In Brief

Facebook no-deal ads secretly run by Lynton Crosby firm

Documents reveal that Tory election guru's staff oversaw most 'grassroots' campaigns

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A string of influential Facebook ad campaigns that appear to be separate grassroots movements for a no-deal Brexit are secretly being overseen by employees of Sir Lynton Crosby, the Tory election guru, The Guardian has revealed.

Although the groups, including Mainstream Network and Britain’s Future, seem to be separate entities run independently by members of the public, they share an administrator who works for Crosby’s CTF Partners. 

They have splashed as much as £1m promoting sophisticated targeted adverts to add pressure on MPs to vote for a hard Brexit. Their collective expenditure on Facebook campaigning exceeds the amount spent in the last six months by all the UK’s major political parties and the government combined. 

The funds have been spent on thousands of different targeted Facebook ads to urge members of the public to write to their local MPs and call for the toughest possible exit from the EU. The intended effect was to conjure an impression of organic public opposition to Theresa May’s deal.

The Guardian says documents reveal that almost all the major pro-Brexit Facebook “grassroots” advertising campaigns share the same page admins or promoters, drawn from staff from CTF Partners and the political director of Boris Johnson’s campaigns to be mayor of London.

There is a further link between the company and Johnson: the register of MPs’ interests shows that CTF Partners gave the former foreign secretary an interest-free loan of £23,000 this year.

The news will heap more pressure on Facebook. Transparency campaigners have already accused the social media giant of taking “dark money” for adverts that are pushing for a no-deal Brexit without disclosing who has paid for them.

The House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee, which investigates online disinformation, has repeatedly called for Facebook to reveal the identities of those who were funding Mainstream Network.

Last month, the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins, said: “I believe there is a strong public interest in understanding who is behind the Mainstream Network, and that this information should be published.” 

Lynton Crosby helped run the last four Conservative general election campaigns, helping to secure an unexpected majority government for the party in 2015.

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