The lobbying agency run by Boris Johnson’s shut ally Sir Lynton Crosby has secretly constructed a community of unbranded “information” pages on Fb for dozens of purchasers starting from the Saudi authorities to main polluters, a Guardian investigation has discovered.
In essentially the most full account but of CTF Companions’ outlook and technique, present and former staff of the marketing campaign consultancy have painted an image of a enterprise that seems to have professionalised on-line disinformation, taken on a sequence of controversial purchasers and confronted incidents of misogynistic bullying in its headquarters.
They stated that such was the tradition of secrecy inside the agency that workers engaged on on-line disinformation campaigns, which selectively promoted their purchasers’ viewpoints on anonymised Fb pages that adopted a standard formulation, used initials moderately than full names on inner methods and infrequently relied on private e mail accounts to keep away from their work being traced again to CTF and its purchasers.
The disclosures will increase stress on the prime minister to distance himself from CTF, with former workers members warning that the corporate would possibly wield substantial affect within the new administration. CTF gave Johnson an interest-free mortgage to cowl workplace and staffing prices earlier this yr, whereas Crosby’s companions within the enterprise are Mark Textor and Mark Fullbrook, with Fullbrook taking a go away of absence to run Johnson’s marketing campaign for the Tory occasion management together with David Canzini.
The information follows the Guardian’s April report that Crosby’s firm was behind a sequence of massively influential pro-Brexit Fb teams, which spent as a lot as £1m seeding the concept of a no-deal exit from the EU within the minds of the British public.
However the newest revelations reveal that the corporate has pursued that strategy extra broadly, within the service of beforehand unreported company pursuits and international governments.
They usually expose a significant flaw in Fb’s political transparency instruments, which make it attainable for Crosby’s firm – which boasts on its web site that it deploys “the newest instruments in digital engagement” – to make use of the social community to run professional-looking “information” pages reaching tens of tens of millions of individuals on extremely contentious matters, with out apparently disclosing that they’re being overseen by CTF Companions on behalf of paying purchasers.
Based mostly on discussions with the present and former staff and examination of numerous inner paperwork, the Guardian can reveal the extent of the astroturfing marketing campaign:
How the corporate took tens of millions of kilos from the Saudi Arabian authorities in 2018 to burnish the repute of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has subsequently been implicated within the homicide of Jamal Khashoggi.
How the corporate labored with the occasion of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who has since been implicated in one of many world’s biggest-ever corruption scandals, within the run-up to the nation’s final common election. Razak has denied any wrongdoing.
CTF’s position in political campaigns in nations criticised for his or her human rights information, starting from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka to war-torn Yemen.
How CTF specialises in combating regulation by searching for to affect key politicians, with campaigns in help of coal energy, tobacco, and towards cyclists.
CTF declined to touch upon their strategies or purchasers however stated they operated inside the legislation and accused the Guardian of counting on “false or distorted information”. They dismissed the concept that the corporate or Crosby might train any affect on the prime minister.
The corporate’s strategy is a classy utility of the nicely worn communications strategy of astroturfing, the place political campaigners try to create the notion of an upswell of grassroots help for a trigger.
One former worker described how Crosby’s enterprise created Fb pages on particular matters to unfold disinformation to members of the general public within the UK and overseas. “It will all be anonymised and made to look as if they’re a information aggregator with a specialist angle,” the worker stated. “As an illustration, if we have been working to advertise using coal, it could be an anti-environmental web page. You would possibly make a web page designed to draw pro-Trump varieties and get them revved up about inexperienced subsidies.”
Workers members stated that they created web sites and Fb pages which seemed to be impartial on-line information sources with names resembling Why Electrical energy Issues, Reporting Yemen and Londoners for Transport, however as an alternative may very well be used to distribute extremely selective info which reached tens of tens of millions of readers.
A number of supposedly impartial pages on behalf of various purchasers might then be managed by Crosby staff by way of a single high-level “enterprise supervisor” account, which sidesteps Fb’s transparency instruments. The connection between the pages is just not seen to regular Fb customers.
Secrecy was a paramount consideration within the communications technique, the staffers stated, resulting in cases of the cautious use of initials as an alternative of full names on Fb’s inner methods and the occasional reliance on non-corporate e mail accounts. Some resorted to utilizing ProtonMail, an encrypted e mail service, to keep away from being traced.
