- ‘Animal sentience’ went from obscurity to a major political issue in the UK.
- A technocratic exchange in Parliament blew up into a moral outrage thanks to ill-informed and misleading reporting.
- Even though it was based on misconception, the furore appears to have affected policy.
One of the biggest political news stories of the week is something that never even happened. Even so, it has the British government on the run.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, gave a fire-fighting interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme on Friday, in which he assured the nation that the government does not deny that animals are capable of suffering and feeling pain.
At a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer unveiled a make-or-break budget (read our analysis here), and negotiations with the European Union over Brexit continue at a fever pitch, the most pressing issue of the day had somehow become the philosophical question of “animal sentience.”
"We have to stand up for the way social media corrupts and distorts reporting and decision-making."
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) November 24, 2017
Gove had been backed into making such a response by a widespread story claiming that a piece of parliamentary back-and-forth amounted to a cruel-sounding statement that animals “can no longer feel pain or emotions.”
The report – as is often the case – had a kernel of truth. The government had rejected a suggestion that it copy a passage about animal sentience in EU legislation (title II, article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty) – but maintained that it would use a different legal means to afford animals the same protections.
The story, according to Business Insider analysis, was first reported, accurately, in the relatively innocuous environs of agricultural trade journal FarmingUK.
It turned into a viral sensation the following day, when a similar report appeared on left-leaning viral site The London Economic.
It repeated ines of FarmingUK’s report word-for-word but added a hyperbolic headline, an outraged tone, and a personal attack on Michael Gove.
In the process it inserted the crucial error, reframing the decision not to accept the amendment as “a vote to say animals can no longer feel pain or emotions.”
The suggestion was that the government was actively legislating to deny animals their rights, which was categorically false. It caught fire anyway, spawning hundreds of unsubstantiated follow-up posts like this:
Govt’s vote to reject the inclusion of animal sentience in the European Union Withdrawal Bill is a vote to say animals can no longer feel pain or emotions#ForFoxSake
— VivaVenezuela (@SidUnite) November 17, 2017
As of Friday morning, the London Economic post has been shared more than 300,000 times, according to the site’s own metrics, roughly 3,000 times more successful than their average story, which appears to attract 50-150 shares.
From there it made its way to other viral sites, and, eventually, into the establishment press. The mainstream UK media initially either ignored the story or reported it with heavy scepticism, with the exception of The Independent.
Adopting The London Economic’s tone, the site claimed the Conservatives had “rejected all scientists” in the course of the vote to assert “that animals cannot feel pain or emotions.”
It later followed this up with a list of all 313 MPs who voted against the amendment, who by implication were culpable for the mistreatment of animals.
Buoyed The Independent’s supposed credibility, many celebrities shared the news, expanding the story’s reach considerably.
Analysis by the Guido Fawkes political blog suggests that at least 2 million people saw the story in some form. The Independent later published an explainer on the issue in which it admitted misreporting the story.
Fake, yes – but too important to ignore
It was around this time that Conservative MPs decided that the story, though false, was too important to ignore.
MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg shared a flashy graphic, likely produced by Conservative Party high command, rebutting the story and touting the government’s record on animal rights.
Ross Thompson MP went one better and posted a video of himself rebutting the claim while hugging a dog:
The Government’s policies are driven by the recognition that animals are sentient & once we leave the EU we can go even further. pic.twitter.com/O2VmcMMZRm
— Ross Thomson MP (@RossThomson_MP) November 23, 2017
Environment Secretary Michael Gove then gave an official written ministerial statement committing the government to animal sentience.
At this point it was clear that viral news reporting, based on falsehood and misunderstanding, was driving thinking at the highest levels of government. And less than 24 hours later, it had led to what many campaigners have perceived as a concrete change in policy.
Gove followed up his statement with his appearance on the 8 a.m. slot of “Today,” which on most days is the single most important interview given by a member of the government.
When pressed on the animal sentience issue by presenter Justin Webb, Gove appeared to make a new commitment to ensure a new animal sentience clause in UK law before March 2019 – ensuring there would be no gap in current legislation between leaving the EU and replacing it with something else.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas – who tabled the original amendment – perceived it as a victory, and a new promise to which she could hold the government to account:
Well done @JustinOnWeb – think you might have extracted promise from @michaelgove that “there will be no gap” in principle of #animalsentience after #Brexit – that means he needs to get new Bill thro’ parliament before March 2019 – look forward to seeing it any day soon! #R4Today
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) November 24, 2017
As well as being a win for Lucas, it is an example of how fake news put rocket boosters under an issue of public importance, which looks likely to result in a real, measurable change to the UK statute book.
As almost all online outlets know (and Business Insider is no exception), stories about animals command attention from readers like almost nothing else.
(As long ago as 2012, MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke developed a “taxonomy of animal stories,” according to a profile by the New Yorker, noting that cats were the most viral animal, followed by dogs, followed by monkeys.)
Reporting which focuses outrage on people said to be mistreating animals is especially powerful, with its irresistibly clean narrative of tormentor and victim.
So powerful, it would seem, that it doesn’t even need to be true to achieve its aims.
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