Protests against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament are being boosted by a national network of pro-EU Facebook pages, Sky News can reveal.
The pages have a combined total of 400,000 followers and are local and community “for Europe” Facebook pages.
These include Norfolk for Europe or Swansea for Europe, which have between 4,000 and 6,000 followers, or Cornwall for Europe, which has more than 15,000.
Originally run by local activists, these pages – which number 116 in total – are now being coordinated by a well-resourced group which provides the network with funding, training and advanced technical support.
Until now, the only visible sign of this operation has been Facebook ads run with the disclaimers such as “paid for by #ProjectHope”, a reference to a fundraising website that raised money to support pro-EU social media.
Sky News can reveal that the network is being coordinated by prominent Remain campaign Scientists for EU, which has set up a Social Media Intelligence Unit to support “for Europe” Facebook pages.
In the last seven months, Scientists for EU has spent more than £100,000 on what its founder, Mike Galsworthy, calls “professionalisation”.
“We have quadrupled the amount of people following local pro-EU Facebook pages,” Mr Galsworthy tells Sky News.
“Where they were small, ineffectual pages before, we’ve really come and built a community, and that has fuelled the on-the-ground community as well.”
One key technique is Facebook advertising.
Since February 2019, when it began supporting the local pages, Scientists for EU has spent around £80,000 on Facebook ads promoting local pages.
According to internal Scientists for EU briefing documents seen by Sky News, this advertising push brought 278,000 new followers to the network, an increase of 115% in seven months.
“These numbers are impressive,” says Craig Dillon, founder of Westminster Digital, a digital strategy firm which ran Boris Johnson’s online Conservative leadership campaign.
“Politics is becoming very localised, so the important thing is that they have access to localised pages which they can promote.”
Mr Galsworthy told Sky News that the network’s funding came from a mixture of small donors, foundations and some larger UK donors.
Money was also raised through a crowdfunding page to “Help Set Up A Dedicated Pro-EU Social Media Team!”, which raised £5,277.
One of the project’s success stories is Cheltenham for Europe.
When Scientists for EU started supporting this page in March 2019, it had less than 200 followers.
Now, it has more than 4,000 followers and claims to receive around 100,000 likes, comments and shares a week.
According to data released by Facebook, the Cheltenham for Europe page has spent £880 on targeted Facebook ads in the last year, which received between 100,000 and 300,000 impressions.
“We set a Facebook page up and it sort of trundled,” said Nikki Robson, street engagement lead for Cheltenham for Europe, who told Sky News these promoted posts had helped grow the group “outside our Remainer core group”.
On 29 August, the day after Mr Johnson announced his request to prorogue Parliament, a large crowd gathered outside the local office of Conservative MP Alex Chalk.
This apparently spontaneous demonstration was organised by Cheltenham for Europe.
“What it’s meant crucially is that over the last week or so we’ve been able to get 300 people at our MPs door within 24 hours,” said Ms Robson.
“That’s real world impact, which is really important at the moment.”
In addition to supplying funding for advertising, Scientists for EU also provides the network with technical support.
Since February 2019, it has spent £20,000 on training and development for administrators and managers of local pages.
Administrators and managers are given access to a sophisticated social media “command centre”, which allows them to analyse the effectiveness of their efforts and monitor opponents’ activity on social media.
According to the internal Scientists for EU briefing documents, 170 local campaign managers have secure log-ons to the command centre portal, “with tailored levels of access to focus and enhance their digital campaigns”.
The command centre includes features such as geographical mapping of Facebook activity, which can be used to compare “heat maps” of online engagement with demographic information, in order to compare online coverage to population.
These same documents suggest that the effort has been successful relative to its competitors.
Since August, they note, “local Remain pages are surpassing local Leave pages for engagements in all regions,” an achievement they put down to their efforts to boost the pages.
However, Mr Dillon is sceptical whether this shows the full picture.
“Remain have an army online, who are very vocal, which is why we see things like #StopTheCoup trending,” he says.
“By comparison the Leave campaign tend to have a much less vocal following, similar to the idea of shy Tories.
“There are a lot of people who are supporting leave and no deal, who won’t engage in online discussions.”