The Leave.EU campaign group has already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on Facebook advertising ahead of the forthcoming EU referendum, according to the founder of the organisation, showing the extent to which substantial sums are already being invested in fighting a political campaign that has officially yet to begin.
Arron Banks, a major UKIP donor who is also bankrolling Leave.EU, told BuzzFeed News that his organisation is “certainly spending lots of money” on Facebook advertising to increase the number of likes on its page. When it was suggested that the group must have spent at least £200,000 on Facebook, Banks said that figure was “probably on the low side”.
In return for its cash, Leave.EU has built up a following of around 280,000 fans for its Facebook page, where it pushes a selection of anti-EU messages and occasionally bizarre photoshopped graphics. Although it’s impossible to know how many fans have sought out the page of their own accord and how many were enticed in by ads, figures suggest the campaign could be paying at least £1 in advertising for each new Facebook fan.
David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the UK by the end of 2017, a move that has prompted a rush to form campaign groups to control the debate.
The case shows how more money is flowing into British campaigning and how strict regulations on media coverage are being undermined due to pressure from the internet. While spending on the EU referendum will be heavily regulated during the formal campaign period, the Electoral Commission confirmed there is nothing it can do to stop substantial expenditure by campaigns before the race is officially underway.
Right now it’s open season for all the EU campaigns to spend big and build their support base before the regulators get involved. Spend money building up your online following now and you avoid the expenditure limits during the campaign period – plus you can send messages to all those Facebook fans for free. Spend money during the regulated campaign period and you’re hampering your ability in other areas.
“We’re signing up north of 3,000 people [to Facebook] a day,” said Banks, who has previously said his organisation has received pledges of £7 million from donors, including major hedge fund bosses. “These ads are targeted at individuals in the general public. Leaving the EU might save you £900 a year on your family so you put a targeted ad at middle-age housewives saying that.”
Only one campaign on each side of the debate will receive official designation from the Electoral Commission, a status which limits spending to £7 million but brings with it free mailshots and broadcast appearances. Unusually, there are two groups fighting for the anti-EU nomination.
One, Vote Leave, is backed by most Eurosceptic Westminster MPs and run by established London-based campaigners such as former Michael Gove aide Dominic Cummings.
Leave.EU, meanwhile, is partly run out of Bristol and headed by Banks, the man who said UKIP MP Douglas Carswell was “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in”. It recently sent a large amount of fudge to political journalists – urging people to tell Cameron to "fudge off" – and is being advised by an American political strategist called Gerry Gunster who is best known for successfully fighting attempts to ban fizzy drinks in the US.
Banks said Leave.EU believes it will be able to present its large online following as evidence that it is a genuinely popular movement for Eurosceptics rather than a Westminster-centric organisation that has wooed journalists.
“The other side [Vote Leave] have done nothing,” said Banks, who often tweets the number of followers his organisation has gained and aims to have a million online fans within a year. “Look at their Facebook page, they’ve got 4,000 people.”
Whether this is enough to actually win the official nomination is another matter. Banks said 45% of Leave.EU backers are UKIP voters and 28% are Conservative – “plus one SNP councillor” – suggesting they are still drawing heavily on the support base of Nigel Farage’s party and not necessarily reaching a wider audience.
Vote Leave, for its part, insists it is focused more on building up a network of full-time activists in regions who will coordinate efforts when the campaign kicks off properly.
Meanwhile, the pro-EU Stronger In campaign – for which digital operations are run by former Conservative campaigners Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds – have also been spending on Facebook, using the image of Nigel Farage to make their case and bring in new followers.
Banks, who is convinced the vote will be held this coming June despite the prime minister’s difficulties in renegotiating a deal with the EU, said also that his organisation will probably reject public funding if it wins the nomination and that he intends to sell stakes in Leave.EU to the public.
“The company we’ve created to fight the referendum is a community interest company," he said, "and [I’d like to] sell shares in the company to the public so you feel like you’re part of it. A lot of people feel passionate about this.”
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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