An analysis of Facebook advertising data has found that Advance Australia’s targeting of independent ACT Senate candidate David Pocock is disproportionate compared to its campaigning against other candidates around the country.
One of its anti-Pocock ads has been criticised for deliberately confusing voters about Mr Pocock’s political affiliation.
RMIT FactLab can reveal the South Australian Electoral Commissioner has found the group to have produced “misleading and inaccurate” material during that state’s recent election.
The controversial campaign group has a number of personal connections to the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Zed Seselja, who is in a tight battle to retain his ACT Senate seat at the May 21 federal election.
Advance Australia is a conservative campaign group that made waves early in the election with mobile billboards portraying Chinese President Xi Jinping voting for Labor.
It is also running a number of ads on Facebook, including many that warn that a vote for Labor is a vote for the Greens.
Advance Australia was the second highest spending campaign group in the country after the ACTU in 2020-21.
Its website does not provide information about who is funding the group, but claims to have “been joined by more than 150,000 supporters”. The site is authorised by Matthew Sheahan, its Executive Director, at a Canberra address.
The group describes itself as “an independent movement that lives for mainstream Australia” that is “turning up the volume to give us the power to put your voice out front, so that together we’re heard”.
While many of its campaigns negatively focus on Labor and the Greens, the group has claimed it is "not aligned to any political party," and its website makes no mention of any such links.
To understand who the group is targeting with social media advertising, FactLab has analysed data compiled by QUT's PoliDashboard from Facebook’s Ad Library.
The data relates to "unique ads", a measure that refers to an ad's distinct budget rather than its content. It is possible for multiple ads with identical content to be placed in separate orders, thus counting as multiple unique ads.
The data, which covers the period April 1 to March 29, 2022, shows that Advance Australia:
Ran 293 unique ads on Facebook, ranking it 21st of all “funding entities” (a broad term that includes not just political parties but also lobby groups) based on the volume of ads being run
Spent $130,500 to $180,000
Received more than 8.697 million impressions for its ads
It also shows that older people, males and Queenslanders are the groups most commonly shown a unique ad.
Advance Australia has placed a number of ads claiming David Pocock, an independent running for an ACT Senate position, is an undercover Green.
The Facebook Ad Library data reveals that the group’s offensive against the former rugby star is disproportionate to its campaigning against other individual candidates around the country.
RMIT FactLab’s analysis looked specifically at ads run by Advance Australia that related to the federal election and that were primarily seen by people located in a specific state or territory. The ads were analysed if more than 90 per cent of its views were from a particular jurisdiction.
This left 88 geo-targeted unique ads from a starting list of almost 300 (that included some not related to the federal election).
Of these, 22 (25 per cent) were seen primarily in the ACT, and all of them featured or referenced Mr Pocock, either alone or alongside other candidates.
It should be noted that the total spend on the group’s ACT targeted ads was less than $9,000.
By comparison, 16 of Advance Australia’s unique ads (18 per cent) were primarily seen in Queensland, and all were about national issues.
What users in the ACT are seeing:
What users in the Queensland are seeing:
From the data analysed, FactLab identified only one other federal candidate who was singled out in highly geo-targeted material in this period: Zali Steggall, the independent member for Warringah in NSW.
Of the 19 unique ads that were primarily seen in NSW, four were against her.
Mr Pocock is running for one of the ACT’s two seats in the Senate, currently occupied by Labor’s Senator Katy Gallagher and Minister for International Zed Seselja, an LNP senator who is fighting for his political survival.
A number of people close to Senator Seselja are linked to Advance Australia, research by RMIT FactLab has found. These include former colleagues and family.
Vicki Dunne, who served as shadow attorney general under Mr Seselja when he was leader of the Canberra Liberals, was brought on as a director of Advance Australia in February 2021, according to documents from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).
A previous national director of Advance Australia, Liz Storer, was reportedly a former advisor to Senator Seselja.
Separately, Facebook page transparency information shows that Advance Australia’s account is co-managed by an Australian conservative campaign consultancy called Whitestone Strategic.
The organisation’s website includes few details about who is behind it, though ASIC documents name Stephen Doyle as Whitestone Strategic’s current director and secretary.
That name is shared by Senator Seselja’s brother in law and former chief of staff, Steve Doyle, who was named in the senator’s maiden speech to federal parliament as someone who had “played a particularly important role in my political journey”.
Both Advance Australia and Whitestone Strategic list the same two Adelaide addresses on their ASIC records.
