Campaign consultancy's propaganda network "did not break Facebook's rules"

An investigation has revealed that lobbying firm CTF Partners built a network of unbranded "news" pages that would promote its clients' viewpoints on the social media giant's platform.

Lynton Crosby, right, has masterminded successful Conservative Party campaigns. (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)
Lynton Crosby, right, has masterminded successful Conservative Party campaigns. (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Research by the Guardian alleges that dozens of Facebook campaigns were overseen by staff of the business founded by Sir Lynton Crosby on topics including Brexit and Saudi Arabia.

Staff worked on online disinformation campaigns that selectively promoted their clients’ viewpoints on anonymous Facebook pages, and would use personal email accounts to avoid their work being traced back to CTF or its clients.

They also created websites and Facebook pages which appeared to be independent online news sources, creating the perception of grassroots support for a cause, known as astroturfing.

Internal documents seen by the Guardian reveal a number of such campaigns included polishing the image of the Saudi Arabian crown prince, plus several political campaigns in countries criticised for poor human rights records, and support of coal power and tobacco.

The report also claims to expose a major flaw in Facebook’s political transparency tools.

Facebook denies this is the case. The company told PRWeek: "Our review to-date suggests the majority of these Pages to be operated by real people and do not currently violate our co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour policy.

"However, we take seriously the information shared by The Guardian and are continuing to review the activity of the Pages mentioned. Ensuring the safety of people on our platform, and that they can trust what they see on Facebook, is paramount."

Facebook said it recently introduced greater transparency rules that allow users to see when a page was created and where the admins area based. It said it is exploring additional transparency that would show people more information about who is running the page.

The social media giant said the case highlights areas where it believes regulations are needed to ensure the rules of online political campaigning are clearly defined and that it is already working with government and regulators.

The spokesperson added: "Real people running Facebook Pages with a point of view is not against our terms, and is common across the internet through websites, blogs and other platforms. These examples could highlight the case for new rules since internet platforms are not currently required to find out who is paying page admins or managers."

CTF also has close links to the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson after his Conservative leadership campaign was run by Mark Fullbrook, an election consultant who co-founded CTF Partners with Crosby.

CTF gave the new Prime Minister an interest free loan of £20,000 in December last year, and an additional £3,000 for office and staffing costs.

CTF did not respond to PRWeek’s request for comment but told the Guardian it would not comment on its methods or clients, but said employees always operate within the law and accused the Guardian of relying on "false or distorted facts".

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