Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has stood by his company’s decision to run political adverts after Twitter announced it would ban them.
The announcement couldn’t come at a worse time for many who continue to express concerns that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings used Facebook illegally in the EU referendum as part of the Leave campaign, with nothing stopping them doing the same again during this autumn’s General Election campaign.
MP Ian Lucas who has investigated the issue 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“The same people are now using the same techniques in the 2019 General Election because we still have the same outdated electoral laws, despite all the DCMS Select Committee, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner have said about essential reform being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.
Taxpayers’ money spent on ads targeting seats on Tories’ hit list
Today HuffPost UK has revealed that Conservative ministers authorised over 20 adverts, paid for with taxpayers’ money to go live on Tuesday, the day Boris Johnson got MPs to back a snap general election.
The ads target marginal seats in mainly Leave-voting areas that the Conservatives hope to win, boasting of £25 million of investment.
The ads appear on a My Town Campaign Facebook page designed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and invite local people to have say over how the money is spent.
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 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.
Their Facebook ads – since released to a committee of MPs investigating the campaign – focused on specific issues used to push the buttons of highly targeted people, based on their age, where they lived and other personal data taken from social media and other sources.
The Vote Leave ads pushed misleading messages – such as this one suggesting Turkey was joining the EU. What’s more it suggests in the extremely unlikely event Turkey joins the EU, the whole country’s population would move to the UK.
Early on in the campaign, Vote Leave launched a giant data harvesting exercise through a competition to win £50m if you could correctly guess the result of all 51 games in the 2016 European football championship. The odds of winning the contest – which Vote Leave funded through an insurance policy – were calculated at one in 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
It was described by one Vote Leave insider at the time as a potential “game changer” because it would allow it to gather the contact details of thousands of potential voters, many of whom would not normally be interested in the referendum.
Facebook removed Conservative adverts with fake headlines
And if you imagined that the Conservative Party would not stoop to such practices, last month we reported how Facebook removed Conservative adverts with fake headlines. The ads with doctored headlines were viewed between 220,000 and 510,000 times according to Full Fact, an independent charity who work alongside other organisations on Facebook’s Third Party Fact Checking programme which discovered the Tory slight of hand.
“People can see how our tools were misused”
A Facebook spokesperson told the BBC the advert would be kept as an example in their ad library so “people can see how our tools were misused”.
They added: “We are working to put safeguards in place to ensure publishers have control over the way their headlines appear in advertisements.”
Will Moy, chief executive of Full Fact warned: “It is wrong for the work of independent journalists to be altered in this way and misleading for readers.
“This Government has previously agreed that UK election law must be updated and that the integrity of our elections is at risk.
“With an election increasingly likely, emergency legislation is needed to ensure online campaigning and advertising is truly open and transparent, as recommended by the cross-party DCMS committee.
“Full Fact will be scrutinising the use of political advertising by all sides throughout the election campaign, and we will now be specifically looking for any other examples of independent news being misrepresented by any political advertiser.”
“It was not our intention to misrepresent.”
A Conservative Party spokesman told the BBC: “It was not our intention to misrepresent by using this headline copy with the news link, where the BBC’s £7bn figure is clearly displayed, but we are reviewing how our advert headlines match accompanying links.”
We also reported last month how messaging similar to Tory ads on social media had been broadcast through school information screens to primary school children. The Conservative Party press office refused to comment.
And MP Ian Lucas, a member of the Department of Media Culture and Sports Select Committee, wrote in The London Economic about Michael Gove swerving unanswered questions about what he knew about unlawful spending by the Leave campaign. Michael Gove was the co-Convenor of Vote Leave’s Campaign Committee in the 2016 Referendum. He has admitted publicly that he knew of the payments to AIQ which led to the commission of electoral offences in 2016.
“I have written to Michael Gove asking for full disclosure of his knowledge of Vote Leave’s illegal payments. If he does not make disclosure, as Secretary of State responsible for data protection, he is breaking the Ministerial Code,” wrote the Labour MP.
Soon after Ian Lucas questioned Michael Gove over the illegal payments, the Tory minister changed his own job description as Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office in a crude attempt to avoid responsibility for dodgy election practices. In the UK, the Cabinet Office is the Government department charged with elections and electoral reform.
Twitter bans political ads
Twitter boss Jack Dorsey said in a series of tweets on Wednesday that all political advertising on the social media platform would cease on November 22.
It came as Facebook faced criticism after disclosing it would not fact-check most political ads, instead only banning adverts containing claims debunked by third-party fact-checkers.
Less than an hour after Jack Dorsey’s announcement, Mark Zuckerberg spoke about what he said was Facebook’s deep belief “that political speech is important” and stood by his company’s decision.
“Some people accuse us of allowing speech because they think all we care about is making money, and that’s wrong,” he said in a Facebook earnings conference call after the Twitter announcement.
“I can assure you that, from a business perspective, the controversy this creates far outweighs the very small percentage of our business that these political ads make up.
“I don’t think anyone can say that we are not doing what we believe or we haven’t thought hard about these issues.”
Meanwhile, Twitter chief executive Dorsey said political message reach “should be earned, not bought”.
He said in a series of tweets: “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet.
“Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”
Facebook ad revenue rockets as politicians given ‘free reign to lie’
Facebook’s revenue in the past three months was up 29% at 17.7 billion US dollars (£13.7 billion) compared with 13.7 billion dollars (£10.6 billion) for the same period last year, while monthly active users increased by 8 per cent to 2.45 billion, its latest financial report shows.
Advertising revenue also increased from 13.5 billion dollars (£10.5 billion) to 17.4 billion dollars (£13.5 billion).
The results were published as the firm agreed to pay a £500,000 fine following an investigation into the use of personal data in political campaigns.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced on Wednesday that the tech giant had withdrawn its appeal against the “monetary penalty notice” and would accept the fine without admitting any liability.
Last month, US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren highlighted her own concerns over Facebook’s political advertising policy by paying for a series of adverts which included false claims about Mr Zuckerberg.
The adverts, which successfully appeared on the social network, claimed the Facebook founder had endorsed US President Donald Trump for re-election next year, before suggesting they had given politicians “free rein to lie” on the platform.