26 Oct

No sooner had Facebook announced new rules to force political advertisers to prove their identities and their ad spend than an anonymous pro-Brexit campaign website with a massive £257,000 ad spend was discovered.

Mainstream Network

The anonymous website and campaign identified only as ‘Mainstream Network’ was discovered by Campaign group 89up. Clicking on the Facebook adverts by Mainstream Network takes users to a page on their local constituency and MP, and clicking from there was found to generate an email to their MP requesting that the Prime Minister should abandon her Chequers Brexit deal. It has also been discovered that a copy of each of the emails is sent back to Mainstream Network.

11 Million People Reached

Campaign group 89up estimate that the unknown backers of Mainstream Network must have spent in the region of £257,000 to date on the Facebook adverts, which 89up estimate could have reached 11 million people.

What’s The Problem?

The problem with these political adverts is that Facebook has recently announced new rules in the UK that require anyone wishing to place an advert relating to a live political issue, promoting a UK political candidate, referencing political figures, political parties, elections, legislation before Parliament and past referenda that are the subject of national debate, to prove their identity, and prove that they are based in the UK. Policing this should involve obtaining proof of identity and where they are based e.g. by checking a passport / driving licence / resident permit. According to Facebook, any political adverts must also carry a “Paid for by” disclaimer to enable Facebook users to see who the adverts are from, and the “Paid for by” link next to each advert should link through to a publicly searchable archive of political adverts showing a range of the ad’s budget and number of people reached, and the other ads that Page is running, and previous ads from the same source.

GDPR Breach Too?

It is also believed that sending a copy of the email back to Mainstream Network, in this case, could also constitute a breach of GDPR.

First Job For Facebook’s Nick Clegg

What to do about Mainstream Network and their campaign could end up being the first big task of Facebook’s newly appointed global communications chief and former deputy PM Sir Nick Clegg. It’s been reported that Mark Zuckerberg himself and Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg were personally involved in recruiting Mr Clegg given the importance and nature of the role.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

After Facebook announced new rules to ensure political ad-transparency, the discovery of Mainstream Network’s anonymous adverts and the scale of the ad spend and reach must be at the very least embarrassing and awkward for Facebook, and is another piece of unwanted bad publicity for the social network tech giant. Whatever a campaign of this kind and scale is for, Facebook must really be seen to act in order to retain the credibility of its claims that it wants political ad transparency, not to lose any more of the trust if its users and advertisers, and to avoid being linked with any more political influence scandals.

Facebook has recently faced many other high profile problems including how much tax it pays, the scandal of sharing user details with Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ (over the UK referendum), a fine by the ICO for breaches of the U.K.’s Data Protection Act, and a major hack, and is perhaps with all this in mind that it has hired a former politician and UK Deputy Prime minister. Some political commentators have also noted that it may be very useful for Facebook to have a person on-board who knows the key players, who has reach and is able to lobby on Facebook’s behalf in one of its toughest regulatory areas, the European Union.