Facebook has pulled government ads targeted at people in marginal seats, saying the campaign was “not correctly labelled”.
HuffPost UK revealed today that ministers authorised more than 20 adverts trumpeting investment in towns to go live the same day Boris Johnson got MPs to back a snap general election.
A government spokesperson has since denied the adverts were pulled and said they had been planned to expire on Friday.
Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, is facing demands to investigate the campaign.
The ads, paid for with taxpayers’ cash, attracted widespread criticism amid claims the government was using public money to boost Tory prospects at the December 12 poll.
The messages were all targeted at people in areas vital to an election victory for Johnson - where the sitting MP has a majority below 5,000 votes - such as Milton Keynes, Morley, Northampton and Workington.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “In September MHCLG announced the 100 places who would each received up to £25m of funding as part of the £3.6bn towns fund.
“The government has always been clear it wants local people to help decide how this money is spent.
“All towns selected were chosen according to the same selection methodology, including analysis of deprivation, productivity, economy resilience and investment opportunities.
“The MyTown campaign began on 25 October and has now ended in the run up to the pre-election period. While the posts are still be present on Facebook, they are no longer being promoted as the paid-for campaign has ended.”
However, a Facebook spokesman told HuffPost UK on Friday evening: “The adverts run by the ‘My Town Page’ were not correctly labelled as being about social issues.
“Ads about social issues, elections or politics that appear on our platforms should include a disclaimer provided by advertisers.
“We are currently working with the advertiser to help them better understand our policies and correctly label ads in the future.”
Parliament has not yet dissolved and the civil service has not officially entered the pre-election period when it must remain neutral, known as purdah.
But the advertisements were published after Labour had decided to back a snap election.
Jon Trickett, shadow minister for the cabinet office, has demanded a government probe into the ads.
He branded the ads “one-off bribes” and told HuffPost UK: “This must urgently be investigated. This Tory government cannot be trusted with public funds.”
Tom Brake, the Lib Dem Brexit spokesperson, has today written to the cabinet secretary.
“It is outrageous that minutes before the general election campaign gets underway, the Conservative government have launched a blatantly political campaign at the taxpayer’s expense,” he said.
“These adverts are clearly aimed at key swing seats – proving they are nothing more than a Tory attempt to get someone else to pay for their election.”
He added: “The fact these have now been pulled only strengthens the accusations that the Conservative government have been misusing public money.”
Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, was also among those criticising the move.
Labour MP Ian Lucas told HuffPost UK yesterday that he had written to cabinet minister Michael Gove about the “outrageous” misuse of public money.
He said: “These adverts are being deployed to Tory target seats on the cusp of a general election
“It would be an insult to our intelligence to say that this isn’t public money being used for political purposes. It clearly is.
“It is an example of how the government is merging political activity with the arms of government in its own political interest.”
Data and how parties use digital advertising will be under intense scrutiny during the election campaign.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has come under pressure to follow Twitter in banning political ads, but has refused.
HufPost UK has approached the government for comment.