The prime minister is on a mission to defend her Brexit deal. After a three-hour grilling from MPs on November 15, Theresa May came out fighting in a press conference, dismissing the idea that she would be ousted as Conservative Party leader. The next morning, she took callers’ questions about the draft Withdrawal Agreement on LBC radio.
But in between all this, I was struck by a tweet in my Twitter feed from the Number 10 Downing Street account, run by the prime minister’s office.
It’s not surprising that the government is promoting the deal over social media. Spin and communication is fair game. But look closely and you’ll see that the tweet was “promoted”. This means that the tweet was paid for in order to reach a specific audience, over and above that which it would usually reach.
Were you to look for this tweet on the Number 10 Twitter page, it would not appear as promoted. Twitter advertising works in such a way that the audience is targeted to a particular range of people.
I believe this is a form of political advertising, funded by public money.
It’s clear why the government might want to influence public opinion ahead of the Commons vote on its draft Withdrawal Agreement. A number of polls have already started to measure public opinion on the proposed deal. Sky published a poll claiming that the “majority of Brits” now back a second EU referendum. The “polling guru” and political scientist John Curtice was asked to summarise these on Radio 4 Today programme. His appearance is indicative of how the polls, as usual, become part of the story and will drive politics.
Social media has quickly become a place where political parties and politicians are trying to influence us all. At the 2017 general election the Labour party used it heavily to swing support towards Jeremy Corbyn. Troll farms have been set up around the world to try to influence public opinion and the outcomes of major electoral events using social media platforms.
Social media ‘dark money’
Political advertising on social media is a difficult area to regulate in the UK. Laws on political advertising at election time doesn’t cover social media campaigning. The government might use advertising in other areas to promote the effectiveness of public policies – such as to encourage us to smoke less. However, in this case the intended message is to convince the public that the draft Withdrawal Agreement is a good idea – a message predominantly political in nature at the most politically sensitive of times.
The money spent on this advert in my feed is public money: our money. Government revenue, of course, largely comes from taxpayer income. On this basis, Number 10 seems to be investing in political campaigning from the public purse in an effort to ensure the prime minister’s survival.
There are usually strict, legally binding, spending limits set on how much each campaign can spend at an election or referendum, and campaigns are legally required to disclose sources of their funding. After the 2016 EU referendum, the Leave campaign was fined for overspending, and there are still police investigations in progress to discover the source of that revenue.
The reason why this matters is that there should not be unfair advantages in important electoral contests such as referendums. The result should be influenced by the people’s preferences, rather than the side which has the most money. Spending limits – and regulations governing political advertising on television – are a way of limiting this influence.
The second reason that this matters is the source of the revenue. Donations from overseas sources are not permitted under UK law in elections and referendums, to prevent the possibility of overseas governments and business interests trying to interfere in domestic elections. The government’s revenue is not illegitimate in this way – it is a domestic source. But be under no illusion, this is a prime minister’s office spending money in support of her political future. It is akin to state propaganda.
This matters because it represents the prime minister’s office using public resources for a political cause. This brings an unfair advantage to the government ahead of the Commons vote on the draft Withdrawal Agreement. The government is free to play this card and there are no similar resources for anyone else. It is also an inappropriate use of public money.
Number 10 will clearly want to carefully coordinate the campaign for the deal – but it should explain how much money is spent on Twitter advertisements. And officials should consider whether there are appropriate checks in place to prevent the misuse of funds.