Anyone looking at the Independent’s front page the other day – or at least its electronic mock-up, made primarily for social media and TV paper reviews – will have seen a bombshell of a headline: ‘Illegal Facebook spending “won 2016 vote for Leave”’. That’s a seismic claim if it can be confirmed: the once-in-a-generation vote to leave the EU was won through what we now know was an illegal overspend of £500,000 or so. Except the Independent adopted an old newspaper trick: the biggest news is in quotes, suggesting that it’s not the newspaper claiming it, but rather someone else.
At first, that someone looks credible. It is from a witness statement submitted to the high court by Professor Philip Howard, the director of the respected Oxford Internet Institute. This is a man and an institution to be taken seriously. Which is a shame – as the quality of Howard’s research would shame an undergraduate.
Prof Howard’s logic runs as follows: Leave won the referendum by 1.3 million votes, and so if 650,000 of those people had switched their votes, Remain would have won. He then takes a figure of 80 million people having seen Vote Leave adverts, and assumed that 10pc of these would have interacted with those (this, he says, is an industry standard), and of those 10pc would have changed their mind – leaving 800,000 voters whose minds were changed by adverts on Facebook. Case closed.
But this reasoning is better suited to the back of a fag packet than to evidence in a court room. Here are some of the ways it falls apart.
As Professor Chris Hanretty and others noted, there aren’t 80 million voters in the United Kingdom: there are around 46.5 million (of whom only 33 million of those voted), only 55pc of whom are on Facebook. Even if we accept Howard’s astonishing success rate of 1pc of ad viewers changing their vote, that alone would destroy his logic: only 465,000 would have changed their mind.
This is just the most obvious of numerous problems. Others include that Howard’s assumption of the effectiveness of political advertising is orders of magnitude outside what is normally seen: a recent academic review of 49 separate studies suggesting political advertising had no effect whatsoever.
To assume one in a hundred people who scroll past an advert change their view is an astonishing assumption which would need considerable evidence to support it. None is offered. Howard also appears to confuse ad impressions with the number of people who see an advert: in practice, given Vote Leave’s targeting, a smaller group will have been likely have been bombarded by multiple adverts.
There are yet more problems with the evidence. In what we have seen so far, little evidence has been made to separate the advertising enabled by Vote Leave’s overspending from its overall advertising spend. There is absolutely no analysis of the Remain campaign’s advertising over this time: Leave was not the only advertiser, so to only look at one half of the campaign activity paints only half of a picture.
Finally, Howard’s logic relies on 650,000 voters changing their mind from Remain to Leave – a huge feat for any advert, which might usually seek to change an undecided voter to Leave, or convince an uncommitted Leave supporter to actually turn out and vote.
In sum, Howard has made an extraordinary claim that £500,000 secured a 1.3 million vote win. It is a given in academia that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. This is certainly not that.
Where this really matters is that it taps into the view of millions of angry activists who already believe they have been cheated, and so are ready to believe any such claim – especially as they are already, rightly, angry at Vote Leave’s conduct in the 2016 referendum.
Telling people what they want to hear only gets you so far, but when the prospect of a re-run of the 2016 referendum – or at least a follow-up on a deal versus cancelling Brexit – is an increasingly real one, it’s a dangerous thing to do.
If the 2016 referendum was stolen, that suggests we don’t need to do anything different in a re-run, and we don’t need to try to change minds. If we can just run this one fairly, we’ve already won. That’s a dangerous mindset.
The 2016 Remain campaign was, for numerous reasons, an out-of-touch disaster: Cameron insisted they fought with a hand behind their back, it relied on people feeling well-off six years into austerity, and had at best lukewarm support from the Labour leader.
If Remain is to win a second referendum, it will need to enthuse its base and win over people who voted differently next time. We Remainers need to stop trying to convince ourselves and others the vote was stolen last time – when so far the evidence just doesn’t say that. Instead, we ought to concentrate on how we’re going to win the next one.