The Government has been accused of misusing taxpayers’ money to target voters in key swing constituencies with Facebook ads.
At least 17 adverts promising up to £25 million investment in various towns across the UK went live on Tuesday — the day the General Election was announced.
These ads paid for by the public purse appear on a My Town Campaign Facebook page run by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and invite local people to have say over how the money is spent.
MP Ian Lucas called the promotion an “outrageous” misuse of public cash. He has written to Michael Gove demanding to know how data was gathered to target people; how much public money has been misused and whether there was any discussion about them breaking political purdah – the convention that civil servants must remain neutral in an election period.
The Facebook ads are aimed at Tory target towns with MPs who have a majority of less than 5,000 votes.
The adverts ran without a political disclaimer, so were taken down by Facebook shortly after 8.30pm on Friday evening after the scandal broke.
They targeted voters in marginal seats, such as Newcastle-under-Lyme, which has a Labour majority of just 30 votes.
Other towns where the Facebook ads appeared included Northampton, Milton Keynes and Mansfield – which had majorities of less than 2,000 in the 2017 general election.
Labour MP Ian Lucas who sits on Parliament’s DCMS Sub-Committee on Disinformation called the adverts an “outrageous” misuse of public funds and has written to Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove, questioning how much money was spent and how decisions were made over who to target.
The adverts went live when it became clear a December election would take place, just before the Government entered purdah — the pre-election period where it must remain neutral.
A Government spokesman told the Huff Post: “These posts were published before the election was called and Parliament has not yet been dissolved.
“All towns selected were chosen according to the same selection methodology, including analysis of deprivation, exposure to Brexit, productivity, economic resilience and investment opportunities.”
Ian Lucas said: “They were put up on the day the Government indicated we would be having a General Election.
“To say the Government did not know is an insult to our intelligence.
“This is public money. This is taxpayers’ money. If the Conservatives want to run a political campaign, they should be doing it themselves with their own money.
“It’s entirely inappropriate to be using public money in this way. They are pretending these are public information ads but they are not.
“We need to know how they have chosen to target these towns. What do they mean ‘exposure to Brexit’? Surely everywhere is exposed to Brexit.
“Where have they got this data from? Have they used the data from other Government-run campaigns — like Prepare for Brexit — and are now using it for political purposes?”
MP Ian Lucas who has investigated Vote Leave’s illegal campaigning in Parliament’s DCMS Sub-Committee on Disinformation, told The London Economic:
“We know Facebook was used as a political weapon by Johnson, Cummings and Gove in the Vote Leave illegal campaign.
“The same people are now using the same techniques in the 2019 General Election because we still have the same outdated electoral laws, despite all the DCMS Select Committee, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner have said about essential reform being required.”
Last month he wrote in The London Economic about the extraordinary lengths to avoid scrutiny over Vote Leave offences that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings have all gone to.
The Conservative Party has significantly ramped up Facebook spend since former Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings took charge of its communications strategy.
The party has spent around £50,000 on Facebook ads in the past 90 days and you can see a record of the ads here: on Facebook’s social and political ad library.
Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings – Boris Johnson’s top adviser – came under significant scrutiny for the use of targeted Facebook advertising during the referendum campaign.
Several members of Boris Johnson’s advisory team previously worked on the official Vote Leave campaign, which relied on Facebook targeting to reach voters and is still being investigated by the Met police for illegal overspending.