Controversial pro-Brexit advertisements generated “one million clicks” on Facebook, the Information Commissioner’s Office has told a group of MPs.
The advertisements, which were targeted at people in mostly Leave-voting constituencies, urged people to email their MPs demanding they “chuck Chequers”.
The advertisements were placed and paid for in 2017 and 2018 by an anonymous group known only as Mainstream Network.
Researchers 89up, who discovered the campaign, estimated that it had cost as much as £250,000 and targeted “over 10 million Britons” according to their location.
Speaking to parliament’s newly formed sub-committee on disinformation, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) revealed that there had been “around in total about a million clicks” connected to the ads.
Damien Collins, chair of the sub-committee, described it as a “sophisticated” campaign run by “shady groups”, and called on Facebook to release the names of the operators and financial backers.
Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham confirmed she was using her legal powers to find out that information.
“We’ve used our formal powers of information gathering to obtain information from Facebook about who’s behind the campaign, what kind of data was used, what kind of audience would have been targeted,” she told the MPs.
With the investigation still ongoing, Ms Denham declined to reveal whether or not Facebook had responded to the request.
However, she said the evidence showed the campaign was “relatively unsophisticated” in its use of data.
Once a user clicked on one of the ads, it generated a pre-addressed email to an MP, and harvested that email address for future campaigns.
The ICO did not reveal how many people made the one million clicks, nor how many of those clickers went on to to send an email.
Ms Denham told the MPs the ICO was looking at around 1,000 Facebook adverts placed by Mainstream Network, as well as similar ads placed by “Britain’s Future” and “We are the 52%”.
These apparently independent organisations have been accused of running a coordinated “dark ads” campaign to push for a hard Brexit.
The Guardian reported recently that the campaign was being “secretly overseen” by employees of CT Group, the lobbying company led by Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist who has helped run the last four Conservative general election campaigns.
CT Group has been approached for comment.