Ever heard of Mainstream Network? I hadn’t.

But it is influencing British public opinion – far more than I realised. Who runs it? No-one knows. Who regulates it? No-one.

Below is the relevant section of the Parliamentary Select Committee Report.

If you want background, then read this.

Facebook and Mainstream Network

218.Facebook and Twitter claim to have tightened up on the dissemination of disinformation on their sites. However, during the course of our inquiry, when we commissioned work from 89up, they also looked into the work of ‘Mainstream Network’, a sophisticated, pro-Brexit website, promoted on Facebook, with an advertising spend estimated at £257,000 in just over 10 months during 2018.240 Using Facebook’s tools to access adverts, 89up found over 70 adverts that the site was running at one time. They discovered that Mainstream Network were targeting adverts to specific constituents, encouraging them to send standard emails to their MP. Examples of the adverts including one dismissing the Prime Minister’s ‘Chequers deal’. Whenever a user emails their MP from the site, Mainstream Network puts its own email into the BCC field. This would mean that the user’s data was being stored by the site owner, and could be used for marketing purposes, using Facebook’s ‘Custom Audience’ feature.241

219.In their evidence, 89up reported that Mainstream Network content had reached 10.9 million users on Facebook alone:

The website is highly misleading and contains no information on the authors of the content, nor any legally required information for GDPR compliance. With the level of spending estimated, it is possible this website is in breach of both GDPR and also Electoral Commission rules on non-party campaigners.242

220.It is concerning that such a site is run anonymously, so there is no ability to check the origins of the organisation, who is paying for the adverts and in what currency, and why political campaigns are being undertaken without any transparency about who is running them. Facebook requires political campaigning in the US and in India to be registered as running “ads related to politics or of issues of national importance”, but this is not the case in the UK.243 The ICO is currently looking into the activities of Mainstream Network and whether there was a contravention of the GDPR, in distributing such communications.244

221.In October 2018, Facebook announced new requirements for organisations and individuals placing an advert that features political figures and parties, elections, legislation before Parliament or past referendums. These requirements introduced a verification process, whereby people placing political adverts must prove their identity (by a passport, driving licence, or residence permit), which will be checked by a third-party organisation. Political adverts suspected of promoting misinformation or disinformation can be reported and, if the advert contains ‘falsehoods’, it can be taken down.

222.When Richard Allan, Vice President for Public Policy EMEA at Facebook, was asked about Mainstream Network, during the ‘International Grand Committee’ oral evidence session in November 2018, he said that there was nothing illegal about a website running such adverts, but that Facebook’s changed policy now means that “any organisation that wants to run ads like that will have to authorise. We will collect their identifying information. They will have to put on an accurate disclaimer. Their ads will go in the archive”. When asked who was behind the Mainstream Network account, Richard Allan said:

We would know whose Facebook account it was, and if there were an investigation by an entity that can legally require information, we would provide information in line with normal procedures.245

Our own investigations have shown that Mainstream Network is now no longer running political adverts on Facebook. There is, however, also no access to any adverts that they ran prior to 16 October 2018, as political adverts that ran prior to this date are not viewable. Richard Allan was asked whether he would provide the Committee with details of who was behind the account or, if not, provide us with the reasons why they cannot.246 Mainstream Network is yet another, more recent example of an online organisation seeking to influence political debate using methods similar to those which caused concern over the EU Referendum and there is no good case for Mainstream Network to hide behind anonymity. We look forward to receiving information from Facebook about the origins of Mainstream Network, which—to date—we have not received, despite promises from Richard Allan that he would provide the information. We consider Facebook’s response generally to be disingenuous and another example of Facebook’s bad faith. The Information Commissioner has confirmed that it is currently investigating this website’s activities and Facebook will, in any event, have to co-operate with the ICO.

223.Tech companies must address the issue of shell companies and other professional attempts to hide identity in advert purchasing, especially around political advertising—both within and outside campaigning periods. There should be full disclosure of the targeting used as part of advertising transparency. The Government should explore ways of regulating the use of external targeting on social media platforms, such as Facebook’s Custom Audiences.

224.The rapid rise of new populist, right-wing news sites is pushing conspiratorial, anti-establishment content outside the channels of traditional media. This can be seen in the success, for example, of PoliticalUK.co.uk, which works within a network of sites, social media pages and video accounts. Since its inception at the end of April 2018, according to Tom McTague, PoliticalUK has gained more than 3 million interactions on social media, with an average of 5,000 ‘engagements’ for each story published.247

225.McTague noted in his investigation that PoliticalUK.co.uk’s report ‘Media Silence as tens of thousands protest against Brexit betrayal’, about a rally in Westminster in December 2018 led by the far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, received 20,351 interactions on Facebook compared to a more critical report about the same event by the Daily Mail which received just 3,481 interactions. Content from PoliticalUK.co.uk is being promoted by Facebook groups including ‘EU-I Voted Leave’ which is followed by more that 220,000 people. Robinson himself has over 1 million followers on Facebook, making him the second most popular British political figure on the site, after the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

226.However, tools that let the public see the way in which Facebook users are being targeted by advertisers have recently been blocked by Facebook. Evidence we received from Who Targets Me? puts Facebook’s desire for more transparency on its site into question. Who Targets Me? was established in 2017 to help the public understand how they were being targeted with online adverts during the general election. It explains its work, in collaboration with the London School of Economics, the Oxford Internet Institute and Sheffield University:

