Dark Money Investigations: Opinion

American dirty tricks are corroding British democracy

Super PACs in the US are notorious for smear campaigns and disinformation – now we're seeing them in the UK election. Be careful where you take your phone.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
5 December 2019
America Rising led the campaign against Hillary Clinton. Image: America Rising.

For months, Bill McKibben was followed by people with cameras. “To be watched so much” wrote the US climate activist, “is a kind of never-ending nightmare.” His stalkers were after an attack story, any action they could spin as hypocrisy, any words they could twist into a scandal.

The organisation behind the cameras, America Rising, calls itself “every Democrat’s greatest fear”. Its partner company led the smearing of Hillary Clinton in 2016. And it set up shop in the UK in 2017.

That’s when openDemocracy first stumbled upon Super PACs in Europe. And now, during the UK election, we’re spotting scary signs that Britain’s influence industry is picking up the nasty tricks of this shadowy trade.

America Rising is a Super PAC – at least, one part of this opaque, multi-layered organisation is. These controversial groups are a new mutation of the political action committees, or PACs, that have long infected American politics. Notorious for their smears, disinformation and murky finances, Super PACs campaign in elections at arm’s length from parties – allowing their preferred politicians to appear clean.

Political parties, NGOs and media organisations can be held to account at least partly for their behaviour in elections. SuperPACs can slash, burn and smear, then slide into the night, and disappear.

Uncovering Super PACs in Europe

This spring, I spent a few days at an ultraconservative gathering in Italy posing as a clueless, posh potential funder. A jovial US political operative called Darien Rafie took me under his wing. Rafie had built the Republican Party website and worked for various pro-Trump Super PACs. One of his groups was running a petition to “Thank president Trump for stopping transgender insanity in the military”.

He was also, I learned, an advisor to CitizenGo, a Spanish online army which trolls, inflames and polarises. It bullies trans people, fights domestic violence laws, denounces ‘feminazis’ and forces abortion clinics to close.

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CitizenGo bus in New York

At the same conference, CitizenGo’s tweed-wearing, iconoclastic director Ignacio Arsuaga bragged to me about his group’s links to far-right parties across Europe, and offered to spend my (fictitious) ‘six figure’ donation on smearing their opponents.

He introduced me to a senior figure from Spain’s far-right party Vox, who compared CitizenGo to a Super PAC. He also suggested that, as a foreigner and therefore unable to donate directly, I could help Vox by funding CitizenGo.

How they are shaping this election

Up and down the country, we’re beginning to see something a lot like Super PACs shaping this UK election.

They aren’t all on the same side. By far the biggest spender on Facebook ads is the pro-EU group Best for Britain, which has thrown nearly three-quarters of a million pounds at sponsored posts over the past year. The legal limit for non-party spending on election campaigning for the year before the vote is £480,000 – though, as Best for Britain points out, many of its ads are non-partisan voter registration messages, which don’t count.

On the other side of the Brexit rift, Leave.EU quickly established almost as much Facebook traction as Labour. With nearly a million Facebook likes, the group – founded by the millionaires Arron Banks and Richard Tice – pillories pro-EU politicians. Like America’s most notorious Super PACs, it courts controversy, incites rage and drives debate.

In a recent post – shared 7,000 times – the pro-Tory group reused an image of refugees from a notorious poster unveiled by Nigel Farage during the Brexit referendum, an image widely compared to Nazi propaganda.

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openDemocracy has revealed that both Tice and Banks have offshore connections. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Both Leave.EU and People’s Vote can claim one thing, though: they existed long before the election, and have genuine grassroots support. That’s not true of the clusterbomb which has blasted propaganda over the internet in recent weeks.

The pro-landlord website ‘Right to Rent, Right to Buy, Right to Own’ has spent £6,000 on Facebook ads attacking Labour housing policy. Tens of thousands have seen them.

When I first rang the woman behind the ads, Jennifer Powers, she implied she was new to politics. She later admitted to me that she’s an associate at Competere, a trade consultancy set up by Shanker Singham, a well-connected right-wing lobbyist who also works at the neoliberal Institute for Economic Affairs.

In fact Powers has 20 years’ experience in politics and lobbying, including time working for the Conservative Party. She is an associate at the lobbying firm Public First, whose founder is, according to the investigative website Powerbase, “known for his promotion of deceptive astroturf campaigns for business interests”. She said that the adverts were paid for by “myself and donors” but wouldn’t say who those donors were. She told me that she would tell the Electoral Commission. But the Commission hasn’t published any details yet.

Campaign Against Corbynism has found more than £10,000 to spend on Facebook adverts, often focussed on allegations of anti-Semitism. Its founder, James Bickerton, briefly worked in public relations and is now a reporter at the Daily Express. He wouldn’t name any donors, citing fear of abuse, but said he had launched the site from his bedroom. “We firmly believe Corbyn, and those around him, are a threat to core liberal-democratic principles in this country,” he said.

