Betting firm accused of "Astroturfing" with buyer foyer group | Playing

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A plan to reinforce the positive side of betting over a handpicked group of customers has been controversial amid racist social media posts and allegations of similarity to controversial "Astroturfing" campaigns.

Last month, Ladbrokes owner Entain launched an initiative called the Players' Panel with the help of CT Group, the policy advisor to Lynton Crosby, a former advisor to Boris Johnson and Theresa May.

The Players' Panel, which publishes short pro-gambling articles by Entain customers, claims that "99% of the people in the UK have a voice who bet comfortably, safely and responsibly – and often goes unheard".

While Entain's involvement is being announced on the Players' Panel website, the company's name was initially not displayed on its Facebook page, which also does not display the Entain logo.

The stakes for gambling companies are high right now as the government reviewed betting laws, which has led to a surge in lobbying in the industry.

Lord Foster of Bath, Chairman of Peers for Gambling Reform, said: “Of course there are people who gamble without being harmed.

"But if the gambling industry wants to promote examples of such people in order to avoid further restrictions on their business, they should be more open than an industry campaign."

“They should also make it clear how they surveyed the population to decide which people to use as examples.

"The gambling debate is very complex and in the current environment the industry would do well to be transparent and careful."

Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of the betting reform campaign group Clean Up Gambling, suggested that the Players' panel could take the risk of being a grassroots initiative launched by members of the public.

"This is reminiscent of Astroturfing campaigns trying to convey a picture of a sector that is very different from reality," he said.

Crosby's CT group, which Entain said supports the Players' panel, was previously exposed by the Guardian for its involvement in Astroturfing campaigns on Facebook.

Employees said they created websites and Facebook pages, which appear to be independent online news sources such as Why Electricity Matters, Reporting Yemen and Londoners for Transport, that use highly selective information on behalf of clients of the CT Group could be spread. The CT Group did not comment at the time.

Entain said it headed the Players' panel directly and declined the suggestion that the group would bear the hallmarks of an astroturfing operation.

"The panel was organized by Entain, but the views of the panel are entirely their own and are freely expressed," the company said.

Since being contacted by the Guardian, the company has updated the Players' panel Facebook page to include the disclosure that it is an "Entain Initiative".

Other added members of the group were asked if they would like to participate and have to volunteer without receiving any payment or other benefit. The CT Group has not returned a request for comment.

While the initiative aims to showcase the best side of gambling, social media posts from a member of the Players' panel have raised questions about Entain's due diligence in screening people hired to lobby the industry.

The profile of one panelist, a man from Leeds, said: "I would like to believe that I am the voice of the normal customer."

But his Facebook page revealed a list of "favorite quotes" that contained a range of racist and homophobic slurs.

Entain said it has since removed the panel member and reduced his membership from five to four people.

A company spokesperson added: "The Players' Panel was created to give a voice to 99% of gamblers in the UK who bet comfortably, safely and responsibly, and whose views on the gaming industry often go unheard in the current debate about its future."

"All of the panel members are unpaid volunteers who have not received any beneficial treatment from Entain."

Entain also denied having misrepresented the public's views on the future of gambling regulation.

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A page on the Players' Panel website titled "Results" lists a number of statistics that indicate resistance to government interference in gambling regulation.

While some of them come from a representative sample conducted by CT Group in May 2020, others come from a survey conducted by the company among Entain's own customers.

This includes results such as: "81% believe that individuals should be free to choose whether to play."

Entain said the results of the survey among its own customers were marked with an asterisk to show that they came from a different sample set.