Strictly embargoed until 00.01 Saturday 20th October, not to be broadcast in any form before then.

PRESS RELEASE: Over 10 million Britons may have been targeted in new pro-Brexit Facebook ‘dark ads’ campaign to pressurise MPs

New evidence of Facebook Fake News political targeting given to Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

Potentially £250,000 spent by anonymous group reaching 10 million citizens in campaign to “chuck Chequers”

New revelation comes in same week after Facebook vows to take action over political ‘dark ads’

In evidence given to Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee today by digital agency 89up, MPs were told of a major new campaign of Fake News distributed via Facebook that may have reached over 10 million Britons.

The website, mainstreamnetwork.co.uk, is serving hyper-targeted Facebook advertisements aimed at getting people in mostly Leave-voting constituencies to write to their MP demanding they “chuck Chequers”.

89up estimates the pro-Brexit website has potentially spent over £250,000 on pro-Brexit or anti-Chequers advertising on Facebook in less than a year, with 11 million people reached by these advertisements. The website has been running since February of this year.

The committee was told that last week the website was running dozens of adverts targetted at Facebook users in specific constituencies, suggesting users “Click to tell your local MP to bin Chequers”, along with an image from the constituency, and an email function to drive people to send their MP an anti-Chequers message. This email function carbon-copied an info@mainstreamnetwork.co.uk email address, which is potentially a breach of the UK’s data protection rules, as the website is not listed as a data controller.

A day after Facebook announced a new clampdown on political advertisement on its platform, this evidence of anonymous political advertising will once again put pressure on Facebook to clean up its act after two years of inaction on the issue.

GDPR Breach?

The Mainstream Network website is likely to be in breach of new GDPR rules. While it collects users’ data, it does not have a published privacy policy, or contain any information whatsoever on the people behind the campaign.

Once users are taken to the respective localised landing pages from ads, they are asked to email their MP. When a user does this, its default email client opens up an email as per below:

Whenever a user emails their MP from the site, the site puts its own email in the BCC field (see above).  It is possible the user’s email address is being stored in this manner and then used for marketing purposes.

The committee, which is currently investigating “fake news”, heard evidence that the individual or individuals behind the website had gone to significant lengths to hide their identities including making their identity on the register of internet domains anonymous.

Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Committee said:

“Here we have an example of a clearly sophisticated organisation spending lots of money on a political campaign, and we have absolutely no idea who is behind it. The only people who know who is paying for these adverts is Facebook.

“While debate on one of the central issues facing our country is part of a thriving democracy, there is an important question of where campaigning stops and political advertising starts. Facebook has recently announced a set of changes to increase transparency around political advertising on its platform. This example offers Facebook an opportunity to show it is committed to making that change happen - if you are targeted with a message or asked to do lobby your MP, you should know exactly who is behind the organisation asking you to do it.”

Mike Harris, CEO of 89up said:

“A day after Facebook announced it will no longer be taking ‘dark ads’, we see once again evidence of the huge problem the platform is yet to face up to. Facebook has known since the EU referendum that highly targeted political advertising was being placed on its platform by anonymous groups, yet has failed to do anything about it. We have found evidence of yet another anonymous pro-Brexit campaign placing potentially a quarter of a million pounds worth of advertising, without anyone knowing or being able to find out who they are.”

Declaration of interest: 89up was commissioned by parliament’s Culture Media and Sport Select committee to provide evidence of Fake News for its ongoing inquiry.

Mike Harris of 89up is available for comment -

For more information on 89up, go to www.89up.org