These addresses, which appear to belong to an accounting firm, are also used by:
the anti-euthanasia group HOPE, run by Senator Seselja’s sister Branka van der Linden, who was also named in his maiden speech;
Gender Awareness Australia, a group which Seselja’s “former right-hand man”, Tio Faulkner, is a director;
Dunham + Company, a US-headquartered marketing and fundraising firm that is the other co-manager of the Advance Australia Facebook page.
The ASIC record also names David Hutt as a director of Whitestone Strategic from 2017 to 2020.
A David Hutt was previously the NSW director of the Australian Christian Lobby, at the time Lyle Shelton was its managing director, and Whitestone Strategic is listed as the registrant for the website of Mr Shelton.
A cyber safety business run by Stephen Doyle and his wife, the senator’s sister, formerly listed the ACL’s headquarters as its address.
Loving walking the #MothersDayClassic with my Mom.— David Pocock (@pocockdavid) May 8, 2022
Advance Australia showing just how low they can go. Using a breast cancer fundraiser to spread political lies.
p.s. pretty sure this isn't permitted on NCA land.@AusElectoralCom @nca_media pic.twitter.com/I2SrPfOU7s
Advance Australia has also taken its campaigns offline, using mobile billboards to campaign against Zali Steggall and David Pocock.
Mr Pocock has publicly criticised at least one of them, which has appeared online and on corflutes around Canberra, telling ABC News that some people had asked him if an ad portraying him with a Greens logo on his chest was legitimate.
As RMIT ABC Fact Check recently found, Commonwealth electoral law only prohibits misleading political advertising insofar as it affects the vote-casting process.
A mobile billboard in Ms Steggall’s seat featuring pictures of several Australian swim stars Emma McKeon, Emily Seebohm and Dawn Fraser, and reportedly led to legal threats from both the Australian Olympic Commission and Swimming Australia.
Advance Australia also turned heads in cities from Perth to Newcastle with multiple mobile billboards featuring the slogan “CCP says vote Labor” with a fake image of Chinese President Xi Jinping holding a ballot paper with Labor marked in top spot.
I absolutely love the ad that doing the rounds that was funded by Advance Australia.— The Markie_D (@Was4me2say) April 6, 2022
Its great to see all the progressives getting upset at seeing the truth being posted up on a billboard.#auspol #springst #Labor #CCP #dontvotelabor pic.twitter.com/QfCPJa0rqM
The billboard originally featured a ballot paper with a green tick, which the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) said could constitute a breach of the Electoral Act.
“As such, we are providing Advance Australia with a warning regarding the signage,” it said.
Unlike the AEC, the South Australian Electoral Commission has the power to take action in some cases where state electoral ads contain false or misleading information.
During the recent state election, the commission notified Advance Australia to take down one of its numerous attack ads against independent candidate Heather Holmes-Ross.
It requested in a letter that the group “immediately cease to publish the relevant material (including by removing any posts or posters that may contain the relent material) and publish a retraction in the following form as soon as possible.”
As of May 4, an article that repeats the misleading claims remains on the Advance Australia website, and a Facebook post promoting the article remains online.
The AEC’s Transparency Register shows that Advance Australia spent almost $2 million on electoral expenditure in 2020-21. The only political campaign group to spend more was the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), though the union movement’s combined spend was close to $3.8 million.
During the same campaign, Advance Australia received $2.8 million in donations, the second lowest among campaign groups registered with the AEC
The source of around half of this money was not listed, and may have come from small donations under $14,300.
A combined total of $1 million was donated by two companies, Silver River Investment Holdings and Cartwright Investments) directed by Elizabeth and /or Simon Fenwick. Three companies co-directed by a Rodney O’Neil of Sydney’s Bellevue Hill each donated $50,000 in the last financial year, while a company linked to another person named O’Neil from nearby Vaucluse contributed the same amount.
Five smaller donations from August 2020 totalling $27,500 are listed on the Disclosures page of the Electoral Commission Queensland website, including another $5,000 from Simon Fenwick.
Advance Australia’s Donations Policy states: “There are some individuals (like people who aren’t Australian citizens) and businesses from whom we don’t accept donations due to our principles, mission and core values, together with electoral laws across the country.” It says donors should not donate on behalf of “another person or entity”.
In the week after the publication of this story, the Australian Electoral Commission found that some of Advance Australia's signage breached the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
"It is an offence to publish, permit or authorise to be published during the relevant period ... any matter or thing that is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote: s 329 of the Electoral Act," it said.
It had previously found no issue with Advance Australia's work.
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