We don’t know who just spent £250k on pro-Brexit Facebook ads – that should worry us all

The company’s decision to be more open about political advertising looks welcome. But it is, in reality, window-dressing which is destined to fail.

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The story of an opaque website which has spent over £250,000 on Facebook advertising in the last year in order to promote its pro-Brexit, anti-Chequers agenda exposes the inadequacy of the social netwook’s promises to clean up its act.

Its decision to be more open about political advertising on its platform looks welcome. But it is, in reality, a piece of window-dressing which is destined to fail.

The key issue is that no-one outside Facebook either knows or has the right or power to know what information is being disseminated on the Facebook platform or where it comes from. And very often, only Facebook will know which adverts and information have been directed at which Facebook users.

In politics, there are a myriad of relevant laws including restrictions on the source of donations, restrictions on the amount of donations and restrictions on content. Obeying these laws is crucial to the democratic process. Yet we have no knowledge of whether Facebook and users of Facebook are abiding by the law and, crucially, no means of finding out.

This is laid bare by the disclosures of the activities of a website mainstreamnetwork.co.uk, which has been using Facebook to spread its pro-Brexit, anti-Chequers political message in a bid to influence the politics of the UK.. 

We do not know who runs the site. We do not know whether it is based in the UK or overseas. We do not know who funds it. There is no name or address anywhere on the site.

A report by political research organisation 89Up, prepared for the DCMS Select Committee on which I sit, tells us, however, that it has paid to use Facebook, probably about £250,000 in the last year, to spread its views and to encourage its users with a pro-forma letter to email UK MPs from a custom built website. We also know that it has retained users’ email addresses, possibly in breach of data protection regulations.

Facebook has made these activities possible and profits from them. But it accepts no responsibility for ensuring its users comply with the law.

All of this is happening now – after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and after Facebook made a number of announcements purporting to address the misuse of the platform for political purposes.

It is also quite wrong to suppose that malign political activity on the platform can be ended by measures relating only to paid political advertising. For much of Facebook’s influence is not through paid advertising. It has an impact through the dissemination of information, opinions and stories organically – by individuals through Facebook Groups who pay nothing for spreading that information. None of this information will be controlled in any way by the steps that Facebook has taken this past week. 

A tiny part of political activity on the internet involves paid advertising, and the key issue that needs to be addressed by Facebook is that it still retains total control of what it releases to the general public and regulatory bodies, such as the Information Commission and Election Commission, whose role is to ensure fair play in both the use of information and election compliance.

This week’s £500,000 fine from the Information Commission over a data breach at Facebook did little to deter Facebook, and although under new rules much larger fines can be levied, it is essential that such bodies have the right to inspect the way Facebook is used. They need to have the right to go through their books but, at the present time, nobody outside of Facebook has that access.

It is very clear that in the 2015 General Election, the 2016 EU Referendum, and the 2017 General Election, all in the UK, there was sophisticated and extensive use of Facebook and other social media by political parties and candidates. The techniques were also used in the 2016 Presidential Elections in the US, initially within the primaries and then in the election itself.

What the evidence to the DCMS Committee shows us is that a small group of individuals and businesses who understood the power of social media, and especially Facebook, were hugely influential in particular campaigns, that they exploited their knowledge and techniques commercially and politically, and that they appear to have been very successful in many objectives, in particular, helping secure a vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President.

The evidence shows us that this small group of individuals were all linked through the data companies SCL, Cambridge Analytica and AIQ and the Vote Leave campaigning organisation.

The scale of these projects and their success was largely unappreciated at the time, even by most of the participants in the elections and the Referendum.

The key to their success was the possession and, it seems, sharing, of data and, subsequently, its use to disseminate political campaigning messages, mainly using the Facebook platform. More and more evidence is emerging of the shared use of data by different organisations.

In addition, as highlighted in the Atlantic Council report Democracy in the Crosshairs: How Political Money Laundering Threatens the Democratic Process, there is evidence of funders of political campaigns engaging with hostile powers, as Arron Banks did with the Russian Embassy in the run-up to the EU Referendum, and failing to account credibly for the sources of donations used in crucial campaigns.

We now discover that present political events are the subject of direct intervention by the unidentifiable Mainstream Network site.

There is an extraordinary reluctance on the part of the UK Government to require law enforcement agencies to investigate fully the sources of these activities and, to avert doubts about the motivations for this reluctance, it should state openly the nature of the investigations which are being conducted.

Our democracy is too precious to rely on the goodwill of one private business, especially one as massive as Facebook.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.