During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, an awful lot of dark money was being spent on advertising, and most of that advertising was for the Leave side. It was therefore no surprise when both Vote Leave and Leave EU were judged to have broken the law on campaign spending. But now that Brexit is under pressure as never before, the dark money is back. And once again, nobody is owning up as to who’s paying.
This time, as so often, it was not our free and fearless press who exposed the spending, but the New York Times, with one Tweeter observing “Over the past 10 months, an unknown organization spent more than 250,000 pounds on hardline pro-Brexit ads opposing Theresa May's negotiations with the EU. The ads reached 10-11 million people & disappeared suddenly this week”. Not exactly loose change, then.
TechCrunch picked this up, with editor-at-large Mike Butcher telling “Somebody out there - and no one knows who - has spent over £250,000 in less than a year to push pro-Brexit messages to over 10 million people in the UK. Who’s going to investigate this?”
To no surprise at all, this news then reached the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, who confirmed “Britain, 2018. An unknown donor has spent upwards of a quarter million £ to place these dark ads on Facebook seen by up to 10 million people. Nobody knows who paid for them. Only Facebook. And it’s not telling” and gave us a name: Mainstream.
Who they? Ah well. What we do know is who Mainstream is targeting, thanks to Mike Hind, who gave us a sample list of targeted MPs from last month. “Today's ads target the following (slightly revised) list of MPs. @GloriaDePiero @iainastewart @MaryRobinson01 @LauraSmithMP @DavidEvennett @NickBoles @JustinTomlinson @DamianCollins All activity hidden from public scrutiny by operating from behind a domain privacy service”.
Collins is being targeted because of his actions as head of the Commons DCMS Committee. Others, like Laura Smith who represents Crewe and Nantwich, is getting the treatment because her constituency is at present ultra-marginal and voted Leave (although the margin was smaller than the UK average).
The MPs are being urged to “ditch Chequers”. Fine, whoever is paying is entitled to take whatever political stance they wish. But as this is yet another attempt to intervene in the workings of Parliament, and the actions of our elected representatives, We The People are entitled to ask who is paying. And Mainstream has decided it won’t tell us.
But help is at hand: Facebook has just appointed one Nick Clegg, who has claimed he is joining the company “To build bridges between Politics and Tech”. Well, do we have an ideal first case for you to handle, Mr former Deputy Prime Minister (with a side order of being the man who single-handedly wrecked British Liberalism).
So how about it, Nick? Build us a bridge between your new tech (and the rumoured seven figure salary) and the politics you left behind. Ms Cadwalladr has all the information you need. What could be simpler in your efforts to rehabilitate Facebook?
Of course, Clegg could be full of crap. I’ll just leave that one there.
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