The obscure groups buying up Facebook election ads

Social targeting index image

Two weeks into our election-ads project, the messages keep pouring in.

We have seen adverts for all the main parties but what has been striking over recent days is the number of people who have sent us ads from obscure organisations.

Ever heard of Working4UK, or Parents' Choice, or Right to Rent, Right to Buy, Right to Own?

Probably not - and their names would tell you little about their political leanings.

By contrast, it is not so hard to work out what the Campaign Against Corbynism is about.

As it turns out, the four organisations are all hostile to Labour, without being explicit about which party they support, and appear to be targeting key seats where it might be vulnerable.

One correspondent was shown ads by all four groups - and sent us examples.

"Getting an extraordinary number of political attack ads aimed at Corbyn," he wrote.

Image copyright Facebook

"I wonder if they are basing my political leanings (LibDem) to try to prevent me from voting Labour tactically in Crewe and Nantwich."

Last time round, Labour won that seat with a wafer-thin majority, while the Lib Dems came a distant third.

But the contributor noted he lived about 50m (165ft) outside the constituency.

Facebook gives users limited information about why they were selected, via its Why Am I Seeing This Ad pop-up.

This includes more details than are available to the wider public via Facebook's Ad Library, which the technology company launched in the UK last year to make campaigning on its platform more "transparent".

Image copyright Facebook

The pop-up revealed Right to Rent had been trying to reach "people who Facebook thinks are interested in property", matching its post's suggestion Labour was determined to tax private landlords.

Parents' Choice's ad, attacking Labour's policy on private schools, was targeted at people "interested in education, Boris Johnson and more".

And the Campaign Against Corbynism's post was directed at people over 35 "who are interested in the Conservative Party".

So the latter two organisations were targeting people who might already be sympathetic to the Conservative cause.

Perhaps they are focused on getting the core vote out rather than trying to win over Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters.

When it came to geographic targeting, the pop-ups said some of the ads were aimed at people in the United Kingdom while others specified England.

But they all said: "There could also be other factors not listed here," and it seems unlikely campaigns with limited funds are blanketing the country rather than going for key seats.

The same was true of ads from The Fair Tax Campaign, back after after an initial ban for running an ad without labelling who had paid for it, as I revealed a fortnight ago.

The Fair Tax Campaign was started by former Boris Johnson aide Alex Crowley.

A former Conservative minister Richard Tracey is behind Parents' Choice.

And Daily Express journalist James Bickerton founded the Campaign against Corbynism in the summer after becoming convinced Labour "had been taken over by people with an at best questionable attachment to core liberal-democratic values".

He told me there had been a lot of interest and about a dozen people now work unpaid to coordinate the campaign.

"We are funded entirely by our supporters and received a surge of donations from October onwards," he said.

The group is not yet listed with the Electoral Commission as a "non-party campaigner".

"We've been in contact with the Electoral Commission and plan to register in the next week or so," Mr Bickerton said.

The public has sent in far more of these anti-Corbyn and pro-Brexit ads than messages run by Labour supporters and the Remain side of the debate.

Image copyright Facebook

But we have have seen a couple of Momentum's pro-Corbyn adverts and received a few examples from the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate, which were critical of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

In terms of spending, though, all of these organisations are dwarfed by one organisation: Best for Britain.

Facebook ad spend

Between 8 and 14 November

Source: Facebook

This pro-Remain campaign, registered with the Electoral Commission, has spent £659,475 since the beginning of October 2018 on Facebook - including ads placed on Instagram as well as third-party apps via the Facebook Audience Networks - £34,228 of which was last week.

That puts it in fourth place behind the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives.

Image copyright Facebook

By comparison, last week's spending by the Campaign Against Corbynism was £4,619.

After two weeks of the election campaign, spending on Facebook adverts has already topped £1m.

Whether that cash has delivered any results remains to be seen - but Facebook users in marginal seats can expect to be assailed by messages from all sides between now and 12 December.

Seen any political ads? Send them to us

Please get involved - if you get an election ad on Facebook or any social media platform, send a screenshot of it and the Why Am I Seeing This Ad message to election.ads@bbc.co.uk.

Update 18 November:

The illustration at the top of the article has been corrected as it originally showed the logo for Fair Tax Mark rather than the Fair Tax Campaign.