There is no evidence supporting claims about a government-run network of fake NHS Twitter accounts

21st Apr 2020

In the past few days, a series of claims have gone viral on social media claiming to have uncovered a network of fake Twitter accounts created to post pro-government messages. These accounts are supposedly being run by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) or a marketing firm linked to them. One tweet making these claims has been retweeted over 20,000 times at the time of writing.

The claims were originally made by John O’Connell, who runs the “Far Right Watch” website

The DHSC has said on Twitter that “these claims are categorically false”. Twitter said in a statement that its “specialist teams currently do not see evidence of large-scale coordinated platform manipulation surrounding the Covid-19 conversation, including suggested coordination associated with the UK Government.”

Additionally, after this article was first published, Hootsuite—a social media tool alleged to have been used to run the accounts—told Full Fact that their internal investigation had found no evidence to support the claims.

Currently, there is no publicly available evidence to support these claims. Full Fact has asked Mr O’Connell to share his evidence, but he has told us that he is not ready to do so at this time. We will update this article if he shares further evidence. 

As we’ve written before, when trying to judge claims that you see on social media, or indeed the traditional media or from politicians or other public figures, it’s important to ask what the evidence behind the claim is. If that evidence is not shown, then it is best to wait for (or ask for) that evidence before sharing the claim. 

If these claims are true, then it will still be a big story when the evidence is presented publicly; if they are not true, then sharing it in the absence of evidence helps nobody.

The claims

Mr O’Connell says that he has identified a network of 128 Twitter accounts, largely impersonating NHS staff members, some of which used photographs of real NHS staff for their Twitter avatars. These accounts are supposedly being run either by or for the DHSC, and shared messages promoting government policies.

Mr O’Connell has said that he “offered to provide all data to the @DHSCgovuk for purposes of internal investigation. They declined” and later that “DHSC were fairly offered an opportunity by me, via email and telecon, to address these issues… It was dismissed out of hand.”

The DHSC told Full Fact that Mr O’Connell had contacted them, and that they had asked him to provide his evidence. They said that he did not do so.

Full Fact has also contacted Mr O’Connell via Twitter DM asking him to share his evidence. He told us that currently that data was “not in a presentable form as yet”, and that it was “way too data-heavy for non-geeks”, but that he would keep us updated. We will update this article if he does make any additional evidence public, or shares it with us.

128 accounts?

Mr O’Connell claims to have identified 128 accounts that form part of this network. However, at the time of writing, we are only aware of one account, “@nhs_susan”, that has been publicly identified. That account has since been deleted, but some of its tweets can still be seen in a Google cache.

The account was undeniably fake—it uses an image of a real nurse from the website of Unison, a trade union that represents a large number of healthcare workers. 

It is true that, based on what’s visible in the Google cache, this account tweeted broadly pro-government sentiments. However, it doesn’t contain evidence supporting Mr O’Connell’s broader claims that these accounts initially pushed a “herd immunity” policy, and then advocated for ending the lockdown.

There are also elements of the account that suggest it may have been intended, at least in part, as a parody of left-wing activists. The account’s pinned tweet was a call to ban displays of public support for NHS workers, saying: “As a deaf junior doctor, I must say it’s not inclusive for people like me, and children who go to bed early and also dogs who have sensory overload. #bantheclap”

At this stage we have been unable to identify any of the other 127 accounts that Mr O’Connell claims to have found, which he says were “deleted simultaneously” a few days ago. Until he releases any further details of these accounts, it’s not possible to fully assess the accuracy of his claims.

Who is supposedly behind it?

Mr O’Connell claims that he has identified the individuals behind the alleged network of false accounts. He suggests that the group responsible may be a “marketing agency” that was “set up a few months ago with one client (guess who) and three staff (all ex DHSC)”. He has also said that this firm is based in South West London. 

Without the firm in question being identified, it is again hard to assess the validity of these claims. We have not been able to find a marketing firm that matches these criteria, although that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The DHSC also told us that they are not aware of the identity of the company, although the department does work with a variety of marketing firms.

Mr O’Connell also says that the tweets were posted using Hootsuite, a popular social media management tool. He claims that he has identified details of the Hootsuite account used, that it is “registered to 1 person with 4 assigned contributors” and that the “one person has been identified” and they are “a contracted Government employee temporarily assigned to this department”.

It is not clear at this stage how you would establish such facts from the publicly available evidence in tweets. 

We put these claims to Hootsuite, including asking if they were aware of any method for identifying Hootsuite account details from public tweets. The company told Full Fact in a statement:  

“We are aware that there is a discussion underway on social media claiming that 128 fake Twitter accounts have been used to impersonate NHS staff to post about the Coronavirus, and alleging that these posts were published using Hootsuite. Our internal investigation has  determined that: 

  • There is no indication of 128 Twitter accounts impersonating NHS staff being connected to any Hootsuite account or accounts (and for clarity, while Hootsuite’s platform can be used to publish to Twitter, Twitter accounts cannot be created through Hootsuite);
  • There is no evidence that the single publicly-identified Twitter account (@nhs_susan) was ever connected to a Hootsuite account, or that anything was published to that Twitter account using Hootsuite; 
  • There is no evidence of any bulk posting through Hootsuite to Twitter about the UK governmental and/or NHS response to COVID-19, other than to official Twitter accounts operated by the NHS or other UK government Hootsuite customers.”

Additionally, the firm told us that the only information on a public tweet indicating that it was posted through Hootsuite is the source label at the bottom of a tweet, visible next to the time and date of the post. 

However, they said that this label “does not provide any information on who is using the Hootsuite account or how many contributors are using it, nor is that information available through other public-facing means.

Evidence is vital

At this stage, there is no evidence beyond Mr O’Connell’s own claims to support his allegations, and insufficient details for independent journalists to verify his claims. 

In order to be confident that the claims were accurate, we would need to see at least some or all of the following evidence: the identities of the other 127 accounts he claims to have found, ideally along with records of the content they posted and metadata related to the accounts; the identity of the marketing firm he claims is connected to the accounts; the identities of the individuals he claims are the users of the Hootsuite account; and a description of the methodology used to make that attribution.

It’s one of our core principles that people who make claims in public debate should be able to back them up with evidence, so that people can judge for themselves. We would urge Mr O’Connell to share any evidence he has as a matter of urgency, given the gravity of the claims.

For the record, this is not the first time we have fact checked a claim that Mr O’Connell has made. His was the first account we were able to find that shared a false quote that went viral during the 2019 election campaign. The quote (in a now-deleted tweet, still available on the Internet Archive) was claimed to be from the leaked US-UK trade documents, and supposedly said that the US reserved the right to “withdraw all trade” if the UK did not agree to discussions about “the sale of all assets within and partnered with the National Health Service”.

No such quote appeared in the leaked text. When asked by a Twitter user where the quote appeared, Mr O’Connell gave a page reference that did not exist in any of the documents.

Update 22 April 2020

This article was updated to include a statement from Hootsuite.