Reignite, whose co-founder was a digital strategist at Vote Leave, has spent nearly £8,000 attacking Corbyn and promoting Brexit. Founder Sam Frost said they're funded by small donations, averaging £11.79. Parents’ Choice, run by a former Tory MP, opposes Labour’s education plans and has spent £15,000 on Facebook ads. Cornerstone Global Associates got a story into the Daily Mail arguing Corbyn would damage UK trade with the Middle East.

I asked Cornerstone who funded the report, they said: “We occasionally publish reports... those are entirely self funded... The risk reports, including the Corbyn risk on Middle East trade, are based on extensive, first hand and impartial research. Our client base is extensive and includes clients from the UK, US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, South Africa, Singapore”. Parents’ Choice didn’t respond to my request for a comment.

Capitalist Worker, a Facebook page which has spent £15,000 on anti-Corbyn ads, is run by Maximillian Young, Conrad Young and Brian Monteith. Max Young is deputy editor of a website which largely publishes ‘articles’ by staff at dark-money-funded neoliberal think tanks and is chaired by Simon Gentry of the lobbying firm Newgate Communications. Conrad Young works for an advertising agency. Monteith is a Brexit Party MEP, former Tory MSP, Leave.EU staffer and lobbyist, known as ‘The Blue Trot’. Neither Monteith nor Young responded to my requests for a comment.

Max Young of ‘Capitalist Worker’. Image, Facebook.com

Centre Point Strategies Ltd has registered as a third party campaign in the election, but its activities are unknown. One co-founder is involved with the pro-Brexit group Global Britain, where Brian Monteith, also of Capitalist Worker, was Director of Communications until last year. Another has appeared on a government list of tax cheats. City Action “speaks up for the City of London”. None of them have responded to my requests for comment.

Some of the people behind these groups seem to be playing odd games. The former Vote Leave staffer and Conservative Party activist Thomas Borwick has promoted images of school-striker Greta Thunberg encouraging people to vote Green. To split votes? Muddy waters? Imply “they’re all at it”? Who knows? Borwick told openDemocracy that “3rd Party Ltd is a non-party campaigning organisation working on issue-based causes on behalf of our donors.”

Individually, many of these groups fly under the regulatory radar: if you spend less than £20,000 on electioneering in England (or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), you don’t need to register with the Electoral Commission, or declare who’s funding you. But collectively, they’re ferocious. Together, groups like these are reaching millions.

In the US, Super PACs spending more than $1,000 have to register. Yes, that’s right, they’re more transparent over there than in Britain.

UK Rising

But to understand what’s really going on, we need to look offline. That takes us back to America Rising.

In 2017, while posing as a potential funder at a swanky London dinner, I met a former staffer for Theresa May, who worked for the blandly named UK Policy Group.

UK Policy Group is owned by Matt Rhoades and Joe Pounder, who founded America Rising and Definers Public Relations, which, respectively, stalked Bill McKibben and smeared Hillary Clinton. (Definers rebranded after a scandal about anti-Semitism, George Soros, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.)

According to Companies House, UK Policy Group was originally called UK Rising.

We don’t know what UK Policy Group is up to in this election. Its website is vague, and it has not responded to my calls or emails. But we do know that the Tories hired the company last year, despite its US wing’s anti-Semitic controversies.

We also know that America Rising operates by digging up dirt on political opponents and passing it to journalists. This raises a question: is UK Policy Group running an under-the-radar operation against Labour in this election? And, if it is, who’s paying for it? Will they declare that expenditure to the Electoral Commission?

Geofencing the future

These techniques – digging up dirt then spreading it through Facebook and the billionaire-owned press – are just the start. The avuncular ultra-conservative operative I met in Italy, Darien Rafie, spent most of his time boasting about something scarier. He is, he said, able to set up electronic cordons around specific areas, and extract a library of data from the phone of everyone who enters: Facebook networks, Netflix shows, your address...

It’s called ‘geofencing’ and he mentioned doing it at Trump rallies. He told me that his organisation would be working for the president in most states in the US election. He also said that it’s possible to use this technology in Europe. After we first broke that story, Steve Bannon was caught bragging about how one of Rafie’s employers was tracking the phones of churchgoers.

“It’s actually really scary, when you peek beneath the covers, and realise that this phone that you’re carrying around with you everywhere is leaking all of your information (which can be correlated with personal data) very quickly”, he said.

We don’t know if this kind of geofencing has reached the UK yet. We don’t know exactly what UK Policy Group is up to. We don’t know who’s throwing what money at which anti-Corbyn groups.

But we do know this: the Tories got a fright in 2017. They were out-organised online. And they were desperate to ensure this didn’t happen again. And when British political strategists look to the future, they look to the US.

As former US senator Russ Feingold said to us, “Europe has an opportunity to get ahead of this and not make the same mistakes that were made in the US. These are international actors, oligarchs and others who are trying to control the political processes of these countries.”

The question is, will they succeed?

This article was amended on 9 Dec to reflect the fact that Reignite had provided a comment.

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