Facebook users targeted by Doncaster Brexit and remain groups
Facebook users are being targeted with thousands of adverts seeking to influence their opinion of local politics.
Hundreds of individual MPs, elected officials and local authorities have placed nearly half a million pounds’ worth of promotions on the site in less than a year, we can reveal.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media giant last year began publishing details of who places - and pays for - adverts promoting political or social issues.
Spending on these ads, often targeted to specific groups, has totalled more than £6.4m since last October.
In Doncaster, the spending has focused on both sides of the Brexit issue. The highest spenders in the borough are the pro-remain Best for Doncaster campaign groups, followed by the pre-Brexit Doncaster OUT Group.
And while much of the attention has focused on the big parties and pressure groups on either side of the Brexit divide, the data also reveals the thousands of adverts placed at a local level, often seeking to influence constituents on what can appear to be seemingly mundane neighbourhood issues.
Under new rules Facebook introduced in October 2018, anyone placing a political advert must declare who paid for it.
Our investigation identified around 300 ads on the pages of local politicians and councils which were run without these disclaimers - including 40 placed on behalf of sitting MPs.
There is no suggestion that any of the adverts had been deliberate attempts to deceive constituents. They were all found and removed by Facebook.
But with a general election looking likely in the coming months, campaigners have questioned the transparency of the system.
The Open Rights Group, which campaigns for internet users’ digital rights, said social media has become a “key battleground for political campaigns”.
Its data and democracy officer, Pascal Crowe, said the “rules that shape our elections are ripe for reform”.
“For example, it is currently too easy to field a political advert on Facebook without revealing who is paying for that ad,” he said.
“It is now perhaps easier than ever to game the system and avoid being held to account."
A spokesperson for Facebook said: "Our industry-leading tools are making it easier to see all political ads on our platforms, and archives them for seven years in Facebook's Ad Library.
“People are able to report concerns to us or regulators as appropriate."
A Government spokesperson said: "There should be greater transparency in political advertising, which is why we have already pledged to introduce the requirement for digital election material to be clearly branded. We will bring forward technical proposals by the end of the year.”
Councils spent more than £20,000 on targeted Facebook ads
With 40 million users in the UK alone, Facebook is seen by many politicians and groups as an effective way of reaching constituents.
Since last October, at least £209,000 has been spent on ads for individual MPs - including campaigns for the Conservative Party’s leadership contest - and at least £32,000 was spent on ads placed through MEPs’ Facebook pages.
Local councils spent more than £20,000 on Facebook promotions, while adverts placed by individual councillors totalled more than £24,000.
Around £120,000 was spent on promotions for elected mayors and mayoral candidates.
In Doncaster, two groups were named as spending money on Facebook political ads – both in relation to Brexit.
Topping the table was Best for Doncaster, a pro-remain campaign group. They had spent £959 in total
They placed ads asking people to sign a petition opposing no deal Brexit, as well as adverts asking people to ‘like’ their Facebook page. It was described as paid for by #ProjectHope.
The other group to have spent on adverts was the pro-Brexit Doncaster OUT Group. They had spend under £100 on messages in support of Brexit and naming Brexit party prospective parliamentary candidates.
Frederika Roberts, who chairs Best for Doncaster, said they had paid for adverts promoting their Facebook page.
She said: “Whilst close to 70 per cent of those who voted in the referendum in Doncaster three years ago voted to leave the EU, approximately one in three voted to remain. We are building a community, giving a voice to those who voted remain, those who voted leave and have changed their minds, and those who wish to engage in civilised debate about the most important topic and crisis this country has encountered for close to half a century. We are a growing community, on- and offline, and our Facebook page is one platform that allows us to share information and engage in debate.
“One thing I would add is that, undoubtedly, there is lots of advertising spend targeted at Doncaster, and other towns up and down the country, by organisations that don't have Doncaster in their name, for example The Brexit Party, Government ads and other targeted ads I've seen by organisations promoting Brexit.
“I am sure each of those has far more funding available than we have as a local campaign group, so just looking at Doncaster-based groups is not painting the whole picture.”
Mick Andrews, who paid for the Doncaster OUT Group ads on Facebook, is a former UKIP candidate for Doncaster Council, who set the group up back in 2015. The group is now known as Doncaster Brexit Group.
He said: “As a local group, we campaigned to win the referendum, and having won that war, we’re trying to win the peace and complete Brexit.
“We are happy to work with anyone supporting Brexit, but we pay for things like this out of our own pockets.
“People can make their own decision as to whether things are Facebook are transparent, but we have done everything that we were asked to do on that front. It was placed in their category of political ads and my name hoes on it.”