Revealed: Johnson ally’s firm secretly ran Facebook propaganda network
Jim Waterson Media editor
Thu 1 Aug 2019
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, a Guardian investigation has found.
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 professionalised 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 anonymised 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.