Brexit: Facebook finally reveals targeted ‘Vote Leave’ ads

Jul 30, 2018 | Facebook marketing, Regulation

The targeted campaign adverts used by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum have been revealed by Facebook.

The official Vote Leave campaign spent more than £2.7m on targeting ads at specific groups of people on Facebook – helping it to win the 2016 EU referendum.

The US social media giant has now released these ads to a committee of MPs investigating fake news – meaning everyone, not just those they were originally aimed at, can now see them.

They show that millions of people saw adverts attacking immigration and promoting now widely discredited claims about an additional £350m being paid to the NHS every week.

They also focused on Boris Johnson and other key campaign points, the data shows.

The ads were run before Facebook implemented rules forcing disclosure for political ads. This means there was no way for anyone other than each target recipient to know a particular ad existed or who it was being targeted at.

The targeting of the ads was carried out on Facebook’s platform by AggregateIQ, a Canadian data firm that has been linked to Cambridge Analytica/SCL, the political consultancy at the centre of a massive Facebook data misuse storm.

Aggregate IQ is now under joint investigation by Canadian data watchdogs.

In 2016 the data firm was paid £3.5m by a number of Brexit supporting campaigns to spend on targeted social media advertising using Facebook as the primary conduit.

Nine adverts were viewed between two and five million times out of hundreds paid for by Vote Leave, suggesting the group had paid significantly more to have the messaging appear more prominently in people’s newsfeeds on Facebook.

Five of the nine Vote Leave adverts which were viewed millions of times focused on immigration.

Of those, two identical adverts stressed plans for Turkey to join the EU with an image showing a large red arrow sweeping across Europe from Turkey to the UK.

The accompanying text read: “The EU is expanding and plans on granting Turkey visa-free travel. This will put enormous pressure on the NHS, our border security and economy.

“Have we lost control? We already send £350 million to the EU every single week. Shouldn’t we spend our money on our priorities instead? Vote Leave Day – Thursday 23 June. Is This Good News? Click No! Vote Leave.”

At the time, negotiations for Turkey to join the EU had completed one of 35 “chapters” of legislation and as a member the UK would be able to veto any plans.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Emmanuel Macron, president of France, have since strongly ruled out the possibility of Turkey joining the EU.

More than 30 other Vote Leave adverts, some viewed by between 500,000 and a million people, mentioned Turkey in the context of its border with Syria and Iraq. Again the images showed red arrows and figures pointing towards the UK.

“The EU is expanding and plans on granting Turkey visa-free travel making our new border Syria and Iraq!” read the accompanying text.

Another popular advert claimed more than five million “new immigrants” were heading to the UK.

The advert said: “Immigration is out of control and our NHS can barely cope as it is. If we stay in the EU we face an unprecedented migration of 5.23 MILLION new immigrants into the UK. WHEN WILL THIS STOP?”

“Under EU law every EU citizen, including people from Turkey, will have unlimited access to the UK and our NHS. Let’s vote to leave the EU on 23 June and take back control! Click to Save Our NHS! Vote Leave.”

The figure of 5.23 million appears to be based on the highest possible projection of EU immigration to the UK by the Office for National Statistics at the time.

Three identical adverts which were seen by between two and five million people urged voters to “spend our money on our priorities like the NHS”, citing the disputed £350m figure.

The text read: “The UK sends over £350 million to the EU each week – that’s enough to build a fully-staffed, brand new hospital every 7 days!

“Shouldn’t we spend it on OUR PRIORITIES and NOT THEIRS? Take action and vote to leave the European Union on 23 June. Let’s spend our money on our priorities. Act Now & Vote Leave! Vote Leave”

Vote Leave paid for significantly more Facebook advertisements around the EU referendum than the other campaign groups in the documents released today.

However, one advert from BeLeave published the week before the referendum was seen by more than five million people, more than any other advert released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The advert read: “Being under EU rule is severely restricting our ability to grow and reach our full potential as a great nation. It is time we take a stand for Britain. Let’s vote to leave the EU on 23 June so we can have a clear and prosperous future! BeLeave in Britain! BeLeave”.

Meanwhile, a data-harvesting competition that offered football fans the chance to win £50m was at the centre of questions about Brexit campaigning before the 2016 EU referendum. This is an example here: