Dorset Eye and conspiracies — how a leftwing website mistook satire for fact

If you spend much time on social media you can often come away with the impression that the entire left has been taken over by tinfoil hatters.

Earlier today I was scrolling through a Facebook group for Labour leftwingers. Someone had shared a report that Julie Heselwood, a Labour councillor in Leeds, had been removed from her position on the council’s executive board, following a Facebook post in which she described Boris Johnson’s admission to intensive care with Covid-19 as a “publicity stunt” and urged people “don’t fall for it”.

Cllr Heselwood herself had removed the post and apologised for what she described as her “crass and offensive comments about Boris Johnson’s hospital treatment”. That didn’t prevent members of the Facebook group rallying to her defence. Comments included: “She’s only saying what we are all thinking”, “Personally, I was very suspicious. Nothing has changed my mind so far”, “Another truthsayer sacked”, “The WHOLE UK knows it was faked” etc etc.

This sort of nonsense is comparable to 9/11 conspiracy theories, and suffers from the same obvious flaw. Namely, how could a conspiracy that must have involved a significant number of people have been kept quiet? All that was needed was for one person to spill the beans. If Johnson hadn’t really contracted Covid-19 and the whole thing was a publicity stunt, how were staff at St Thomas’ Hospital, where he was treated, persuaded to go along with it? Surely someone would have anonymously leaked information to the media?

When I pointed this out, I was told that two of the staff at St Thomas’ Hospital had indeed exposed what had been going on there. As one critic explained:

“I’ve read two doctors did say exactly what they thought. My understanding is that the staff were asked to sign the official secrets act and the two critical doctors refused. They were sent home on garden leave, with one saying he just needed cough syrup and paracetamol, the other doctor was reported as saying Borifice had the most feeble cough they’d ever heard and he just needed to be at home. I’d link to the post I picked these claims from, but it seems it’s been removed by FB.”

If Facebook did remove the link, that would probably be because they have adopted a policy of clamping down on sharing material that spreads false information about Covid-19. The story about Boris Johnson’s doctors is a clear case of such disinformation, having been debunked a week ago by both Full Fact and Reuters Fact Check.

The origin of this story was a post from 12 April by Anthony George in the Facebook group A Poke in the Eye With a Sharp Wit, which describes itself as “a place for political humour and satire, poking fun at those in the government of the day”. George wrote:

“Wow! I met an employee of St Thomas hospital yesterday (2 metres away of course) who shared something with me which could change the course of BJ’s future! Apparently when BJ was admitted to hospital, staff were required to sign the Official Secrets act! Wow! However, two doctors refused and were subsequently sent on gardening leave.

“Now my source told me that Drs Shirley Knott and Ashleigh Pullin were disgusted by BJ’s flippant attitude from the off, and I quote, ‘He had the most pathetic, contrived cough I have heard in all my years of practise! I’d’ve sent him home with a packet of Lockets and bottle of Calcough Children’s Syrup’ — Knott. ‘If he had Covid-19 then I’m not a doctor!’ — Pullin.

“Proof (if any were needed) that we, the public, are being hoodwinked!”

The post was obviously intended as a spoof of conspiracy theorists who cite anecdotal accounts of dubious provenance as evidence that their paranoid fantasies are real. George confirmed to Reuters that he had written the post as satire for a group where it would be understood as such. He pointed out that the names of the two doctors were a clue to their fictitious nature: “Shirley Knott — surely not” and “Ashleigh Pullen — actually pulling (your leg)”.

That Anthony George’s post could be taken seriously was a good illustration of Poe’s Law, the internet adage which states that without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied.

The main blame for this particular example of Poe’s Law lay with Dorset Eye, a leftwing “news” site that had already shown it was not averse to spreading conspiracy theories. Within hours of Anthony George’s satirical piece appearing on Facebook it was reproduced without comment by Dorset Eye, including on its Twitter and Facebook accounts, from whence it spread rapidly across social media.

Individuals who swallowed this story ranged from Maureen Fitzsimmons, a crank recently expelled from the Labour Party for antisemitism, to Farirai Madzikanda, who last year was a candidate for Labour’s National Constitutional Committee. Even Andi Fox, chair of the party’s National Executive Committee, reportedly retweeted a summary of the Dorset Eye piece.

It was only later in the day that the Dorset Eye admins woke up to the fact that they had made a stupid mistake. They then added a preface: “Possibly satire, possibly not.” This was followed by an update: “We realise now that this article may well be satire or that the names have simply been made up.”

The update continued: “Either way the point is that we have a PM who is perceived by millions as a liar and a government who have handled the Covid-19 crisis in a chaotic and often criminal way.” This was a a fair description of Johnson and his administration, although quite how Dorset Eye helped to make that point by perpetrating what was effectively an internet hoax is unclear.

The frustrating aspect of all this is that there is a rational kernel to criticisms of the way in which information about Johnson’s contraction of Covid-19 has been manipulated for party-political advantage.

The Tories initially tried to play down the severity of Johnson’s illness, presumably because they thought it would be politically damaging to admit that the prime minister was too sick to do his job properly. Then, after Johnson was hospitalised and that spin on the situation proved unsustainable, it’s possible that the severity of his illness was exaggerated in order to win public sympathy — at least by the patient himself.

Johnson’s self-dramatising claim that he had been at death’s door for a while (“things could have gone either way”) is certainly questionable. The Guardian reported one specialist as saying that “he thought the prime minister had gilded the lily a bit — ‘I suspect there’s been an element of poetic licence there’”. Johnson had been given oxygen through a face mask but despite taking up a bed in an ICU had not been ill enough to require the use of a ventilator.

So there are definitely grounds on which to challenge the Tory narrative on Johnson’s illness. Instead, Dorset Eye decided to promote a parody post as fact and hold the left up to ridicule. Sometimes I despair.

. . .


Having made prats of themselves by promoting a ridiculous conspiracy theory about Boris Johnson not really having contracted Covid-19, you might have thought Dorset Eye would try to avoid making the same mistake again. You’d be wrong.

They’ve published another article, titled “Has Nadine Dorries just admitted that Boris Johnson’s illness was ‘a hoax’?” This one takes its inspiration from a tweet in which the Tory health minister paid fawning tribute to the resilience of the Dear Leader.

Dorries wrote: “Most who have been as poorly as Boris Johnson with Covid-19 and a patient for a week in intensive care, would be off work for least three months to fully recover their strength and repair their immune system. Our PM is back after just three weeks. Good luck boss.”

Dorset Eye’s correspondent approvingly quotes two comments about Dorries’ tweet: “Exactly Nadine! Most people take longer to get over it. Hmmm are you telling us with your medical expertise, that he probably did not have it?” and “This illness knocks you for six, he would not be able to do anything yet, if he had it in the first place”.

Now, it is arguable that Dorries did inadvertently draw attention to a contradiction in Johnson’s version of events. Namely, if he really was so ill that it was touch-and-go whether he survived, as he claimed, then it was unlikely that he could have recovered quite so quickly.

As I’ve previously argued, there are indeed grounds for suspecting that Johnson exaggerated the severity of his illness. To leap from that to the suggestion that his entire illness could have been a hoax, however, crosses the line into deranged conspiracy theory.

I’m tempted to submit an article to Dorset Eye myself. It will claim that Carrie Symonds’ supposed pregnancy was a publicity stunt and the reported birth of her child a fraud, designed to win popular sympathy for Johnson and deflect attention from his disastrous mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis.

I’m sure Dorset Eye will be happy to publish it.

First published on Medium in April 2020