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Was Facebook data on 1m Brits used to swing Brexit vote?

by Hugo Dixon | 06.04.2018

We already knew that Cambridge Analytica (CA) used data harvested from people’s Facebook profiles in the campaign to elect Donald Trump as US president. We also knew that its family of companies worked on the Leave side in the Brexit referendum.

But, until Facebook said on Wednesday that its data on 1.1 million Brits may also have been “improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica”, there was little evidence that there was any connection between these two facts. Now the alarm bells are ringing. Was the information harvested from Brits’ Facebook profiles used to manipulate voters in the Brexit referendum two years ago too?

CA built psychological profiles on millions of Americans by exploiting Facebook data on who their friends are, what they like on social media and so forth, according to an investigation by the Observer, the New York Times and Channel 4 News. It then targeted these voters with specially crafted advertising messages calculated to press their hot buttons.

CA is also part of a web of companies that worked on the Brexit campaign – both for the official Vote Leave campaign fronted by Boris Johnson and, it seems, for the rival Leave.EU campaign backed by Nigel Farage.

Facebook revealed the 1,079,031 figure for UK users in a blog post. It said that up to 87 million people may have been affected worldwide. CA replied in its own blog that it had got data on only 30 million people and, after the social network asked it to delete the information, it removed the raw data from its server and started the process of deleting derivatives of it from its system.

Vote Leave and Aggregate IQ

Vote Leave didn’t use CA itself during the referendum. But it did give £2.7 million to a connected company, called Aggregate IQ (AIQ), for social media advertising.

AIQ and CA were part of the same web of companies, at the centre of which was another group called SCL. Chris Wylie, SCL’s former research director, testified to a UK parliamentary committee last week that he helped set up both CA and Canadian-based AIQ, which was also called SCL Canada. Wylie said AIQ built a software engine called Ripon in order to target voters on behalf of CA and that this was then populated with data harvested from Facebook.

The committee has now published 122 pages of documentation supplied by Wylie that back up his claims. These include contracts whereby AIQ agreed to build the Ripon system for CA/SCL Elections and licensed intellectual property back to SCL Elections.

Arron Banks, Leave.EU and UKIP

SCL’s web of companies wasn’t just working for Vote Leave. It also appears to have worked for UKIP and Leave.EU, which fought vigorously during the referendum despite failing in its bid to be the official campaign.

Alexander Nix, CA’s boss until he was suspended last month, told MPs in February that his firm “did not provide any services (paid or unpaid) to any campaign”. But Brittany Kaiser, who was CA’s business development director until last month, told the Guardian this was a lie. She said its work involved analysis of data provided by UKIP – and that she briefed senior Leave.EU officials on the results of this research. Meanwhile, Wylie told MPs he had seen UKIP invoices from CA.

Brittany Kaiser of Cambridge Analytica, Arron Banks, Gerry Gunster and Liz Bilney at the launch of the Leave.EU campaigning organisation in London, November 18, 2015

From right to left: Brittany Kaiser of Cambridge Analytica, Arron Banks, Gerry Gunster and Liz Bilney at the launch of the Leave.EU campaigning organisation in London, November 18, 2015 (Reuters)

Arron Banks, who lent Leave.EU £6 million at subsidised rates during the referendum as well as giving money to UKIP, also disputed Nix’s account to MPs. He immediately branded CA “compulsive liars” and a few days later tweeted: “We have made no secret of working with Cambridge. We created a huge SM [social media] machine that took the message to voters”.

Banks has since modified his line. In the Guardian’s story about Kaiser’s claims, he is quoted as saying: “Leave.EU did not receive any data or work from CA. UKIP did give CA some of its data and CA did some analysis of this. But it was not used in the Brexit campaign. CA tried to make me pay for that work but I refused. It had nothing to do with us.”

What now?

The Electoral Commission is already investigating whether Vote Leave “breached campaign finance rules in relation to spending at the 2016 EU referendum.” It is also investigating the source of Banks’ donations, whether Leave.EU’s  donations were all permissible and whether its spending return was complete.  

Facebook’s latest statement is potentially the most worrying development. It suggests that techniques developed to manipulate the enemy in psychological warfare could have been deployed by both of the main Leave factions in the Brexit referendum.

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office said last month it was “investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used”. Yesterday, it added it was “conducting a broader investigation into how social media platforms were used in political campaigning”.

The public needs to know what happened. And they need to know fast, as there is less than a year before we quit the EU.

There is already a compelling argument that the people should have a vote on whatever deal Theresa May manages to agree with the EU – and the option to cancel Brexit if they don’t like it. If evidence emerges that dark arts were used in the referendum, the argument that it’s the people’s will to charge like lemmings over the cliff will be in shreds.

InFacts asked Vote Leave, Leave.EU, Banks, UKIP, AIQ and CA whether they were aware of any of the Facebook data improperly shared with CA being used on the Brexit campaign. None had replied by time of publication.

Hugo Dixon’s daughter works for Fair Vote, which is publishing evidence showing Vote Leave may have broken election spending limits.

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Edited by Bill Emmott

3 Responses to “Was Facebook data on 1m Brits used to swing Brexit vote?”

  • The revelations about the use of social media information in both the Trump and Brexit campaigns is perhaps the most significant development in modern politics in years. Social Media is such a recent phenomenon – it has only become global in the past 5-10 years – that its effects on political events such as elections and referendums has been poorly understood. Until now. Speaking from my own experience, the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum’s nastiest aspect was how the debate manifested itself on Social Media. Insults, abuse, fake/misleading information – both the Yes and No campaigns were guilty of all 3 during 2014 – were, and still are (to some degree), common tactics, and the same thing happened during the Brexit vote in 2016 (and continues to happen). The disclosure, by Chris Wylie and his fellow whistleblowers – who must be commended for their bravery in speaking out – that shadowy, private companies/organisations, operating worldwide, are collaborating with political campaigns to secretly obtain individual’s personal Social Media information and use it to try and cynically manipulate them into voting in a particular way is extremely disturbing, and raises chills about the future of democracy if they are allowed to be used unchecked…… One can only wonder what might have happened in 1930’s Germany if the National Socialists and Workers Party (Nazis) had had access to such technology, given how effective Nazi propaganda was even with pre-digital methods. It may have to be assumed from now on that any election/referendum result which produces unexpected gains for fringe parties, such as the recent elections in Austria, Germany and Italy, might have to be considered potentially suspect in this new era of widespread Social Media use. Regarding Trump and Brexit, full investigations must now take place into the potential impact of tactics, such as those used by Cambridge Analytica, on those results. The future integrity of democratic elections as a political concept may depend on them.

  • I agree this is sickening and nobody likes being manipulated. But their defence is likely to be that it is only an extension of techniques for targeting consumers already widely used in the advertising industry. Ever since Vance Packard wrote ‘The Hidden Persuaders” we have realised that our apparently spontaneous choices have been influenced by devious and underhand means. The only solution is to make our important choices by dispassionate evaluation of evidence, and do away with the advertising industry. Or in legal terms, replace the adversarial system by inquisatorial systems wherever possible.

  • It is possible to persuade people of almost anything. Considering the length, intensity and ferocity of the tabloid campaign against the EU, the surprise is that the vote was so close. If the referendum had been on whether Britons should stand on their heads or their feet, the heads lobby would have promised increased intelligence by improving the blood supply to the brain, and plethora of other arguments which would have swayed significant sections of the population. Anyone remaining in a normal posture would now be branded a traitor and a saboteur. In today’s world where image is more important than substance, the real worry is, what next?