The Facebook Loophole: Rules about ‘Non-Party Campaigners’ are Making a Mockery of Democracy
After the ‘fake Green Party’ ads, Byline Times reveals nearly 3000 Facebook campaigns that escape electoral law and allow tens of millions of undeclared election spending.
After revelations that a former Vote Leave chief technology officer was promoting the Green Party in marginal seats, Byline Times reveals how supposedly non-party campaigners are able to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on Facebook attack ads.
The Electoral Commission’s rules on non-party campaigning are allowing obscure organisations to target marginal seats on Facebook in an attempt to sway voters.
While candidates and parties have strict regulations on transparency and spending during the election campaign, non-party campaigners only have to register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend over £20,000 in England, and £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
But beneath this seemingly non-partisan approach lurks a number of current and ex-councillors and MPs, including a former aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and a Tory-party consultant accused of pretending to be the Green Party.
The social media giant says “ads about social issues, elections or politics that appear on our platforms should include a disclaimer provided by advertisers,” however not every ad runs with a disclaimer, and many of those that do still can’t be traced back to an individual.
The system is ripe for abuse. openDemocracy recently revealed that Vote Leave’s former chief technology officer Thomas Borwick has been accused of “pretending” to be the Green Party after buying social media ads that called on voters in key swing constituencies to “Vote Green”, using a picture of climate campaigner Greta Thunberg.
A Wilderness of Mirrors
Facebook’s Ad Library, which the technology company launched in the UK last year to make campaigning on its platform more ‘transparent’ currently has 142 pages of groups, with 20 results on each page – over 2,800 in total.
Even allowing for parties and individual MP pages, it leaves the general election open to potentially hundreds of individuals free to spend up to £20,000 each.
Some examples show the non-partisanship may be skin deep.
Torbay Liberal Democrat councillor Jack Dart runs the InspireEU page. Since last month he has spent over £1,400 on ads focused on stopping Brexit.
The Fair Tax Campaign was created on October 13th this year. So far it has spent £1,551 on 30 adverts, most of which attack Labour’s tax plans. The ads were paid for by Alexander Crowley – a former Boris Johnson aide.
Advance Together describes itself as a political party. The page depicts Boris Johnson as a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and how the US trade deal will affect the NHS. The group has spent £2,328 on more than 200 adverts. None of the ads in the library mention who paid for them. However, the page is published and promoted by 2017 Liberal Democrat candidate Annabel Mullin.
At the end of last month, Working4UK was created. It positions itself as a voice for business with an anti-Corbyn message. It has spent £8,830 on 18 ads and attracted more than 1,300 likes. They were paid for by Bromley Conservative councillor Suraj Sharma.
A company owned by Borwick called 3rd Party Ltd has spent more than £1,700 on Facebook ads in the last week alone reaching tens of thousands of people. The company is also running social media ads to “Save Brexit”. 3rd Party Ltd looks like the first example of a partisan campaigning group attempting to persuade voters to support a party that it has no relationship with.
Parents’ Choice is being paid for by Richard Patrick Tracey, a former Conservative Minister for Sport who served under Margaret Thatcher. The group was only founded on October 11th but has spent £3,710 on 11 ads.
Daily Express journalist James Bickerton founded the Campaign against Corbynism in the summer after becoming convinced Labour “had been taken over by people with an at best questionable attachment to core liberal-democratic values”. Bickerton has spent £6,368 on 19 ads.
Campaign Together has spent £2,742 on 13 ads trying to encourage voters to campaign in marginal seats to unseat the Conservative party. The ads are being paid for by group co-founder Sam Coates, the campaigns and digital officer for Unlock Democracy.
There are dozens of groups with pro-EU message, the biggest spending of which is Best for Britain – it has spent £39,446 in the last week alone.The ads were paid for by the group’s COO Rudi Shenk.
When the group launched their GetVoting tactical voting website, it received criticism for recommending voting Lib Dem in constituencies that many would assume to be a contest between Labour and the Conservatives. It has since been revealed that the group’s director Clive Cowdery is a Lib Dem donor. He also made a donation of £15,250 to Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson in September.
In addition, City Action has spent more than £2,500 in the last 30 days, all paid for by Conrad Young. The page attacks Labour’s business plan and how they will affect the city of London.
Right to Rent, Right to Buy, Right to Own has spent £2,898 on 24 ads focusing on why it thinks Labour policies will destabilise the housing market – paid for by Jennifer Rebecca Powers. Since the general election started the UK government has somewhat ironically been promoting ads that provide users with advice on how to spot disinformation.
The Electoral Commission said only those individuals who break spending limits fall within its remit, and it is powerless to improve the transparency of paid advertising.