Richard North, 28/03/2018  

For the last few weeks, I've been slowly working my way through a book on the Nuremberg trials – the story of the historic tribunal which judged the Nazis after the Second World War.

With very little in the way of a defence, the Nazi war criminals in the main sought to rely on episodes of brutality perpetrated by the Allies, a classic example of what would now be called "whataboutery". In those more erudite times, however, the term applied was the Latin phrase, tu quoque, meaning "you as well".

As a defence in law, this is regarded as very weak and, in the Nuremberg tribunal, it was ruled out altogether. The Nazis were not allowed to enter evidence to support tu quoque claims.

When it comes to the current furore about the behaviour of Vote Leave, and its misuse of funds, however, we are seeing once again a great deal of "whataboutery" or, more elegantly, tu quoque claims. And while the situations are not in the least comparable, there is no doubt that tu quoque is no more valid now than it has ever been.

That the "remain" side broke some rules – or took them close to breaking point – is really neither here nor there. It does not in the least excuse Vote Leave, which most probably did break the rules, using BeLeave to launder funds to avoid going over the £7 million spending limit.

Beyond that, though, it is a very long stretch to assert, as did "whistleblower" Christopher Wylie that the EU referendum was "won through fraud".

Not least, is a huge arrogance on the part of Wylie that the activities of Cambridge Analytica and its "big data" won the election. That is the necessary construction of his evidence, which is all the more extravagant for the fact that the entire referendum must have turned on the last tranche of cash.

That effectively says that the sums laundered through BeLeave, Veterans for Britain, and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist party were sufficient to turn the tide. These were the supposedly fraudulent funds, all – apparently spontaneously and independently – directed to the little-known firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ) to help target voters online.

Wylie thus argues that, without that funding, there could have been a different outcome to the referendum. "If you cheat on an exam you get a fail, if you cheat [in] the Olympics you lose your medal, you should not win by cheating", he then declared.

However, all this supposes that "big data" is an effective tool for influencing voting behaviour, something which is very far from proven. There is no doubt that behavioural data helps target advertising, but in disputed electoral contests, it is highly questionable as to whether the advertising itself will change people's voting intentions.

Wylie claims that Aggregate IQ (AIQ) had a "significant" conversion rate of between five and seven percent – and he had been told that it had targeted five to seven million people for the referendum.

The term "conversion rate" in this sense is misleading. In terms of visitors to commercial websites, it can mean the proportion of people visiting the site who actually but something (typically about three percent). But in terms of online targeting in political campaigns, it can apply merely to converting "views" of a particular medium (Facebook or Twitter) which generate a measurable activity such as clicking through to a targeted political website.

Quite obviously, as long as there is a secret vote, conversion of responses into votes cannot be measured accurately – or at all, given that voters are exposed to multiple influences over election campaigns, while behavioural targeting can also prove a two-edged sword .

However, assuming that Aggregate IQ had managed to contact seven million voters, that every single one of those had been determined to vote "remain" and would have done so but for the interventions, and they all religiously went out on the day to vote "leave", that still would not have been enough to carry the day.

As to online activity, through Leave Alliance, we had built up a network of twenty bloggers, including which, over the period, could have served as many as a million visitors. We had seeded hundreds of online forums with referendum material and there was considerable peer-to-peer interaction on Facebook and other social media – and huge traffic through e-mail groups.

For Aggregate IQ to have been the referendum winner, none of these activities would have been in the least bit influential, in common with all the print and broadcast media output, and all the other campaigning activities – right down to the notorious red bus. These would have had no effect at all.

As it is, the reality is that online campaigning is just another tool – one of uncertain value. Even though the way it is sold, you would think that no election had ever been won against the odds, before "big data" had been invented, there is not the slightest evidence that it was a decisive factor in the EU referendum.

Wylie, nevertheless, implies that because one of the players in the race cheated, the race result should be overturned. But that only works if you subscribe to that London-centric arrogance that it was Vote Leave wot dun it, and none of the other campaigns had the slightest effect.

Just as an aside, one of the crucial factors – to my certain memory – was that the London and South East "remain" vote was lower than expected, the result in part of complacency, when so many thought that "remain" was heading for an easy win.

In short, there were multiple reasons why "leave" won. Another of those was that the "remain" Stronger In mounted such a poor campaign. At times, with Vote Leave seemingly doing its best to throw the result, we thought that both sides were trying to lose.

Over the last few days, though, it is indicative how the inherently Europhile media and political parties have been willing to talk up "big data", this seemingly presenting their last best chance of getting the Article 50 notification revoked or another referendum – which they believe they would win.

Thus, we are not even having a proper debate about the role of "big data" in elections. Experiences of its use is being subsumed into the general post-Brexit debate, which is now more about getting the decision reversed than it is charting a way forward in a post-Brexit world.

It is intriguing to see, therefore, a clear split between "leave" and "remain" inclined media, with papers like the Guardian bigging-up pink-haired Wylie Coyote's evidence, while the Telegraph "does a roadrunner" and zooms out of sight.

That said, there is no sympathy here for Vote Leave, and if the directors and managers get their collars felt, there will be no tears shed on this blog. But to turn its shady operations and dubious practices into a reason for overturning the referendum is simply not a credible response.

Basically, if the media (some of it) want to pursue this line, they risk turning Brexit into a farce, taking their eye off the ball even more than they have already done. But, for those who want to argue the toss, we need a lot more than just tu quoque. Can we instead just agree to bang up Cummings and Elliott forever and get back to work?

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