Was the Leave campaign illegitimate?
There have been a string of extraordinary allegations made in the press and in front of MP’s in recent days, taking in subjects as serious as electoral fraud, data misuse, corruption, intimidation, the outing of a gay man in public before he had chance to come out to his parents and the most recent allegation that the main campaign for leaving the European Union, VoteLeave, circumnavigated electoral spending laws by laundering money via smaller campaigns.
Whistle-blowers have emerged from under siege Cambridge Analytica and also from a small campaign for leaving the EU called BeLeave.
On Tuesday, Christopher Wylie, a whistle blower from Cambridge Analytica, appeared in front of a Commons Select Committee to explain his allegations, made in The Observer, and to answer questions regarding his time at the company. Cambridge Analytica, it must be said, deny all allegations of wrongdoing, and the company describes itself as a data firm who “With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.”
The description on their own website does little to dispel the allegations of sinister interference in democracy, proudly boasting the fact that they have information on over 230 million American citizens. The allegations against the company are that it willingly stole and used data provided by Facebook to target audiences and influence their political behaviour, and failed to act according to the law in the way it handled the data.
At this point, Facebook have denied any wrong doing and denied that they were aware of any misuse of the data by Cambridge Analytica in the process.
In his appearance before MP’s, Mr Wylie said that he started speaking to The Guardian and The Observer after the election of Donald Trump, feeling horrified about the implications of the work he had undertaken at the company, and said that he had also been working with the Information Commissioners Office in the UK (ICO).
In incestuous circumstances, Mr Wylie alleged that Steve Bannon, former Trump chief strategist, came up with name Cambridge Analytica and worked closely with the firm, choosing the name to give an impression of scholarly integrity. The organisation was also mainly funded by billionaire hedge-fund manager and founder of right-wing Breitbart news, as well as a large Trump supporter who donated huge sums to his campaign.
Wylie alleged that Cambridge Analytica were essentially the same company as AggregateIQ, a Canadian company with links to the Trump campaign, Brexit and a company, Wylie alleges, who were involved in intimidating Nigerian voters by circulating violent videos of people who were political opponents of the ruling party.
Wylie went on to say that previous comments made by Cambridge Analytica's former CEO Alexander Nix, claiming that they didn’t use Facebook data in their election campaigns was categorically false and dishonest.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary allegations made by Wylie, however, is that all of the Leave campaigns co-ordinated with each other in order to avoid spending limits. AggregateIQ, Mr Wylie notes, had no website and no public presence in the UK whatsoever, but astonishingly all campaigns managed to hire them simultaneously.
Talking to the committee he said “I am absolutely convinced that there was a common plan and common purpose with Vote Leave, BeLeave, the DUP, and Veterans for Britain. All of these companies somehow, for some reason, all decided to use AIQ...
When you look at the accumulation of evidence, I think it would be completely unreasonable to come to any other conclusion other than this must be coordination, this must be a common purpose plan.”
As reported in The Guardian’s coverage of the hearing, when asked; Have you made any assessment as to whether this over-spending would have affected the result?
Wylie said he had two points. First, if someone is caught doping in the Olympics, no one asks if that made the difference to them winning the race. You should not win by cheating, he said. He says this vote made a fundamental change to the constitution of the country. Second, Dominic Cummings himself said the internet campaign was what made all the difference. He says the “conversion rates” for the campaign’s online advertising were “incredibly effective”. He says it is perfectly credible to say that, without cheating, there would have been a different result.
These extraordinary allegations are coupled with the fact that Shahmir Sanni, a separate whistle blower who spoke to Channel 4 news, alleged that the official Brexit campaign used a different group, BeLeave, to overspend. Mr Sanni says that VoteLeave, having spent their legal budget of £7 million, used a separate group called BeLeave, to spend a further £650,000 campaigning.
Sanni says that VoteLeave donated the money to the separate organisation but dictated how they must spend it and even shared office space with them in order to control how they campaigned. This, as Sanni claims, is totally illegal and he also claims that prominent Leave supporters Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were all aware of this illegal activity.
All three men have denied the allegations and Johnson even took to Twitter to deride the claims as “ludicrous”.
The fact remains that the two men have apparently handed evidence to the committees in question and have lawyers backing them up who are confident that they are on sound legal footing despite the enormous financial power behind the alleged perpetrators.
Make of that information what you will, but it’s interesting that a group of people who have been found to be lying and stretching the truth countless times are now the subject of allegations of fraud and illegality.