A tweet I wrote earlier today drew some interesting reactions:
Be careful here, folks.#Brexit was NOT caused by the Russians. We will never be able to ascertain that.
However it is becoming clearer that Russian money influenced the Brexit vote and puts the democratic quality of that vote in question.
— Jon Worth (@jonworth) November 15, 2017
It was written in light of two developments – that further information about Russian bots in the Brexit referendum has come to light, and that Theresa May’s rhetoric about Russian influence on western democracies went up a notch in her recent speech (although she did not mention Brexit explicitly).
Some of the reactions to the Russian influence issue have been excessive, and the intention of my tweet was to draw attention to that.
Did Russian influence mean Britain voted for Brexit? We do not know, but not that alone.
Was Russia (Russian money and Russian-financed bots) one of the factors that helped the Leave side? Yes, almost certainly.
To put this another way: there are numerous factors that caused Britain to vote for Brexit. In no particular order and by no means a complete list, it could be: the europhobia of the UK press, the divisions within (and europhobia of) parts of the Conservative Party, the mentality of an island nation, the poor quality of the Remain campaign, lack of knowledge of the EU in the general population, the population wanting to teach the political class a lesson, or a question of the ‘advantaged’ versus the ‘disadvantaged’. Or some combination of all of those.
There is also the question over the role of Robert Mercer and Cambridge Analytica in the referendum – is US spending and technological assistance any less ethically questionable than the same from Russia? I would argue it is not.
There is no way to separate Russian influence out from all of the other factors, not least because the extent of Russian influence is very sketchy at the moment. We know that 150000 Russian bots existed, and 45000 tweets were posted by those in the 48 hours before the referendum, but how many people saw those tweets? How many offline conversations took place as a result of people having read those tweets? How was the public debate shaped by those accounts?
Even if we were able to put a number on actual viewers (in the same way as Facebook has been able to put a number on the number of Americans who saw Russian-financed advertisements – 126 million – prior to Trump’s election), we do not and can never have a number of people whose minds were changed. Likewise those who may argue that this whole thing is an overreaction cannot put numbers on any of this either. We do not know.
The argument instead needs to be made in terms of the integrity of the democratic system, and the rules in place to assure an election is fair and free. The UK has rules (see page 4 of this Electoral Commission PDF) about overseas donations in elections in terms of money donated to parties, but it does not have such rules for online advertising, let alone the more covert use of bots.
Even the rules for the use of money raised within the UK are not adequately up to date for the internet era, and there were no effective spending caps in place in the Brexit referendum. Anyone spending more than £10000 had to register with the Electoral Commission but non-official campaigns could spend up to £700000, and official campaigns £7 million each (rules here). But it seems that when Vote Leave raised too much they managed to offload £625000 of it to an unofficial campaign. And the official campaign spending on both Leave and Remain sides was less than 50% of the total spending on each side.
Meanwhile the Electoral Commission is investigating the source of the £2.3m that an Arron Banks company loaned to the Leave side in the referendum. What ought to happen if this cash turns out to be from somewhere outside the UK?
Be it Mercer or Banks or Russian bots trying to work out whether their influence was enough to push the referendum over the line for Leave campaigners is a hopeless task and ought not be attempted. Every time Leave campaigners will blame another factor instead, play down the role of tech or bots, or make someone (even Banks if necessary) the fall guy.
The response from any democrat should not be to play this game, but instead to emphasise the standards we expect in a democracy for a free and fair election. Were these respected here? Increasingly that looks to not have been the case. And if all of this leads the UK to conclude that another vote might indeed be necessary because the first one was not free and fair, then all the other factors listed above to explain why Britain voted for Brexit are going to come back again with a vengeance.