Our tool can be installed as a browser extension, it then collects data from Facebook users and shows them personalised statistics of how many adverts they have seen. The data is also collated into a master database, that is shared exclusively with researchers and journalists interested in exposing misinformation, election overspending and microtargeting, among other issues. Our tool can be installed as a browser extension, it then collects data from Facebook users and shows them personalised statistics of how many adverts they have seen. The data is also collated into a master database, that is shared exclusively with researchers and journalists interested in exposing misinformation, election overspending and microtargeting, among other issues.248

227.On January 9th, 2014, Who Targets Me? and all other organisations operating in this space, including ProPublica and Mozilla, lost access to this data. Facebook made this change with the purpose of blocking tools that operate to highlight the content and targeting of Facebook adverts. There is now no practical way for researchers to audit Facebook advertising.249

228.The ICO has called for a Code of Practice to be placed in statute, to highlight the use of personal information in political campaigning—following the same codes set out in the Data Protection Act250—including an age-appropriate design code and a data protection and journalism code.251 The ICO anticipates that such codes would apply to all data controllers who process personal data for the purpose of political campaign. The ICO has existing powers under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to produce codes of practice relating to the Commissioner’s functions, which they intend to do before the next general election.252 But the ICO also feels that such codes should have a statutory underpinning in primary legislation and a consultation on this proposal closed on 21 December 2018. We agree; only by placing such codes of practice on a statutory footing will the processing of personal data be taken seriously.

Constitutional Research Council (CRC)

229.This lack of transparency in political advertising was illustrated by the Constitutional Research Council’s donation during the EU Referendum. The CRC is an unincorporated funding organisation based in Scotland, which contributed to the Democratic Unionist Party’s Leave campaign in Northern Ireland and in England, during the EU referendum. It donated £435,000 to the DUP, the biggest political donation in Northern Ireland’s history, of which £425,000 was spent on advertising in the referendum campaign. Its sole named office holder is its Chairman, Richard Cook. There have been claims that Vote Leave and the DUP were part of a co-ordinated campaign in the EU Referendum, and allegations that Richard Cook’s financial affairs involved fraud relating to waste management.253 The Committee twice wrote to Richard Cook asking him for the source of the £435,000 donation and how it was presumed the money would be spent. We received one reply on 5 November 2018 in which Mr. Cook claimed to be “greatly amused” by the Committee’s letter before accusing us of spreading “fake news and disinformation” about him. He declined however to reveal the source of the money or to say how the Constitutional Research Council believed it was going to be spent.254

230.The Electoral Commission gave evidence on 6 November 2018, and were asked about this donation from the CRC. The then CEO, Claire Bassett, explained that “we are restricted by law on what we can say about any donations made before 2017” and it is a situation “that we do not really want to be in, and it is deeply regrettable”.255 Donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland before July 2017 are protected, namely, from disclosure, under Section 71E of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Louise Edwards, Head of Regulations at the Electoral Commission, explained the position:

The Democratic Unionist Party as a registered party in Northern Ireland needed to continue to supply quarterly donation reports to us throughout the referendum period, which it did. We are under a duty to verify the contents of donation reports for Northern Ireland parties and that is a duty we take very seriously and we do it. If we discover that a donation in one of those reports is in fact impermissible, the restrictions […] are lifted and we can talk about that donation. We cannot talk about donations to the DUP from that period because, having verified those reports, the donors on them were permissible256

231.When asked whether there was a common plan between the Constitutional Research Council donating £435,000 to the DUP and booking an advert for £280,000 in the Metro newspaper, in London, on behalf of Vote Leave (within days of the vote), Louise Edwards replied, “There is not a way for me to answer that question that does not put me in breach of the law, I am afraid”.257 When asked whether the money from the CRC donated to the DUP was from the UK, and not of foreign origin (which would make it impermissible in UK law), Claire Bassett replied that “we were satisfied that the donors were permissible”.258 When asked whether they had been told the origin of the money, Louise Edwards and Claire Bassett said, “we are not able to discuss it any further”259 and “we were satisfied that the donors were permissible in UK law”,260 from information verified by “a range of sources”.261 They were also unable, by law, to confirm whether they knew the identity of the person who donated the money.262

232.Donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland before July 2017 are protected from disclosure, under Section 71E of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. This prevents the Electoral Commission from disclosing any information relating to such donations before July 2017. We concur with the Electoral Commission that it is “deeply regrettable” that they are unable, by law, to tell Members of Parliament and the public about details surrounding the source of the £435,000 donation that was given by the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) to the DUP or the due diligence that was followed. Because of the law as it currently stands, this Committee and the wider public have no way of investigating the source of the £435,000 donation to the DUP made on behalf of the CRC and are prevented from even knowing whether it came from an organisation, whose membership had either sanctioned the donation or not, or from a wealthy individual.

233.There is an absence of transparency surrounding the relationship between the Constitutional Research Council, the DUP and Vote Leave. We believe that, in order to avoid having to disclose the source of this £435,000 donation, the CRC, deliberately and knowingly, exploited a loophole in the electoral law to funnel money to the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. That money was used to fund pro-Brexit newspaper advertising outside Northern Ireland and to pay the Canadian-based data analytics company, Aggregate IQ.

234.We support the Electoral Commission in its request that the Government extend the transparency rules around donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland from 2014. This period of time would cover two UK general elections, two Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the Scottish independence referendum, the EU referendum, and EU and local government elections. We urge the Government to make this change in the law as soon as is practicable to ensure full transparency over these elections and referendums.