The government’s plan to send a pro-remain leaflet to every household in the UK faced further criticism over the weekend after it was promoted in an advert on Facebook.
On Friday afternoon the UK government’s Facebook page began pushing a sponsored post urging users to “Look out for the government’s EU referendum leaflet or read it online now.”
The leaflet is expected to arrive in some households in England from Monday – with delivery to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland delayed until after devolved government elections in May.
More than 200,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the government abandons the plan and David Lidington, the Europe minister, will be forced to defend the leaflet when he makes a statement in parliament on Monday afternoon. There has been anger over the reported £9m cost of the mailshot.
Veteran Tory Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash said he would table an amendment to the finance bill – which enacts the budget – which could block its progress if passed in a Commons vote.
Cash, chairman of the Commons European scrutiny committee, said: “I am putting down a very big indicator of the anger and, I would go so far as to say, the fury of people who are being asked to pay – and there are millions of them in the country – for a pamphlet to 27m homes.”
Within 48 hours of the government Facebook post going live, it had generated nearly 3,500 interactions, which included more than a thousand people responding to the advert with Facebook’s new “angry” reaction, rather than a “like”.
Comments on the post included: “Total waste of public monies given most of the general public will not even read them and they will end up in the bin” and “Outrageous waste of public money. If Cameron had a hand in writing it we all know it will be a pack of lies.”
A comment by user Darren Douglas which said: “Give 9 million to the NHS that’s on its knees instead of propaganda leaflets, idiots” has been liked more than 1,800 times, just shy of the 2,100 times the government’s original post has been liked.
There were also comments from users who did not see the need for a printed leaflet at all. Facebook user Greg Cooper wrote that the government “are now making this thing readily available online. Why not just do this in the first place?”
Another user wrote: “I have always thought that propaganda paid for by the taxpayer only happened in third world countries with a dictatorship. I am a lifelong Tory but I am totally disillusioned with devious David Cameron spending this money during these times of austerity and cuts.”
The government, which is not neutral in the referendum but is arguing for a remain vote, has pointed out that there is a precedent for the government to produce information ahead of referendums. It did so before the previous Europe referendum in 1973.
The Facebook algorithm works in a way that only some of the people who have already liked your page will see your posts. To reach a broader audience, your post either has to be boosted with marketing money to reach more of the people who have liked your page, or paid for as a sponsored post.
Advertisers on Facebook can set a lifetime and daily budget on advertising spend, and the government would have either been paying for ad impressions, where Facebook tries to show the advert to lots of people, or for a link click, where the algorithm tries to target the people most likely to respond to an advert.
Under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, both the official leave and remain campaigns will receive money so that they can pay for TV advertising and run their own mailshots, but this government-funded leaflet will arrive before those rules come into force.
The government had already stated that the reported £9m cost of its leaflet would include online and social media promotion. The leaflet can be read in full online.
This article was written by Martin Belam, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th April 2016 10.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010