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‘Dark money’ fears raised over anti-SNP Facebook adverts run by Unionists

A UK Government advisor and senior figure at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) has funded adverts for a campaign group called Businesses for the Union, prompting concerns over so-called “dark money” political activity in Scotland’s election campaign.

An investigation by The Ferret and The Free Press also found that two people who campaigned against Jeremy Corbyn through opaque social media groups are involved with Facebook campaigns targeting the SNP.

Although this political activism is perfectly legal, campaigners have raised concerns over a lack of transparency over funding and called for new legislation to combat the influence of so-called “dark money” in politics. The Electoral Reform Society said it “backs an investigation into these important findings, and the lack of transparency in UK and Scottish political finance”.

In reply, the political activists – Matthew Kilcoyne, James Bickerton and Brian Monteith – said that all protocols have been met.

‘Businesses for the union’

Matthew Kilcoyne, deputy director of the ASI, paid for adverts for a Facebook group called Businesses For The Union (BFTU). A former Conservative Party activist and regular contributor to The Spectator and The Telegraph, Kilcoyne has worked as an advisor to the UK Government’s strategic trade advisory group. 

He has detailed personal profiles on the ASI website and Linkedin, and is named as author of numerous ASI reports. But at time of writing his association with BFTU was not recorded in these profiles.

The Facebook page BFTU came online on the 6 May 2020 and at time of writing has 764 followers. The transparency section says there are two UK based individuals who manage the BFTU page, neither of whom is identified. BFTU is not currently registered as a non-party campaigner.

On the main BFTU Facebook page is Kilcoyne is not identified. However he is named as promoter of the page’s ads, the identity of whom must be stated under Facebook rules concerning political advertising. BFTU has been running attack ads on Facebook and Instagram since December 2020, all paid for by Kilcoyne whose expenditure at time of writing is £6,062.

It has no presence on Twitter and its website was “under construction” until recently. It is now accepting donations. Kilcoyne said the website was under construction for a while as he “ran some maintenance”.

Kilcoyne’s employer, the ASI, is one of the most influential think-tanks in the UK. The institute’s website says it is: “Independent, non-profit and non-partisan, we work to promote neoliberal and free market ideas.” However, the ASI has been rated as “highly opaque” by Transparify.org as it refuses to disclose details of its funding. ASI did not respond to our request for a comment.

Example adverts

The other two activists targeting the SNP are James Bickerton and Brian Monteith both of whom have experience of running political campaigns

Bickerton was involved with Campaign Against Corbynism (CAC), a group that spent over £100,000 in the 2019 election battle. CAC spent a total of £50,763 on Facebook ads, £9184 of which was personally attributed to Bickerton. CAC was the focus of “dark money” media investigations for its refusal to disclose details of finances.  

Bickerton is a former research assistant to Sarah Wollaston MP and journalist for The Express. A regular Twitter user, Bickerton’s bio states: “Journo/Hack. Probably did write that article you hate.” His profile does not mention the two anti-SNP campaigns he is involved with – Divided We Fall and Exposing SNP.

The Divided We Fall Facebook page was founded on 5 August 2020 and has 778 followers. It does not identify those involved in managing the page. The transparency page says there are three people involved all based in the UK. Bickerton confirmed he founded Divided We Fall.

The page has links to both a website and twitter account. The Divided We Fall website includes a description of the groups statement of intent, with contact details. Nowhere on the main Facebook page or website is Bickerton mentioned, except on ads he has sponsored worth £1,055.

The Exposing SNP Facebook page was founded on 6 May 2020 and has 2,191 followers. It also has three UK based individuals managing the page, none of whom are identified. To date this page has run £3,603 worth of Facebook ads, all funded by Bickerton. 

Nowhere on the main Facebook page or website is Bickerton identified except on the disclaimer for ads he has sponsored. Across both pages Bickerton has spent £4,658. Neither group is registered as a third-party campaigner.

Voters need to know who are behind the political ads they see. We’ve seen all too often the power of dark money in our politics – exposing voters to misleading ads or targeting them with ‘independent’ campaigns bankrolled by political donors and party backers under another name.

Electoral reform Society

Brian Montieth has funded ads for the Facebook page of .org, of which he is editor-in-chief. A former Conservative MSP and MEP, Monteith was linked to an anti-Corbyn Facebook campaign called The Capitalist Worker. 

Monteith is also director of communications for the Brexit advocacy think-tank Global Britain, and he acted as head of press for the Leave.EU campaign. He is on the advisory council of The Freedom Association.

Although the ThinkScotland website identifies its founder and editorial team, it does not reveal sources of funding, referring only to “other generous donors (who) have come forward to give their financial support, large and small.” Monteith said all protocols have been followed.

