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Vote Leave Under Scrutiny for Data Harvesting

Ross Kelly

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Vote Leave Brexit

Allegations of collusion could land Vote Leave and BeLeave in hot water as MP’s continue their investigation into social media data harvesting.

Two Pro-Brexit campaign groups, Vote Leave and BeLeave, are under intense scrutiny from MP’s for allegedly using dubiously acquired Facebook data and colluding during the referendum campaign – the latter constituting a serious breach of electoral law.

The two campaign groups are currently under investigation for alleged collusion and collaboration during the campaign. Under electoral law campaigns are prohibited from working together unless spending is jointly-declared. Vote Leave and BeLeave deny any collusion during the run up to the Brexit Referendum, however MP’s piecing together the story believe they may have.

Continued Investigation

Last week the Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published a letter Facebook sent to the Electoral Commission which claims both the Vote Leave and BeLeave campaigns used three data sets to target audiences on the social media platform – the letter notes that they covered “the exact same audiences”.

BeLeave created 16 adverts using criteria from a number of audiences in June 2016, however did not run any of these. Vote Leave created a staggeringly higher number of adverts (2,189) based on the same common audiences and confirms that it ran around half of these. These data sets referred to by Facebook – known as “50million_remains” – are likely to be a competition that Vote Leave ran on social media which offered fans the opportunity to win up to £50 million if they correctly predicted the outcome of every match in the 2016 European Championship.

To enter the competition fans had to input a number of personal details, including their name, address, email and contact number(s) as well as declaring how they intended to vote in the up-coming referendum. It is this process that has raised concerns among MP’s on the Select Committee; in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal the true extent of data abuse has been unveiled to the public, and many who innocently took part in quizzes or competitions on Facebook now find themselves facing the reality that the data they entered could have been used for nefarious means.

An Admission of Guilt?

In a blog post written shortly after the EU Referendum, Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director for Vote Leave, admitted that the competition was an elaborate ploy to harvest Facebook user data. On the post he highlighted the campaign’s incessant need for data in order to conduct their targeted ad campaigns, saying: “Data flowed in on the ground and was then analysed by the data science team and integrated with all the other data streaming in.

“This was the point of our £50m prize for predicting the results of the European football championships, which gathered data from people who usually ignore politics.”

Cummings also notes in the blog post that the Vote Leave campaign had to utilise new methods of canvassing voters, which seen them delving into the murky waters of data harvesting and capitalising on users’ interactions online.

He said: “This was a gamble but the whole campaign was a huge gamble and we had to take many calculated risks. One of our central ideas was that the campaign had to do things in the field of data that have never been done before.

“This included a) integrating data from social media, online advertising, websites, apps, canvassing, direct mail, polls, online fundraising, activist feedback, and some new things we tried such as a new way to do polling (about which I will write another time) and b) having experts in physics and machine learning do proper data science in the way only they can – i.e. far beyond the normal skills applied in political campaigns.

He added: “We were the first campaign in the UK to put almost all our money into digital communication then have it partly controlled by people whose normal work was subjects like quantum information (combined with political input from Paul Stephenson and Henry de Zoete, and digital specialists AIQ). We could only do this properly if we had proper canvassing software. We built it partly in-house and partly using an external engineer who we sat in our office for months.”

Cummings has found himself in hot water with MP’s after refusing to appear before the Select Committee, and MP Damian Collins has slammed the former Vote Leave director over social media. On Friday the committee announced that it would be reporting Cummings for contempt of parliament for his refusal to appear and answer MP’s questions.

Contrary to Cummings’ decision, the former head of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, will appear before MP’s later in May.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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