The Guardian: Johnson Ally’s Firm Ran Facebook Propaganda Network to Burnish MBS’ Reputation
A Guardian investigation has found that the lobbying firm run by Boris Johnson’s close ally Sir Lynton Crosby has secretly built a network of unbranded “news” pages on Facebook for dozens of clients ranging from the Saudi government to major polluters.
In the most complete account yet of CTF Partners’ outlook and strategy, current and former employees of the campaign consultancy have painted a picture of a business that appears to have professionalized online disinformation, taken on a series of controversial clients and faced incidents of misogynistic bullying in its headquarters.
They said that such was the culture of secrecy within the firm that staff working on online disinformation campaigns, which selectively promoted their clients’ viewpoints on anonymized Facebook pages that followed a common formula, used initials rather than full names on internal systems and often relied on personal email accounts to avoid their work being traced back to CTF and its clients.
The disclosures will raise pressure on the prime minister to distance himself from CTF, with former staff members warning that the company might wield substantial influence in the new administration. CTF gave Johnson an interest-free loan to cover office and staffing costs earlier this year, while Crosby’s partners in the business are Mark Textor and Mark Fullbrook, with Fullbrook taking a leave of absence to run Johnson’s campaign for the Tory party leadership along with David Canzini.
The news follows the Guardian’s April report that Crosby’s company was behind a series of hugely influential pro-Brexit Facebook groups, which spent as much as £1m seeding the idea of a no-deal exit from the EU in the minds of the British public.
But the latest revelations reveal that the company has pursued that approach more broadly, in the service of previously unreported corporate interests and foreign governments.
And they expose a major flaw in Facebook’s political transparency tools, which make it possible for Crosby’s company – which boasts on its website that it deploys “the latest tools in digital engagement” – to use the social network to run professional-looking “news” pages reaching tens of millions of people on highly contentious topics, without apparently disclosing that they are being overseen by CTF Partners on behalf of paying clients.
Based on discussions with the current and former employees and examination of a large number of internal documents, the Guardian can reveal the extent of the astroturfing campaign:
How the company took millions of pounds from the Saudi Arabian government in 2018 to burnish the reputation of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has subsequently been implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
How the company worked with the party of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who has since been implicated in one of the world’s biggest-ever corruption scandals, in the run-up to the country’s last general election. Razak has denied any wrongdoing.
CTF’s role in political campaigns in countries criticized for their human rights records, ranging from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka to war-torn Yemen.
How CTF specializes in fighting regulation by seeking to influence key politicians, with campaigns in support of coal power, tobacco, and against cyclists.
Staff members said that they created websites and Facebook pages which appeared to be independent online news sources with names such as Why Electricity Matters, Reporting Yemen and Londoners for Transport, but instead could be used to distribute highly selective information which reached tens of millions of readers.