On Saturday, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said on CNN’s State of the Union that the social media platform was also investigating an Italian app used by Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) to mobilize voters during the 2018 Italian elections. The app, named Drill 2 IE, was created by Social Capital or “socially capital group”, an Italian startup that promises to allow anybody to create tools to make money through social media, with a recent VC funding at a reported $500 million.
Read More: Social Capital Is The New Billionaire Boyfriend Of Silicon Valley
Founded in 2016 by entrepreneur Marco Russell and started as an e-mail marketing platform, the platform allowed users to post promotional content on websites in exchange for clicks and the commission taken from advertisements that visitors clicked on the content. The company claimed that over 400,000 businesses from 40 countries were registered on the site and were using it to reach 25 million people around the world.
Since Drill 2 IE shut down, M5S used the platform to manage voter registration drives and campaigns. The group in addition promoted the app on the 5 Star Facebook page, as well as promoting it on 6 other election campaigns. One Italian newspaper reported that both M5S and the Five Star Movement had purchased the bulk of the subscriptions to the app as there was a network effect in the platform, with each page being used by tens of thousands of users, more than the number that each app could support.
Besides using the app to win votes, an investigation commissioned by Italian police found that the political party earned a reported $1.7 million in revenue from drill 2 IE and that $500,000 of the commission paid for was intended for giving free usage to the app. The Financial Times reports that 5 Star used the app to take voluntary payments from 15,000 to 20,000 citizens in exchange for the tokens being offered to other users.
According to Russell, he was approached by an Italian lawmaker at a congress of parties from 2013. In April 2017, the app was acquired by Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch, in partnership with the company. According to M5S, Russell claims that although he was involved in the acquisition process, he was “unilaterally” excluded. He says that when contacted, Facebook told him that his app was a scam because it claimed to help people with financial problems to withdraw their money from ATM.
Read More: AI To Help Google Remove Fake Search Results
M5S led the elections with around 26% of the vote. However, incumbent Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, a member of the Democratic Party (PD), won with 39.35% of the vote. Five Star Movement’s standing in the next elections is in doubt. M5S members say they will remain committed to anti-establishment politics.
In a statement on their website, M5S claimed they never compromised their morals and principles by using the app, saying they offered few details. However, they did comment that they were investigating to know more about the platform.