels for your news, then in the past week you're substantially more likely to have seen a news story about the Tories allegedly declaring animals don't feel pain than any individual news story about the Budget – a fact noted by Sky News political presenter Sophy Ridge.
Or, as one Tory adviser involved in responding to the animal sentience story said: "There are plenty of people who have always been conscious of the gap between what the media chooses to focus on in the Westminster bubble and what happens in the outside world."