Bookmaker accused of "astroturfing" with a group of customers in the lobby
The plan to strengthen the positive side of betting through a carefully selected group of customers sparked controversy among racist posts on social media 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, a political consultant led by Lynton Crosby, former adviser to Boris Johnson and Theresa May.
The Players' Panel, which publishes short articles on gambling by Entain customers, says it "gives the voice of the 99% to the people in the UK who enjoy betting safely and responsibly - and often go unnoticed."
While Entain's involvement is revealed on the players' dashboard page, the company's name did not initially appear on its Facebook page, which also does not show the Entain logo.
The stakes for gambling companies are currently high, due to the government's revision of betting regulations, which has prompted the lobbying industry to grow.
Lord Foster of Bath, chairman of the Peers for Gambling Reform, said: “Of course there are people who gamble without getting hurt.
”But if the gambling industry wants to promote examples of such people to avoid further restrictions on their activities, they should be more open that this is an industry campaign.
“They should also explain how they have tried the population to choose which people they will use as examples.
"The gambling debate is very complex and the industry would do well in the present environment if it operated transparently and carefully."
Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling's betting reform group, suggested that the Players' Panel risked mimicking being a grassroots initiative by members of the public.
"It is like astroturf campaigns trying to convey a picture of a sector that is different from reality," he said.
CT y's Crosb Group, which Entain said helped with the players' panel, was previously revealed by the Guardian for its involvement in "astroturf" campaigns on Facebook.
Staff members said they created websites and Facebook pages that appeared to be independent online news sources with names such as Why Electricity Matters, Reporting Yemen, and Londoners for Transport that could be used to distribute highly selective information on behalf of CT Group clients. The CT group did not comment then.
Entain said he directly managed the Players' Panel and dismissed the suggestion that the group bears the hallmarks of an astroturf operation.
"The panel was organized by Entain, but the views of the panel are entirely personal and voluntary," the company said.
Since contacting Guardian, the company has updated the Facebook Player Panel page to say it is an "Entain Initiative".
Entain added group members were asked if they wanted to be involved and had to volunteer to join without receiving payment or other benefits. The CT group did not send back a request for comment.
While the initiative aims to showcase the best side of gambling, social media posts by one of the Players' Panel members raised questions about the due diligence carried out by Entain when screening people recruited for industry lobbying.
One of the panel members, a Leeds man, had a profile: "I'd like to think I'm the voice of a normal customer."
But his Facebook page revealed a list of "favorite quotes" containing a string of racist and homophobic insults.
Entain said it has since removed a panel member, reducing his membership from five to four.
A spokesman for the company added: “The Player Panel was created to give a voice to 99% players in the UK who bet fun, safely and responsibly and whose views on the gambling industry often go unnoticed in the current debate about its future.
“All panel members are free volunteers who receive absolutely no favorable treatment from Entain. "
Entain also denied that he did not represent the false views of the public about the future of gambling laws.
The "Results" page of the players' panel contains a number of statistics showing opposition to government interference in gambling regulation.
While some are from a representative CT Group sample in May 2020, others are from the company's survey of Entain customers.
They include findings like this: “The 81% believe that people should be free to decide whether or not to gamble. "
Entain said the results of his own customers' study were marked with an asterisk to show they were from a different set of samples.