The Guardian understands that CTF Companions earned tens of millions of kilos representing the Saudi Arabian authorities, with the account headed by longtime Crosby affiliate Mark Domitrak – a former lobbying boss at British American Tobacco. The corporate helped coordinate press protection across the arrival of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman within the UK for his state go to in early 2018, previous to the homicide of Jamal Khashoggi.
Sam Lyon, the pinnacle of CTF Companions’ London workplace who beforehand labored as Johnson’s director of communications, was a member of the crew who labored with the occasion of Razak earlier than he left his place as Malaysian prime minister. The Asian politician was later toppled amid ongoing accusations of involvement in a multi-billion greenback corruption scandal. He has at all times denied any wrongdoing.
The supposed information sources, which have been favored by tens of millions of customers and reached tens of tens of millions by way of using paid Fb adverts, have been grown utilizing the social community’s promotional instruments, with help from Fb gross sales groups who inspired the acquisition of extra promotions. As soon as CTF staff discovered a tactic that provoked a robust response, they’d double down, in accordance with one of many ex-employees: “In case you’re after the MAGA crowd you simply goal folks like this. Then when you’ve acquired an viewers you simply goal folks like that.”
One such information web page – entitled GreenWatch – revealed repeated assaults towards subsidies for “wasteful onshore wind farms” utilizing the slogan “maintaining the inexperienced foyer sincere”, with none signal it was overseen by Crosby’s firm, which had a contract with main coal miner Glencore. Different Fb campaigns promoted the development of coal energy stations in India utilizing pages with names resembling Vivid Bangla.
Pages purporting to be impartial information pages on the warfare in Yemen with names resembling Center East Diplomat and Iran in Focus didn’t disclose that CTF labored on behalf of the Saudi authorities, which is closely concerned within the damaging warfare. The disinformation community uncovered by the Guardian additionally included political pages in African nations with titles resembling Inside Mauritania and Free & Truthful Election Zimbabwe, which purported to offer fact-based info on what was occurring within the two nations, with out disclosing the supply of funding or work on behalf of political campaigns.
Most of the Fb pages have been deleted after the Guardian started making enquiries. After being introduced with the Guardian’s findings in regards to the scale of the corporate’s on-line disinformation marketing campaign, Fb stated it didn’t wish to begin regulating what constituted a reliable information supply.
It additionally stated the community of pages pretending to be information sources on behalf of company and state purchasers didn’t break their guidelines on “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, a time period used to close down disinformation networks overseen by international governments in Russia and Iran. It is because Crosby’s staff used their actual names on inner Fb administration instruments – info that isn’t out there to most people. The Guardian has seen paperwork that counsel Fb has been conscious of the problem involving the community of CTF pages since late final yr.
The corporate stated: “Our overview to-date suggests nearly all of these pages to be operated by actual folks and don’t at the moment violate our coordinated inauthentic behaviour coverage. Nonetheless, we take severely the knowledge shared by the Guardian and are persevering with to overview the exercise of the pages talked about.”
Present Fb guidelines on political transparency solely require a person to be put up as the general public face of a marketing campaign, with out disclosing who’s in the end paying for it or overseeing the account, a tactic utilized in Crosby’s pro-Brexit campaigns. The corporate stated it was wanting so as to add further disclosures however urged that authorities regulation was wanted: “These examples might spotlight the case for brand spanking new guidelines since web platforms should not at the moment required to seek out out who’s paying web page admins or managers.”
CTF by way of their legal professionals stated any suggestion the corporate produced “faux information” or that Fb has taken motion towards them or their purchasers was false and defamatory.
Johnson has a longstanding private relationship with Crosby, who has performed a key position in each Conservative election marketing campaign since 2005. Final weekend the Sunday Occasions quoted a “supply near Crosby” claiming that Johnson had talked to him “continuously” since being elected.
Crosby’s lawyer stated that any suggestion CTF or Crosby might exert affect “on account of their ‘relationship’ with Mr Johnson ignores the fact of the decision-making and coverage course of in Westminster and Whitehall.”
Though CTF declined to touch upon their strategies and which purchasers they’d labored for, citing industrial confidentiality guidelines, they stated staff at all times function inside the legislation and accused the Guardian’s journalists of relying “on false or distorted information and improperly leaked paperwork as a part of a political agenda”.
“That’s not public-interest journalism: it’s agenda-driven and irresponsible journalism,” they added.