The world has been taken on a wild data rodeo ride surrounding Cambridge Analytica in the past week. We collectively uncovered how the data firm used Facebook to run political campaigns in their clients’ favor across the world, most prominently the Trump campaign, but also in Kenya for Kenyatta. Of course, where there is Trump, there is Brexit. The Brexit campaign was the second largest uproar of populist sentiment in 2016, so it seemed almost inevitable that someone would allege and eventually prove ties between both incidents in terms of tactics. The Brexit vote, in particular, seemed under constant attack of alleged illegitimacy that has since not been proven. This could potentially change now with new information and new whistleblowers surfacing. However, the big question remains: does it stick and did Vote Leave, indeed, overspend their budget to gain an unlawful advantage during the Brexit campaign?
Cambridge Analytica Scandal: Not Really a Surprise
I can’t really say if it was a shock to uncover the business practices of Cambridge Analytica in the past week, or rather a reassurance that data in any shape or form is subject to misuse in the day and age we live in.
Now we have more whistleblowers alleging that the Brexit Vote Leave campaign too used a firm to target up to seven million voters with 1.5 Billion ads. The actual hook here is not that they were affiliated with Cambridge Analytica, but with a company called AggregateIQ (AIQ), a company allegedly set up by Cambridge Analytica, though they deny that of course. Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower originally speaking out about Cambridge Analytica, does confirm involvement setting up the company AIQ in Canada, referred to as SCL Canada. SCL Elections Ltd. is the company Cambridge Analytica originally emerged from, both were founded by CEO Alexander Nix.
Illegal Donation: Ties Between Brexit and AIQ
The person at the center of these new allegations is Shahmir Sanni, a volunteer affiliated with both the Vote Leave campaign and BeLeave, an independent group that campaigned with similar topics approaching the Brexit vote. The allegations here are similar to those surrounding the Trump campaign. Sanni says Vote Leave utilized AIQ, just as the Trump campaign allegedly used Cambridge Analytica, to wage a disinformation war on voters over social media. Taken by itself, this isn’t so much a huge reveal as it may be the last stab at illegitimizing the whole Brexit vote. The use of a third-party firm to run and promote the campaign isn’t irregular and unless there is information that suggests AIQ too has used illegally obtained data sets, there isn’t much to go on here.
So what is the issue then? The real issue lies with allowed campaign spendings and the BeLeave group, which Sanni was involved with at a later point. The major camps for and against Brexit were granted a budget of up to 7 million pounds for their campaigns, with independent support groups (such as BeLeave) able to spend up to 700,000 pounds on the basis of being completely independent while doing so. Shahmir Sanni implies that Vote Leave (which shared an office space with BeLeave) donated close to 700,000 pounds (which was legal and pre-approved by the Electoral Commission) to BeLeave, but directed it to AIQ and allegedly spent it on their own campaign in order to overspend their budget by almost 10%. A move that would be an unfair advantage.
Sanni and two friends (all of whom still identify pro-Brexit) have handed over evidence and their statements to the Electoral Commission to investigate and validate their claim of an unfair advantage and leverage used by the Vote Leave camp.
The Vote Leave Whistleblower may Have his own Agenda
With the initial situation out of the way, we can now dive into why this case is specifically problematic. While the proceedings of companies like Cambridge Analytica or AIQ are certainly unethical, unless we can pin down specific illegal activities we are left with a company hired to run targeted ads on Facebook. While Cambridge Analytica certainly seems to have their foot in the door of illegal activities, we cannot say that this also applies to AIQ for certain, however they may be affiliated. So, in the end, the only real accusation that sticks right now is the alleged overspending by donation, which would be illegal.
But here is where it gets a bit shady as well. Shahmir Sanni specifically names Theresa May’s Political Secretary Stephen Parkinson, who was part of the Vote Leave campaign, as someone that highly influenced him as part of BeLeave, indicating that there was no sovereignty to begin with. He also implied that he and BeLeave founder Darren Grimes were not involved in any decision regarding how to spend the money they received. Parkinson answered to the allegations saying that he and Shahmir Sanni were dating over the course of the campaign and that the lines of private and professional life might have become “blurred” for Sanni.
Sanni has since been appalled for being outed in that way, but then again, that must have been something he should have anticipated based on the serious allegations he makes, as it has to be an integral part to the case. In fact, several figures associated with the Vote Leave campaign came out advocating that nothing illegal has been going on and that Shahmir Sanni was in over his head.
On top of that, Shahmir Sanni had issued a statement in the past, reading that BeLeave was never influenced by Vote Leave. That means he did give a false account at some point, making the whole case more difficult to assess.
A Last-Ditch Effort?
While I am certainly not a fan of the outcome of the Brexit vote, this whole new “scandal” seems rather orchestrated to me, riding in on the wave of controversy surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Was the Brexit coined by fake news, lies, and targeted advertising? Sure it was. This campaign tactic was what partly decided the outcome. However, we only have indications rather than hard cold facts pushing this story from a locally mishandled donation to a large-scale data breach funded by illegal campaign funds.
The alleged overspending is a claim to make and a claim that has to be investigated. However, it does come from a person romantically and emotionally involved in a key figure surrounding a donation that, so far, has been investigated two times without any further concerns. Unless Shahmir Sanni delivers new groundbreaking evidence, there is only so much we can expect coming out of a third investigation.
British Media was fast to blow the story up overnight, and that is precisely the point I want to make. This story isn’t as big as it’s pushed. It leverages attention from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and cleverly uses it to push a story about an already examined donation out of proportion. Again, while I am not a fan of the Brexit outcome (not at all) this seems like a last-ditch attempt to invalidate the Brexit vote by those ideologically opposing the move.
Report on the Facts you Have, not Those you Imply
We are talking about a story with a possibly compromised whistleblower at its center. A person that the news agencies that push this story would normally doubt, simply because of his emotional attachment and the fact that it revolves around a donation that we have known about for over 18 months now.
If the story wouldn’t have been in line with the opinions of those news outlets, we probably wouldn’t have heard about it in the way we do now. I don’t want to invalidate Sanni’s claims or imply that they cannot be true – they very well may be – but the issue I have is the reporting of what should be a rather small and speculative news story unless it is proven to be true. Until that happens, I’m not buying into any of this and neither should you. There are certain inconsistencies that may, in the end, prove that Vote Leave was indeed trying to gain an unfair advantage, and if so, significant action has to be taken. On a separate note, the involvement of AIQ and Cambridge Analytica have to be equally assessed, but there are so many unknown variables, there is no way we can spin a cohesive conspiracy theory out of this yet.
It is true, we are under attack from internet marketing companies and we have to seriously assess what we do with our data on all levels of conduct. However, this case, in particular, seems somewhat removed from the issue that is used to push it to really make it relevant as part of the discussion. Cambridge Analytica’s offices have been raided by police, which may uncover additional information to solidify the claim of affiliation between them and AIQ, but until then there isn’t much we have to go on or to believe without making wild assumptions that are unsuitable for the type of discussion we are aiming for.
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