A mystery astroturfing online campaign targeting Scott Morrison’s refusal to give more funding to hospitals to deal with COVID-19 case peaks has spent more than $10,000 to advertise to more than half a million Australians.
This campaign shows how online tools can be used to instantaneously show political advertising at targeted audiences without disclosure of who’s behind it.
On September 28, a “We Love Our Hospitals – WLOH” Facebook page was created and weloveourhospitals.org was registered. While the About section claims it’s for showing appreciation “for our hospitals and the wonderful people who work in them”, the page’s handful of posts focus on attacking the federal government for a lack of hospital funding.
Since the page was created, $10,162 has been spent promoting three critical posts to Facebook users, according to Facebook’s public library of advertisements. The ads are targeted at Queensland and Tasmania and have been viewed collectively at least 565,000 times.
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The website claims that “a community group made up of passionate members around Australia, who all share a love of our healthcare system and hospitals, and are prepared to show it with meaningful action” are behind the page. But information about the identities of those involved is nowhere to be found on the Facebook page or website. The domain’s registration details obscure the identity of the person who registered it.
The website mostly features generic stock photos, but the one image that features what appears to be surgeons in scrubs holding up a sign of the logo has been photoshopped to include the logo. Journalist and open source information analyst Elise Thomas points out that the photograph’s metadata shows the image was also created on September 28 by user “Ed” using graphic design tool Canva.
Curiously, shortly after this Crikey reporter tweeted about the Facebook page and its spend, the website’s content was almost all taken down after remaining unchanged since publication two weeks ago.
Despite Facebook’s transparency efforts which allowed Crikey to find out about these advertisements and their targeting, the identity of the person or people behind this campaign is unknown. That’s despite a five-figure spend in just two weeks, among the top Facebook political and social advertisers during that period.
As Australia is not yet in an election period and these ads are not explicitly about an election, it does not appear to break election advertisement disclosure rules.
But with an election not far off and a clearly partisan tone to it — all the posts specifically target the prime minister and his government, with little concern for how state governments have run their hospitals, and are shown only to people in two states who are crucial to winning the election — the difference between what is and isn’t considered an election advertisement is slim.
We Love Our Hospitals won’t shift an election or even a seat by itself. But it lays out a playbook for how someone can easily run a shadowy digital political campaign without accountability.