A data firm that ran Facebook adverts targeting Tory MPs opposed to Brexit and owned by a former senior Vote Leave staffer is part of the UK data regulator’s investigation into Brexit, the Ferret can reveal.
Voter Consultancy Limited is one of more than 30 organisations that the Information Commissioner’s Office is looking at as part of a probe into the use of data analytics during the 2016 European Union referendum.
In November, Facebook adverts paid for by Voter Consultancy targeted anti-Brexit MPs, and urged their constituents to contact them directly to complain.
At the time, pro-EU MP Anna Soubry said Thomas Borwick, owner of Voter Consultancy Limited, “hasn’t issued death threats, but by calling us anti-democratic, he is stoking and fuelling the fire.”
Facebook adverts paid for by Voter Consultancy targeted anti-Brexit MPs, urging their constituents to contact them directly to complain.
Borwick was Vote Leave’s chief technology officer during the European Union referendum, and previously worked as a consultant for Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining company owned by Robert Mercer, a right-wing billionaire who bankrolled the Trump campaign and the “alt-right” website Breitbart News.
In March, UK Information Commissioner launched an inquiry into the targeting of voters using social media during the Brexit referendum.
Voter Consultancy – which is based in London – is one of the organisations included in the Information Commissioner’s probe, alongside Cambridge Analytica and a number of British political parties.
Borwick said that his company was “an open campaign company”.
“What we do is enable campaigns to talk to people about the issues that matter to them. Every political campaign needs to work with voters on issues that matter to them,” said Borwick, who is the sole shareholder in Voter Consultancy Limited.
Another data analytics company run by Borwick, Kanto, has been in the headlines in Ireland recently after it was revealed that Kanto will be working for anti-abortion activists during the upcoming Irish referendum on abortion.
Kanto has said that it will work on the campaign website and help with canvassing through their mobile app.
Irish politicians and transparency campaigners have expressed concern about the possible influence of online political campaigning in the referendum that is due to take place later this year.
A lack of regulation of political advertising in Ireland has created a “wild west”, says Gavin Sheridan, co-founder of transparency advocacy group Right to Know.
“In Ireland there are no transparency obligations to disclose what ads are or have been used, who they are targeting, who is paying, and how many views or interactions those ads are receiving,” says Sheridan.
Data analytics firms often use public data to contact voters both through direct mail and on social media.
During the 2017 general election, Borwick said that Kanto was working with a number of campaigns. That claim prompted a Labour activist to complain of the “dark side” of targeted political campaigning online.
Borwick, 30, had previously been a prominent member of Conservative Future, the party’s youth wing. Borwick’s mother, Vitoria Borwick, was a pro-Brexit Conservative MP, until losing her Kensington seat to Labour in one of the biggest surprises of June’s snap general election.
A fifth of Kanto’s shares are owned by a company whose directors include Victoria Borwick and her husband, Geoffrey. Neither have any involvement in the day-to-day management of Kanto, Thomas Borwick told the Ferret.
Staff working for Kanto will be able to choose not to work on the campaign against changing the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland.
“Kanto has a red line policy. Anyone who does not want to work on a campaign can opt out of working on a campaign,” Borwick, Kanto’s founder and managing director told the Ferret.
“Working on political campaigns can be incredibly stressful and it important to support the well-being of staff.”
"Understanding an audience and being able to target that audience precisely on social media means campaigns with relatively low budgets can deliver very specific messages to discrete audiences extremely efficiently" Gavin Sheridan, Right to Know
Irish transparency advocate Liz Carolan said that lack of oversight of poltical adverts risked harming democracy.
“Campaigns are free to hire consultants to help them get their ideas across, however the type of advertising that agencies like these specialise in is problematic so long as it continues to operate in a way that is not transparent.
“The technology these companies use allows them to insert political ads into people’s Facebook feeds that can be targeted at a few hundred or thousand people, and the problem arises when no-one else can see them. This means that the ads could be lying, or manipulative, and no-one with the ability to correct or challenge it would know.”
Social media platforms need to do more to increase transparency around political adverts, says Carolan.
“If the platforms refuse to increase ad transparency, key voters could be bombarded with manipulative or even untrue political ads right on their phones or computers, ads that no-one else will even know are there.”
Data analytics play an increasingly important role in online campaigning, says Right to Know’s Gavin Sheridan.
“Understanding an audience and being able to target that audience precisely on social media means campaigns with relatively low budgets can deliver very specific messages to discrete audiences extremely efficiently,” he said.
The Electoral Commission, the UK’s elections regulator, is also investigating aspects of the Brexit Leave campaign spending, including more than £3.3m spent with an obscure Canadian data analytics company called Aggregate IQ which has been linked to Cambridge Analytica.