Warwick and Leamington MP responds to national scrutiny into spending on political adverts on Facebook

Political advert spending on Facebook.
Political advert spending on Facebook.

Warwick and Leamington MP Matt Western says he "continues to use public money carefully and frugally amid national scrutiny into spending on political adverts on Facebook.

Nationally, Facebook users are being targeted with thousands of adverts seeking to influence their opinion of local politics.

Matt Western MP

Matt Western MP

Hundreds of individual MPs, elected officials and local authorities have placed nearly half a million pounds’ worth of promotions on the site in less than a year, we can reveal.

But Mr Western is far from being one of those to have spent large sums on adverts on the site.

He said: "Across the country, there are some that say that they don’t know what their MP is doing to represent them.

"For a healthy democracy to function, it is important that as many people as possible are informed of what their representatives are doing.

Facebook

Facebook

"In Warwick and Leamington, I am proud to say that, unusually, I send out a newsletter to all households at least twice a year (paid for entirely by myself with the Warwick & Leamington Labour Party) and update constituents in my newspaper columns fortnightly to inform them of my work.

"Recently, I held a public meeting at a cost of £100 which was attended by 120 local constituents.

"However, there has been a huge reduction in recent years of the number of people reading print news, and physical meetings only have a limited reach.

"Instead, people – young people especially – use social media in place of more traditional ways of communicating.

"Therefore, I use social media to update and converse with constituents, as well as promoting local events.

In the two years since becoming MP, I have spent £77 on Facebook posts to promote my page as well as key events, such as my first question to the Prime Minister. I strongly believe that transparency and accountability are of vital importance.

"I continue to use public money carefully and frugally and constituents acknowledge this."

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media giant last year began publishing details of who places - and pays for - adverts promoting political or social issues.

Spending on these ads, often targeted to specific groups, has totalled more than £6.4m since last October.

And while much of the attention has focused on the big parties and pressure groups on either side of the Brexit divide, the data also reveals the thousands of adverts placed at a local level, often seeking to influence constituents on what can appear to be seemingly mundane neighbourhood issues.

Under new rules Facebook introduced in October 2018, anyone placing a political advert must declare who paid for it.

Our investigation identified around 300 ads on the pages of local politicians and councils which were run without these disclaimers - including 40 placed on behalf of sitting MPs.

There is no suggestion that any of the adverts had been deliberate attempts to deceive constituents. They were all found and removed by Facebook.

But with a general election looking likely in the coming months, campaigners have questioned the transparency of the system.

The Open Rights Group, which campaigns for internet users’ digital rights, said social media has become a “key battleground for political campaigns”.

Its data and democracy officer, Pascal Crowe, said the “rules that shape our elections are ripe for reform”.

“For example, it is currently too easy to field a political advert on Facebook without revealing who is paying for that ad,” he said.

“It is now perhaps easier than ever to game the system and avoid being held to account."

A spokesperson for Facebook said: "Our industry-leading tools are making it easier to see all political ads on our platforms, and archives them for seven years in Facebook's Ad Library.

“People are able to report concerns to us or regulators as appropriate."

A Government spokesperson said: "There should be greater transparency in political advertising, which is why we have already pledged to introduce the requirement for digital election material to be clearly branded. We will bring forward technical proposals by the end of the year.”

Councils spent more than £20,000 on targeted Facebook ads

With 40 million users in the UK alone, Facebook is seen by many politicians and groups as an effective way of reaching constituents.

Since last October, at least £209,000 has been spent on ads for individual MPs - including campaigns for the Conservative Party’s leadership contest - and at least £32,000 was spent on ads placed through MEPs’ Facebook pages.

Local councils spent more than £20,000 on Facebook promotions, while adverts placed by individual councillors totalled more than £24,000.

Around £120,000 was spent on promotions for elected mayors and mayoral candidates.

Pascal Crowe, Data and Democracy Officer at Open Rights Group, said:"This data suggests that social media has become a key battleground for political campaigns.

“It also demonstrates that the rules that shape our elections are ripe for reform. For example, it is currently too easy to field a political advert on Facebook without revealing who is paying for that ad.

“It is now perhaps easier than ever to game the system and avoid being held to account."

A Government spokesperson said:"There should be greater transparency in political advertising, which is why we have already pledged to introduce the requirement for digital election material to be clearly branded. We will bring forward technical proposals by the end of the year.

"Our world leading Online Harms White Paper also proposes that under a new regulatory framework companies could be required to improve transparency in wider political advertising, in line with electoral law."