A tweet I wrote earlier today drew some interesting reactions:

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.

3 Comments

  1. Rien Huizer

    You seem to have a visitor from the dark world (Russia, US hedge funds, proper crime, betting etc) here. For some reason there are people who like to frame Remain and Leave in “winners” and “losers”. That sort of binary ordering belongs in the world of sports betting, perhaps, or in a world where issues are either black (yours) or white (mine). No one adopting that approach seems to be genuinely interested in the outcomes (continuity along a known path or discontinuity with as yet unknown characteristics). I do not say that out of disrespect to the Leavers (although as far as I can see they did not “win” anything, except a government sponsored contest without prizes) but as an anthropological observation. There must be a particular sort of individual who expresses him/herself in this sort of manner, completely devoid of political or economic perspective. Minford’s syncopants know what they want, a Britain without economic rules where those with money and power can so anything they want, do not care for elderly etc and basically run sweatshops and pollution arbitrages on Europe’s doorstep. That would not be my preference but at least they have not been completely discreet about what is behind their model (the only model that excludes adjustment costs). The question is of course, is that the kind of world that the Leave voters expect. I’ve witnessed the former Soviet satellites adapt from integration in the Comecon system to integration in the EU and after almost thirty years, that process has not run its course. And they were assisted by mountains of inbound FDI. Who will invest in Britain and soften the blow?

    The “winners” may have very little to cheer and one wonders who is behind the many irrational Leave rants, the articles in the Express and the Murdoch papers and why hardly anyone bothers (the Economist as one of the few prestigious exceptions). Rapscallion may well be inspired by the trolls and bots from both sides, one of them, or like many eurosceptic politicians, in their pay. Apologies if I am being too harsh.

  2. rapscallion

    Curiously you fail to mention the money pumped in by George Soros and the EU itself in what was a purely domestic matter. The truth of the matter is that those who struggle to accept the largest mandate in British political history will find almost any excuse for their defeat to people they consider, ill-educated, ill-informed, deplorable lower orders who they hate and despise so much. I do however agree with your last sentence “then all the other factors listed above to explain why Britain voted for Brexit are going to come back again with a vengeance” Yup, you got that right Jon. Most of the people, even those who voted remain accept the result, any attempts to thwart this is treading on very, very dangerous ground. If the democratic will of the people is overturned and ignored then democracy in these Islands is dead and buried for decades. No government will have any validity, and people just won’t bother voting – what would be the point when the powers that be can overturn it anyway?

    • Oh, enlighten me. Where is the George Soros money that is in the referendum? And the EU money in the referendum? Cameron asked the EU institutions to stay out, and they did.

      As for Remain people accepting the result: they may have at the time, but negotiations have made no progress whatsoever, and the economic paradise Leave predicted will not come to pass. Then what?

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