The Facebook page for ThinkScotland.org has 1,438 followers and was founded 12 March 2017. There are four people who manage the page, three based in the UK and one in Ireland. None are identified. The page has been running ads since September 2020, all funded by Monteith. To date he has spent £8,929. ThinkScotland is not currently registered as a third-party campaigner.

A spokesperson for the Electoral Reform Society Scotland said: “Voters need to know who are behind the political ads they see. We’ve seen all too often the power of dark money in our politics – exposing voters to misleading ads or targeting them with ‘independent’ campaigns bankrolled by political donors and party backers under another name.

“Often the imprint is just a name of someone involved in a campaign – failing to give the vital information of who is funding it and their political connections. Digital ads have opened up the market to many more third party campaigners making it more confusing for voters and harder to ensure spending limits are not breached. That’s why robust and modern campaign regulations are vital to make sure rules are fit for the digital first environment of modern campaigns.

“The imprint rules in Scotland are new and campaigners and regulators must continue to monitor closely how they are being followed and make sure voters aren’t left in the dark over who’s steering the debate.

A spokesperson for the SNP said: “At a time when disinformation is rife within politics around the world, any connection between the Tories and anonymous Facebook groups should not be in place. The Tories and dark money are familiar partners.

“Back in 2018, questions were made about donations being made to the Tories and Ruth Davidson, still to this day it is unclear where the money came from. It appears the dark money connections do not stop there. In May, the people of Scotland will face a choice, whether to put their future into their own hands or into the hands of Boris Johnson and his Scottish Tories with their murky links to dark money.”

It appears that the same people associated with the Conservative party who smeared Jeremy Corbyn are now deploying the same methods against the SNP. It’s high time this was sordid politics called out in order to protect our democracy.

JOhn McDonnell MP

Tom Brake, a former Liberal Democrat MP and director of Unlock Democracy, told The Ferret that the key traits of a dark money campaign are a group which, “raises funds for its campaigning before registering as a non-party campaigner. The advantage of doing this is that they have to give no account whatsoever of where their funding comes from. Another feature of dark money groups is that typically they run aggressive, scare-tactic campaigns which target opponents, rather than promoting their preferred candidate.”

Brake added: “Hundreds of thousands was spent in the run-up to the 2019 General Election by these groups. They are now active in the Scottish elections and the London Mayoral election. Often the same people, closely associated with the Conservative Party, are the organisers of such groups in successive elections.”

Labour’s John McDonnell MP reiterated his call for the implementation of “new stronger legislation” to combat the influence of so-called “dark money” campaigners on UK politics.

McDonnell said: “Over the last three years we have seen 3rd party campaigners cumulatively draw upon large sums of money without any declaration of the sources of the funds in what are clearly coordinated campaigns to smear individuals and distort the policies of opponents. The evidence so far demonstrates that it has been supporters of the Conservative Party and the Right that have taken our politics into the political gutter in this way.

“It appears that the same people associated with the Conservative party who smeared Jeremy Corbyn are now deploying the same methods against the SNP. It’s high time this was sordid politics called out in order to protect our democracy.”

‘Raising awareness’

Kilcoyne said: “My work at the Adam Smith Institute has nothing to do with the Scottish election and Businesses for the Union is totally independent. Registration for BFTU is with the EC. 

“Thank you for raising awareness of British voices and Scottish businesses that want to retain our Union and avoid the disruption and division another referendum and independence would create. I encourage all unionists to show their support.”

Bickerton said he founded and still runs the Campaign Against Corbynism, adding its policy is to keep donors private due to serious threats and abuse received in the past. He said: “I have some involvement with Divided We Fall and Exposing SNP and can confirm neither has spent any money at all except for Facebook advertising. I’m a fervent unionist for a variety of reasons and wanted to launch a pro-union group that would campaign across not just Scotland but England and Wales as well. I still think there’s a big opening here – not much point saving the union in Scotland if it crumbles in, for example, England.”

Bickerton said he’s been helping Exposing SNP after a group of Scottish students launched it and asked for his advice, adding he’s “much more on the periphery”. He has advised them about dealings with the but doesn’t run the Facebook page, although he does have admin rights.

He continued: “I have nothing to do with their website. The guys who founded the group were worried – quite understandably from my experience (with CAC), it can be extraordinarily vicious – about cybernat trolling and didn’t want to go public unless the group reached a certain size. I agreed we would put out ads under my name. I’m so used to abuse I didn’t think a bit more would make much difference.”

Monteith said: “ThinkScotland.org provides an online magazine format far beyond politics, including culture, travel and reviews – our advertising helps attract larger numbers of readers. All Facebook and Electoral Commission protocols are followed and what is required to be published is published. Electoral Commission registration has already been applied for.

“Requiring publication of the details of every donation to small magazines and cultural outlets would be a disproportionate and onerous restriction on freedom of speech – and would create huge disincentives to the crowd-funding that many people use to provide modest financial support to their favourite worthwhile causes.”

This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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