MPs look into an anonymous pro-Brexit campaign which spent over £250,000 to buy influence online

Smart phone screen with Facebook and Twitter apps
Support us and go ad-free

On 20 October, parliament published details about a pro-Brexit Facebook advertising campaign. Ads by the ‘Mainstream Network’ allegedly cost over a quarter of a million pounds and reached between 10 and 11 million people. But it’s unclear who funds the site.

“Pro-Brexit, anti-Chequers”

Campaign group 89up conducted the research, which parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) then published. The research found

a pro-Brexit, anti-Chequers website, which is being promoted heavily on Facebook with advertising estimated at £257,000 in just over 10 months. This advertising is designed to specifically influence MPs.

The report further states:

To put this in context, UKIP has declared just £114,000 since 2018 started. Mainstream Network has potentially a bigger budget than UKIP, and is aiming to influence MPs, yet there is no transparency whatsoever over who is paying for this website or why they are spreading their news on Facebook?

89up expressed concerns in a wider context, because:

Facebook claims to be tackling Fake News but individuals or groups with a political agenda can still… remain entirely anonymous on the platform and reach millions of people.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

Breach

As the Financial Times reported, the DCMS review is running alongside a wider investigation by the Electoral Commission “about the role of online lobbying groups in influencing political opinion in the UK”. The commission is also investigating concerns that a company run by Arron Banks “broke campaign finance laws in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum”; and Banks “featured prominently in the committee’s interim report on fake news this year”. As The Canary reported, Banks is believed to have given £8.4m to the Leave campaign, the “largest donation to a political campaign in British history”.

As this latest report states: it’s possible that Mainstream Network has breached “both GDPR and also Electoral Commission rules on non-party campaigners”. It explained that the site has “over 700 pages indexed on Google”. And 89up believes that this is part of:

a sophisticated advertising campaign, with pages set up to target users in every key constituency in the UK, with bespoke localised messaging; encouraging users to lobby their respective MPs.

The report indicates that Mainstream Network activity intended to:

influence voters through microtargeting, meaning that whoever owns the site could be violating electoral regulation. Furthermore, the site is likely collecting and harvesting user data in violation of GDPR.

“Exquisite”

On 16 October, Facebook announced all political ads “that reference political figures, political parties, elections, legislation before Parliament and past referenda” will need verification. Details of identity and location are now required, and they need to “carry a ‘Paid for by’ disclaimer'”. By Friday 19 October, as Wired reported:

Some of Mainstream’s pages encouraging readers to email their MPs are no longer active, and its Facebook page featured no active ads by 17:00 on Friday. When the report was compiled, Mainstream was running at least 70 ads.

Robert Peston called the timing of the report “exquisite”. It followed the announcement that anti-Brexit campaigner Nick Clegg is the new head of global policy and communications at Facebook.

DCMS chair Damian Collins, meanwhile, said:

The only people who know who is paying for these adverts is Facebook.

Featured image via UK Parliament

Support us and go ad-free

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us

Comments are closed