26.06.24 Big Tech

How I uncovered a network of Reform-linked Facebook groups

When I started reporting on our Influence Operations project, I didn’t realise just how much hate speech I would need to sift through.

The project was launched to look into attempts to manipulate and misinform the public – particularly in the run-up to the UK election. So to start with, we had to get an idea of who was talking about what. That meant monitoring various online conversations: about the war in Ukraine, about immigration, about party politics, about climate change.

In practice, this meant logging on each day to trawl through X, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and TikTok. Then we would document posts, pages and keywords that cropped up in the conversations that looked like potential targets for manipulation.

We weren’t looking for any particular political angles or viewpoints. Our idea was that, by covering a vast swathe of social media, we could cast a net big enough to identify the accounts trying to manipulate or mislead – and the places they were likely to be doing it.

Before long, our spreadsheets were filled with hundreds of accounts, along with catalogues of phrases associated with our broad categories. Our daily monitoring often amounted to an itemised list of scrapings from the bottom of the social media barrel.

But it also helped us build an ever-growing collection of screenshots, notes, questions, ideas and hunches. And our findings are extensive: a network of AI scam adverts, a “grassroots” campaign run by a former Tory aid, unlabelled political ads featuring Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak. Examples of generative AI are present throughout, being used to spread racist conspiracy theories or to create hyper-realistic “news” footage feeding into anti-immigration attitudes.

When I discovered the first details of this week’s major story, about a network of groups being run by Reform candidates and activists, I thought very little of it. Two Facebook groups already on our radar had popped up on CrowdTangle (a tool run by Meta we used to analyse social media), each with with matching posts from a user who was promoting a Reform party event.

Copying the post word-for-word into my own search returned a handful more posts in other groups that we hadn’t come across. Still, it didn’t seem especially suspicious or organised.

But just to be sure, I had a closer look at the author of the posts. It was an anonymous, unverified, seemingly unofficial Reform ‘supporter’ page, which had been repurposed from a Brexit party candidate’s constituency page. Most noticeable was the fact that it held admin rights to a whopping 22 groups. Most of these groups had a stated connection to Reform, but 11 didn’t. I looked into the 11.

It turned out that most of them had been established as forums for political discussion and had run for months or even years, with thousands of members, before being taken over by this account.

These groups with a combined membership of tens of thousands, were full of misinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech. I came across slurs I didn’t know existed. And in the middle of it all, time after time, were posts promoting the Reform party.

But the party’s involvement was much less passive than that. Among the network’s members, I noticed, were a handful of actual parliamentary candidates. One had even posted links to his personal website, where he uses the existence of fizzy drinks to argue against the notion of climate change. He is standing for election next month.

Were there more? A manual search returned almost 40 candidates as members. Then we cross-referenced the full list of members with the names of people standing for election for Reform, and that number rose to 73 – more than 10% of the candidates set to stand for Reform on 4 July.

But the even bigger discovery was that Reform candidates weren’t just part of this network as members, they were running the groups too. Sifting through the admins, I saw one who was due to stand in the general election. Another had stood in a local by-election. A further candidate set to stand next month had previously been in charge of nine groups.

The bigger picture

This was clearly more than the resurfacing of old social media posts that has dogged various Reform candidates in recent weeks. It looked like an organised attempt to promote the party in spaces it was not affiliated with – and that were littered with abhorrent content.

A Reform UK spokesperson told TBIJ: “Reform UK has never had any official involvement in any of the groups mentioned. So, we cannot be held responsible for their content.”

The story not only raises questions about the tactics employed by Reform and the company its candidates appear to be keeping online. It also raises questions about what Meta tolerates on its platforms, including hate speech and misinformation, and how political parties are able to retain a hold over online spaces without being upfront about their role.

The situation is doubly urgent when the misinformation being spread pertains to the most urgent issues of our time: national elections, human rights, the climate crisis.

Meta told us that it does not allow allow attacks on people based on their race, religion, sex, or other defined protected characteristics and will remove any content found to violate its these rules. It also said labelling misinformation and providing context can be more impactful than simply removing it.

But the proximity of this sort of activity to the political mainstream – Reform are currently polling as the UK’s third most popular party – is something that needs to be spotted and called out. Hopefully this story forms a small part of the bigger push for integrity, transparency and accountability.

This story was amended on 26 June to include comments provided by Meta after publication.

Reporters: Billie Gay Jackson
Tech editor: Jasper Jackson
Deputy editor: Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Emily Goddard

Our reporting on Big Tech is funded by Open Society Foundations. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.