Council paid social media prankster £500k to run Facebook group during pandemic

A local council paid a social media prankster nearly £500,000 to help them improve their “community engagement” over three years – and the authority has defended its decision.

Essex County Council offered the large sum of money to comedian and campaigner, Simon Harris, as he worked as a contractor during the pandemic. His main duty was to run a Facebook page to help stop the spread of misinformation. The council has since classed his work as “vital” for reaching audiences.

Finance documents released by the authority showed several large payments to the comedian. The internet star also raised thousands of pounds for kids fleeing war-torn Ukraine, the RNLI and other organisations. He shot to fame for his humorous videos and for running the spoof Southend News Network.

Essex County Council described the 40-year-old’s role as providing “digital consultancy and delivery via social media channels”. Analysis of its day-to-day spending breakdown reveals 34 payments to Mr Harris between June 4, 2020, and April 24, 2023, totalling £493,000. These vary in value from £500 on May 19, 2021, to £100,000 on August 11, 2021. The Council say that they had an “established relationship” with Mr Harris as a contractor. He was involved in Essex Coronavirus Action, a community campaign set up on social media by Essex County Council during the pandemic.

Harris said his work with the council was also used by the NHS

Harris said his work with the council was also used by the NHS
Simon Harris)

The campaign was initially intended to be used as a reliable source of information relating to coronavirus, the vaccine and lockdown. It featured a Facebook page that was set up on March 13 followed by an online community group launched on March 16. These were set up “in response to a rise in misinformation across local social media”, official council documents state.

Documents from a meeting of the council’s Cabinet on June 8, 2021, state that Essex Coronavirus Action (ECA) was a “community campaign model” managed by the “Council’s Communities team”. The page was said to have an average monthly reach of three to five million people. It currently has 62,000 followers whilst the Essex Coronavirus Action Support group – now known as ‘Essex Is United – Your Questions Answered’ – has almost 36,000 members.

Analysis of the figures detail that Mr Harris received £279,000 from 20 payments during 2021. This is more than the Prime Minister earns a year. The financial revelations come at a time when Essex County Council has raised taxes for households across the county. The average Essex household is set to have to pay an additional £1.39 each week for services provided by the county council to help bridge its budget gap, reports Essex Live.

Speaking about the eye-watering salary, Mr Harris said: “The success of the work meant that other areas of the local authority and the NHS commissioned the model across a range of themes, including everything from reducing health inequalities to climate action, and operating peer support groups around these themes. The page was also utilised by local NHS services to amplify their own messaging about a variety of topics, and this has continued until the present day. In its current form, Essex Is United continues to be a collaboration between Facebook admins, Essex County Council, public health and local NHS services. It acts as an outlet for updates about statutory services, community-related news, and other general Essex content.”

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “The funding helped deliver and amplify public health and other messages over a number of campaigns. This piece of work was vital in getting to the heart of communities in Essex and was particularly important during the pandemic, when information had to be delivered at speed, therefore it made sense to use existing contractors and relationships” The Council also said they have clear policies to manage conflicts of interest and procedures to ensure that taxpayer money “is used appropriately and provides value for money”.

Addressing work with Mr Harris, the spokesperson said: “During the pandemic, and given the nature of the national emergency which the council was faced with, that contractor relationship was utilised to use social media – principally through the Essex Coronavirus Action (ECVA) channel – to engage with communities and share valuable information relating to restrictions, provide support to vulnerable individuals, volunteering opportunities including recruiting volunteers for vaccination centres, and share information on the various restrictions which were in place at various times, including their introduction, relaxation and what was and wasn’t allowed, throughout 2020, 2021 and into 2022.

“Much of the activity and campaigning concerned was amplifying information which the County Council had published and shared via its corporate social media channels, enabling the council to reach and engage with a much larger proportion of its population than would otherwise have been possible. The engagement levels the council achieved through ECVA and other social media channels managed by Simon Harris during the pandemic period were far in excess of what the council would usually have expected during a ‘normal’ period of operation.

“It is important to note the payments covered more than just social media content and included activity to directly support others doing similar work across the county. The approach used by the Council was subsequently peer-reviewed and was found to have been effective by an independent report review by a Public Health Intervention Studies Centre (based at London South Bank University) and funded by the National Institute for Health Research.” Mr Harris appears to have removed all of his social media accounts on Wednesday,

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