This was a very popular question with some thought-provoking answers, so we have published four of them.
No. And the use of the word “meddled” implies a rejection of the referendum result.
Cambridge Analytica is one of a number of organisations which attempted to persuade people to vote to leave the EU. But there is no suggestion of voter irregularities. Votes were cast in secret, ballot papers can be accounted for and there is no evidence of votes being miscounted in order to achieve a desired outcome.
Nevertheless, Cambridge Analytica tactics are questionable. The Information Commissioner Office are investigating the company. A warrant is being obtained to search their offices.
In May 2017, the Information Commission Office (ICO) launched a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. They are looking at how personal information was analysed to target people as part of political campaigning and have been particularly focused on the EU referendum campaign. The ICO investigation is a complex and far-reaching investigation, involving over 30 organisations including political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms.
Among those ICO organisations under investigation is AggregateIQ. This is a Canadian based marketing company, which is credited by some as being the reason for the success of the Brexit campaign. Having received more than £4 million for their work on the campaign, they were responsible for around half the spending of the campaign groups on the Leave side. AggregateIQ is a low-profile consultancy that, among other things, specialises in developing highly-targeted Facebook advertising.
The referendum result is valid. Voters freely made choices, despite being told that Brexit is going to take 10 years.
But there are other concerning issues. Leave campaigners failed to explain the Brexit process, politicians are failing to manage voter expectation and the Conservative party decided on a vision and version of Brexit which has now been adopted as government policy. A Brexit that is going to be impossible to deliver in the timescales and on terms promised to the public.
If Cambridge Analytica meddled in the Brexit vote then you would also have to include pro-brexit tabloids, any television station showing images of the Brexit (£350 million) bus, pro-brexit radio presenter’s and the fact that you had a well known television celebrity, Boris ‘BoJo’ Johnston, leading the leave campaign.
The referendum should never have been acted on, it was advisory, so no second referendum. But how about a referendum on Russia? Shall we unilaterally declare war, or as part of an EU led force – dread to think of the result.
All contests are conducted according to rules. If the rules are broken the result of the contest is invalidated.
When there is a boxing bout in a weight division the boxers must weigh no more than the maximum allowed for that division. If one boxer fails to make the weight limit, it is not a valid contest.
It makes no difference that the heavier boxer would probably have won anyway, the rules have been breached.
If the Leave campaign are found to have broken the rules on spending, which seems certain, they have invalidated the result of the Referendum.
As now appears to be the case, both the Leave Campaign and Cambridge Analytica are shown to have lied about the use of analytical techniques to influence the vote, it doesn’t matter whether or not it had a significant affect on the result. Like Australian cricketers tampering with the ball, the spirit of the game has been breached.
The Electoral Commission has no way of regulating this behaviour, as it is not within their remit. But the behaviour of the Leave cheats leaves them without a moral fig leaf to cover their naked dishonesty.
I’m sympathetic to the whistleblowers’ concerns.
The problem is there is evidence that various Leave campaigns committed electoral offences via AIQ and Cambridge Analytica, perhaps with the knowledge of senior political figures in the UK and the support of powerful alt-right figures in the US. It involved targeting, legitimate or not, immediately before the vote using funds, legitimately or not. The UK has rules about these things, so there may have been an element of fraud involved.
If the overspend (and there is also an allegation of undercharging too), the conversion rates of the campaigns paid for that way and other benefits there may have been from different campaigns colluding (e.g. data sharing for targeting) were sufficient to tip what was a marginal result, that result is obviously in some doubt.
The scales suggest that it could have been significant anyway. For example, using Wylie’s figures from the Select Committee and assuming the same price that Vote Leave paid AIQ for impressions, a £625,000 overspend would buy about 250 million impressions targeted on 5 million core swing voters with a conversion rate of 5%, implying an average of 50 extra (2 acted upon) Leave impressions per person during the last few days of campaigning. If 1 in 8 of those intensely targeted swing voters was persuaded to vote Leave as a result of those extra impressions, it would have been enough to swing the result in favour of Leave. Things were so finely balanced that this was within the margin of error of polls just before the referendum.
This was one line of questioning in yesterday’s Select Committee. It seems fairly obvious that it should be properly addressed before deciding what to do about it