A DUP Facebook advert, as released by Facebook.
New Facebook data released by the parliamentary inquiry into Fake News shows that online adverts from the Democratic Unionist Party during the Brexit referendum campaign were targeted overwhelmingly at England, Scotland and Wales, rather than at the DUP’s home territory of Northern Ireland, openDemocracy can reveal.
The Facebook data also shows that the DUP adverts included an image saying a Leave vote would be “better for our borders”— a claim that has proven controversial in Northern Ireland, where many voters have expressed concern about what Brexit will mean for the borders with Ireland and with the rest of the UK. The other adverts said “better for jobs”, “better for family budgets” and “better for security”.
The DUP adverts were arranged by the firm AggregateIQ and funded with a £435,000 donation from an unknown source. They were seen by up to 4.7 million times in England, Scotland and Wales, but only up to 860,000 times in Northern Ireland itself, according to openDemocracy’s calculations.
openDemocracy first started investigating the DUP’s Brexit campaign after coming across pro-Brexit posters in Scotland funded by the party, and a wrap-around advert in Metro newspaper, which appeared across England, Scotland and Wales. Metro isn’t distributed in Northern Ireland.
The £435,000 donation to the DUP came to the party via a group called the Constitutional Research Council, which is chaired by Richard Cook, former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservatives party. Speaking about Cook at Prime Minister’s Questions, Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons, described Cook as having “a trail of involvement in illegal activities and foreign money”.
The new information from Facebook, released by the Fake News Inquiry, also included adverts from Vote Leave and from the BeLeave campaign. The two groups were recently fined by the Electoral Commission who found that BeLeave’s campaign was co-ordinated with Vote Leave, and therefore that its expenditure on these advertisements should have been counted as Vote Leave expenditure, which took Vote Leave over its £7m spending limit by more than £500,000.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Naomi Long, leader of Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party, raised concerns about the revelation. She said:
“These figures raise further questions as to whether there was any co-ordination of campaigns throughout the EU referendum in order to get around legal spending limits.
‘With the DUP’s messaging in this social media campaign, particularly around "securing borders" and their targeting strategy geared more towards a GB rather than NI audience, questions must be asked as to why precisely these were chosen and whether the large campaign donation which they received from the shadowy Constitutional Research Council came with any direction as to how the money should be spent and where.
‘This is just one of many concerns which have been aired around the DUP’s alleged conduct during the referendum, as well as the wider campaign. The Electoral Commission should be looking closely at these figures and following up to ensure full transparency.’
The DUP did not respond to our request for a comment.