Independent candidate posts nearly 200 Facebook election ads including AI anti-migrant fakes 5

Independent candidate posts nearly 200 Facebook election ads including AI anti-migrant fakes

An MP candidate has spent thousands of pounds posting more Facebook advertisements than any other Scottish election hopeful this year – including a fake AI image spreading an anti-immigration message.

Tommy Macpherson, an independent standing in Argyll, Bute and South Lochaber, has posted 197 ads – more than one per day since the start of 2024. Paid ads included posts claiming terrorists and criminals were crossing UK borders, and an AI-generated image of radicalised Palestinian men.

Our research, assisted by the ad library of Meta, which owns Facebook, shows that Macpherson spent between £0 and £99 on each ad in the period from 1 January to 23 June 2024.

Macpherson told The Ferret he had spent £2,300 on social media campaigning.

Macpherson, an Argyll and Bute councillor for South Kintyre, was previously under investigation by the council after it received a complaint from a member of the public about “racist” content he allegedly posted on Facebook in December 2023. 

The probe was closed by the council’s monitoring officer who assessed that Macpherson was posting in his personal capacity.

Campaigners said it was “disturbing” that local voters were being exposed to the councillor’s “racism” via social media ads. 

Macpherson said he “vehemently” stood by his right to “freedom of speech and expression”.

This isn’t the first time that Macpherson’s blatant Islamophobia has been highlighted for all to see.

Hope Not Hate

Our research looked at the ad spending of Scottish parliamentary candidates in this July’s general election by analysing the Meta ad library. It provides information about political advertising on its platforms.

The data includes the wording of the advert, how much was spent on it, how many people were targeted by it and how many people the ad reached. Spending information is not exact, but shows a range of how much money was spent. 

Macpherson’s ads were all in the lowest, £0-99 range. A single ad can cost thousands of pounds, depending on the size of the audience and other factors.

Macpherson said: “Media, coming with a necessary cost, is the preeminent tool for politicians and political candidates to get their message out in their respective constituencies.”

He added he was using his own income and savings for the campaign and had not made a “public appeal for financial aid”.

Our analysis suggests Macpherson ran more than twice as many ads as the next highest candidate, Martin McCluskey, Labour’s hopeful for Inverclyde and Renfrewshire West, who spent between £1,500 and £10,000 for 89 paid posts.

Macpherson’s six ads running between 17 and 29 May, which targeted an average of 140,000 users each stated: “Foreign Criminals and Terrorists walk our streets.”

The posts claimed British “uncontrolled mass immigration” has pushed the country “to breaking point” and that “the British people have been lied to, ignored and betrayed”.

The ads use posts by right-wing political commentator and GB News presenter, Darren Grimes, who is quoted in the posts criticising Sam Tarry, a former Labour MP. 

“A Labour MP has said we ought to welcome the Hamas-voting population of Gaza. Millions,” Grimes is quoted saying. “I’m sure many will agree with me when I say he can shove his Hamas-voting refugee where the sun don’t shine.”

Tommy Macpherson’s Facebook ad from 25 May, one of six identical ads posted between 17 and 29 May. This ad cost up to £99, targeted up to 50,000 people and was seen by up to 2,000 people.
Tommy Macpherson’s Facebook ad from 25 May, one of six identical ads posted between 17 and 29 May. This ad cost up to £99, targeted up to 50,000 people and was seen by up to 2,000 people.

The image in the ad, shared by Grimes on X, formerly Twitter, is a mock up of a post on X by Tarry who called for the creation of a Palestinian family visa scheme in the House of Commons on 13 May. Behind it is an image of bearded men wearing headbands similar to those used by Hamas. 

However, there are several indicators that the image was created using generative-AI tools, including muddled wording on the headbands, a shoulder strap which ends under the shirt collar, and a button on the shirt collar without a corresponding buttonhole. 

The full image, first shared by Grimes on X, shows a man cradling a hand that does not appear to be connected to his body. 

Left side: Image posted by Darren Grimes on 14 May 2024. Right side: Details from the image, suggesting it was AI-generated. Composite by The Ferret.
Left side: Image posted by Darren Grimes on 14 May 2024. Right side: Details from the image, suggesting it was AI-generated. Composite by The Ferret.

Variants of the image circulated on social media where they were seen at least 220,000 times.

Comments under Macpherson’s paid post suggest some Facebook users believed the image may be real. “They all look so young and fit! HAMAS trained?????,” said one. Another read: “All young men l don’t see any women or children.”

A spokesperson for the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate said: “This isn’t the first time that Macpherson’s blatant Islamophobia has been highlighted for all to see. Yet it is disturbing that local people are being bombarded with social media ads containing his racism.”

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said candidates using generative AI “should make that clear to those seeing the material” and said they should “think carefully” about campaigns. 

“Campaigners should consider if the material they are creating could mislead voters – it is their responsibility to make sure it does not,” a spokesperson added. 

The commission is advising voters “to think critically about the information they see, before deciding whether to let it influence their vote.” 

The commission regulates the election process and donations. But neither it – nor any other body regulates election campaign material.

An Argyll and Bute Council spokesperson said: “Argyll and Bute Council does not in any way condone or accept behaviours that are deemed to be offensive or inciting any form of hatred or racism.” Potential breaches of councillors’ conduct were matters for the standards commission, they added.

Macpherson was elected as a Conservative council member in May 2022 but was excluded from the party in December 2022 and sits as an independent councillor. 

While he is standing as an independent MP candidate, he has previously endorsed Reform UK in his Facebook ads. He posted 39 paid ads encouraging users to vote for the party. 

Argyll, Bute and South Lochaber is a new Westminster constituency created following the dissolution of the former Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat as part of a review of boundaries in 2023. The new constituency merges the Lochaber area with Argyll and Bute.

Reform UK and Darren Grimes did not respond to requests for comment.

As the general election approaches, The Ferret is diving deep into the influence of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and culture wars on political discourse. Have you come across falsehoods or conspiracies shared by candidates, political parties, or viral memes? We want to hear from you! Get in touch at contact@theferret.scot, and we will take a look.

Help us continue our vital work by becoming a Ferret member today or making a one-off donation. Your support enables us to hold power to account and keep the truth at the forefront of the election conversation.

Main image: Darren Grimes on X/Figma

1 comment
  1. Salman and Haashem Abedi travelled between Libya and Britain prior to the Manchester Arena bombing of May 2017, which they were later accused and convicted of. So for some periods at least, it is true that “terrorists and criminals were crossing UK borders.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet? Join our co-operative now to get unlimited access.
You can join using Direct Debit, payment card or Paypal. Cancel at any time. If you are on a low-income you may be eligible for a free sponsored membership. Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet?
Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.