A plan to amplify the positive side of betting via a handpicked group of customers has hit controversy, 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 political consultancy run by Lynton Crosby, a former adviser to Boris Johnson and Theresa May.
The Players’ Panel, which publishes short pro-gambling articles written by Entain customers, claims that it “gives a voice to the 99% of people in the UK who bet enjoyably, safely and responsibly – and often go unheard”.
While Entain’s involvement is disclosed on the Players’ Panel website, the company’s name initially did not feature on its Facebook page, which also does not show the Entain logo.
Stakes are currently high for gambling companies, amid a government review of betting laws that has triggered a rise in industry lobbying.
Lord Foster of Bath, chair of Peers for Gambling Reform, said: “Of course there are people who gamble without experiencing harm.
“But if the gambling industry wants to promote examples of such people to try to avoid further curbs on their businesses, they should be more upfront that it’s an industry campaign.
“They should also make clear how they have sampled the population to choose which people they use as examples.
“The gambling debate is a highly complex one and in the current environment, the industry would do well to operate in a transparent and cautious manner.”
Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of the betting reform campaign group Clean Up Gambling, suggested the Players’ Panel risked giving a false appearance of being a grassroots initiative set up by members of the public.
“This is reminiscent of astroturfing campaigns that attempt to convey an image of a sector that’s quite distinct from the reality,” he said.
Crosby’s CT Group, which Entain said assisted with the Players’ Panel, has previously been exposed by the Guardian for its involvement in “astroturfing” campaigns on Facebook.
Staff members said they created websites and Facebook pages which appeared to be independent online news sources with names such as Why Electricity Matters, Reporting Yemen and Londoners for Transport, which could be used to distribute highly selective information on behalf of CT Group clients. CT Group did not comment at the time.
Entain said it directly managed the Players’ Panel and rejected the suggestion that the group bore the hallmarks of an astroturfing operation.
“The panel was organised by Entain, but the views of the panel are entirely their own and are expressed voluntarily,” the company said.
Since being contacted by the Guardian, the company has updated the Players’ Panel Facebook page to include a disclosure that it is an “Entain initiative”.
Entain added members of the group were asked whether they wanted to be involved and had to volunteer to join, receiving no payment or other benefit for doing so. CT Group did not return a request for comment.
While the initiative aims to show gambling’s best side, social media posts by one of the Players’ Panel members have raised questions about the due diligence performed by Entain when vetting people recruited for industry lobbying.
The profile of one panel member, a man from Leeds, stated: “I’d like to think I was the voice of the normal customer.”
But his Facebook page revealed a list of “favourite quotes” containing a string of racist and homophobic slurs.
Entain said it had since removed the panel member, reducing its membership from five people to four.
A spokesperson for the company added: “The Players’ Panel was created to give a voice to the 99% of gamblers in the UK who bet enjoyably, safely and responsibly, and whose views on the gambling industry often go unheard in the current debate around its future.
“All members of the panel are unpaid volunteers who receive absolutely no beneficial treatment from Entain of any kind.”
Entain also denied misrepresenting the views of the public about the future of gambling regulation.
A page of the Players’ Panel website titled “Findings” lists a series of statistics indicating opposition to government interference in gambling regulation.
While some of them come from a representative sample carried out by CT Group in May 2020, others come from a survey of Entain’s own customers, carried out by the company.
They include findings such as: “81% believe individuals should be free to decide whether they gamble.”
Entain said that the results of the survey of its own customers were marked with an asterisk to show that they came from a different sample set.