A new investigation by JPI Media has found that Mansfield’s leading politicians spent thousands of pounds on party-political Facebook advertisements.
Data collected by your Chad’s parent firm found that both Mansfield MP Ben Bradley and the town’s former mayor Kate Allsop both spent almost £2,000 on social media adverts over the last year.
The investigation comes as Facebook users are targeted with thousands of adverts seeking to influence their opinion of local politics.
Across the country, hundreds of individual MPs, elected officials and local authorities have placed nearly half a million pounds’ worth of promotions on the site in less than a year, we can reveal.
And in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media giant last year began publishing details of who places - and pays for - adverts promoting political or social issues.
Our investigation found that spending on these ads, often targeted to specific groups, has totalled more than £6.4m since last October.
And while much of the attention has focused on the big parties and pressure groups on either side of the Brexit divide, the data also reveals the thousands of adverts placed at a local level, often seeking to influence constituents on what can appear to be seemingly mundane neighbourhood issues.
Thousands spent in Mansfield
Our investigation found that Mansfield’s Conservative MP Ben Bradley had declared roughly £1,900 of spending on Facebook advertisements during the period of October 2018 to September 2019.
This includes a fee of £1,410 for Conservative Party advertisements, £415 for a Mansfield Conservatives advert in the run-up to May’s council elections, and a sum of less than £100 to Westminster Digital.
But the Mansfield MP has said there is “nothing unusual” about this figure, insisting that the fees were paid for by Conservative Party donors and were declared in the correct manner.
He also says that “not a penny” of taxpayers’ money was spent on the advertisements.
He said: “I can assure you that not a penny of taxpayers’ money was used in this.
“Some of it comes from Conservative Party Central, and I’m not involved in sharing these adverts.
“They promote things through my Facebook and pay for it themselves, such as during the local election season for example.
“The advertisements and fees are from people donating to political party campaigning.
“Everything is declared on expenses, and we can’t do anything political without going through rigorous checks on Facebook anymore to declare where it comes from.”
While the town’s former mayor, Kate Allsop, also spent a fee just shy of £2,000 during the run-up to May’s mayoral election - which she lost.
Ms Allsop spent £1,714 on political campaigns across the social media platform for the Mansfield Independent Forum, now the Mansfield Independents, during the 12-month period.
She says it was from a donation by a Mansfield business, but the former mayor says, in hindsight, Facebook advertisement is something she would “probably not” do again.
She said: “This was a total, final sum from a donation by a Mansfield-based company.
“It was all funded and declared within the strict new rules of Facebook, and all in the build-up to the election.
“In hindsight it is something I will probably not be doing again, because a got a lot of queries that I was able to answer, but I also got a lot of trolling.
“People think when they sit behind a keyboard or a screen they can say what they like, and it’s often quite hurtful, so I won’t do that again.”
Under new rules Facebook introduced in October 2018, anyone placing a political advert must declare who paid for it.
Our investigation identified around 300 ads on the pages of local politicians and councils which were run without these disclaimers - including 40 placed on behalf of sitting MPs.
There is no suggestion that any of the adverts had been deliberate attempts to deceive constituents. They were all found and removed by Facebook.
But with a general election looking likely in the coming months, campaigners have questioned the transparency of the system.
The Open Rights Group, which campaigns for internet users’ digital rights, said social media has become a “key battleground for political campaigns”.
Its data and democracy officer, Pascal Crowe, said the “rules that shape our elections are ripe for reform”.
“For example, it is currently too easy to field a political advert on Facebook without revealing who is paying for that ad,” he said.
“It is now perhaps easier than ever to game the system and avoid being held to account.”
A spokesperson for Facebook said: “Our industry-leading tools are making it easier to see all political ads on our platforms, and archives them for seven years in Facebook’s Ad Library.
“People are able to report concerns to us or regulators as appropriate.”
A Government spokesperson said: “There should be greater transparency in political advertising, which is why we have already pledged to introduce the requirement for digital election material to be clearly branded. We will bring forward technical proposals by the end of the year.”
Councils spent more than £20,000 on targeted Facebook ads
With 40 million users in the UK alone, Facebook is seen by many politicians and groups as an effective way of reaching constituents.
Since last October, at least £209,000 has been spent on ads for individual MPs - including campaigns for the Conservative Party’s leadership contest - and at least £32,000 was spent on ads placed through MEPs’ Facebook pages.
Local councils spent more than £20,000 on Facebook promotions, while adverts placed by individual councillors totalled more than £24,000.
Around £120,000 was spent on promotions for elected mayors and mayoral candidates.
No data has been collected for Mansfield District Council’s Facebook advertisement spend. The same can be said for both Ashfield MP Gloria De Piero, and Ashfield District Council.