Leave EU Facebook Overspending and the Brexit Result

Last week an Independent article claimed

Brexit: Leave ‘very likely’ won EU referendum due to illegal overspending, says Oxford professor’s evidence to High Court

The article began

It is “very likely” that the UK voted for Brexit because of illegal overspending by the Vote Leave campaign, according to an Oxford professor’s evidence to the High Court.

Professor Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, at the university, said: “My professional opinion is that it is very likely that the excessive spending by Vote Leave altered the result of the referendum.
“A swing of just 634,751 people would have been enough to secure victory for Remain.
“Given the scale of the online advertising achieved with the excess spending, combined with conservative estimates on voter modelling, I estimate that Vote Leave converted the voting intentions of over 800,000 voters in the final days of the campaign as a result of the overspend.”

Is the estimate conservative? Anthony Masters, a Statistical Ambassador for the Royal Statistical Society, questions the statistics in the Spectator. The 800,000 was based upon 80 million Facebook users, 10% of whom clicked in on the advert. Of those clicking, 10% changed their minds.

Masters gave some amplification on in a follow-up blog post Did Vote Leave’s overspending cause their victory?
The reasons for doubting the “conservative” figures are multiple, including
– There were not 80 million voters on Facebook. Of the 46 million voters, at most only 25.6 million had Facebook accounts.
– Click through rate for ads is far less than 10%. In UK in 2016 it was estimated at 0.5%.
– Advertising is not the source of campaigning. It is not even viewed as the primary source, merely bolstering other parts of a campaign through awareness and presence.
– 10% of those reading the advert changing their minds is unlikely. Evidence is far less.
Anthony Masters concludes the Spectator piece by using Professor Howard’s own published criteria.

Prof Howard’s 2005 book, New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen, also argues that we should apply a different calculation to that submitted to the High Court. His book says to apply a one per cent click-through rate, where 10 per cent “believe” what they read; and of that 10 per cent act. This ‘belief’ stage appears to have been omitted in the High Court submission’s final calculation. Using these rates, this calculation turns 25.6 million people into 2,560 changed votes – hardly enough to have swung the referendum for Leave, given that their margin of victory was over a million votes. If we share a belief in accuracy, this erroneous claim should have limited reach.

There is further evidence that runs contrary to Prof Howard’s claims.

1. The Polls
To evaluate the statistical evidence for a conjecture – particularly for a contentious and opinionated issue like Brexit – I believe one needs to look at the wider context. If a Facebook campaign swung the Referendum campaign in the final few days from Remain to Leave, then there should be evidence of a swing in the polls. In the blog article Masters raised three graphs based on the polls that contradict this swing. It would appear that through the four weeks of the official campaign the Remain / Leave split was fairly consistent on a poll of polls basis. From analysis by pollster YouGov, the Leave share peaked on 13th June – ten days before the referendum. The third graphic, from a statistical analysis from the LSE, provides the clearest evidence.

The peak was just three days before the murder of MP Jo Cox by Tommy Mair. Jo Cox was a Remain campaigner, whilst it was reported that the attacker shouted slogans like “Britain First”. The shift in the polls could have been influenced by the glowing tributes to the murdered MP, alongside the speculation of the vile motives a clear Vote Leave supporter. That Jo Cox’s murder should have had no influence, especially when campaigning was suspended as a result of the murder, does not seem credible.

On Twitter, Anthony Masters also pointed to a question in Lord Ashcroft’s poll carried out on the day of the referendum – How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why to a graphic that looked at when people had decided which way to vote. At most 16% of leave voters made up their minds in the last few days, slightly less than the 18% who voted remain.

The same poll looked at the demographics.


This clearly shows the split by age group. The younger a voter the more likely they were to vote Remain. It is not a minor relationship. 73% of 18-24s voted for Remain, whilst 40% of the 65% voted. Similarly, the younger a person the greater the time spent on social media such as Facebook.

2. Voting by area
Another, aspect is to look at the geographical analysis. Using Chris Hanretty’s estimates of the EU referendum results by constituency, I concluded that the most pro-Remain areas were the centre of major cities and in the University Cities of Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol. This is where the most vocal people reside.

The most pro-Leave areas were in the minor towns such are Stoke and Boston. Greater Manchester provided a good snapshot of the National picture. Of the 22 constituencies is estimated that just 3 has a majority remain vote. The central to the City of Manchester. The constituencies on the periphery voted to Leave, the strongest being on the east of Manchester and a few miles from the city centre. Manchester Central contains many of the modern flats and converted warehouses of Manchester. Manchester Withington has a preponderance of media types working at Media City for the BBC and ITV, along with education sector professionals.

These are the people who are not just geographically marginalised, but often feel politically marginalised as well.

Concluding comments

Overall, Professor Howard’s claims of late Facebook posts swinging the Referendum result are not credible at all. They are about as crackpot (and contradict) as the claims of Russian influence on the Brexit result.
To really understand the issues one needs to look at the data from different perspectives and the wider context. But the more dogmatic Remainers appear to be using their power and influence – backed by scanty assertions -to thrust their dogmas onto everyone else. This is undermining academic credibility, and the democratic process. By using the courts to pursue their dogmas, it also threatens to pull the legal system into the fray, potentially undermining the respect for the rule of law for those on the periphery.

Kevin Marshall

Russian Brexit Influence on Social Media a Loser’s Conspiracy Theory

A few weeks ago there emerged a new conspiracy theory about the Russians have funded a massive pro-Leave social media campaign. I part-prepared a post backing one at Cliscep emphasizing how ridiculous the so-called evidence was for these claims. Last week Facebook announced that the Russian Internet Research Agency had spent a grand total of $1 (73p) on six adverts and Twitter revealed that a total of $1,031.99 had been spent on six referendum-related ads during the campaign.

There are two parts to this post.

  1. Russian Social Media impact on Brexit in context of the wider campaign
  2. The circumstantial evidence that social media was likely to have had a bigger influence on the Remain vote than on the Leave vote.

 

Russian Social Media impact on Brexit in context of the wider campaign

The evidence for the success of the Russians on Twitter in influencing the Brexit result needs to be viewed in the wider context.

First is to check the data in support of the argument. As Geoff Chambers pointed out @ 

Second is to look at the other tweets. The bot accounts were not the only source of tweets supporting Brexit. Further, there were quite a lot of tweets in the support of Remain.

Third, is that there are other sources of news/information/propaganda in support of both sides in the campaign. What about the official campaigns? Or the support of international political leaders or International Organisations (e.g. IMF, EU) or businesses? Would a majority of the British public really prefer the opinions of a Twitter Bot over those of President Barak Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister David Cameron, the British Treasury, celebrities like St. Bob Geldof, the majority of British MP’s or most British businesses?

 

Which side of the EU Referendum did social media influence more?

It is very difficult to tell the actual influence of social media on the vote, but there is strong circumstantial evidence that the influence will have been more towards increasing Remain vote rather than the Leave.

First is from the age spread of the vote. I believe that Twitter and other social media use is inversely related to age. Therefore, one would expect that if there had been undue influence, the young would have voted more for Brexit than the older folks. Lord Ashcroft’s Polls surveyed 12,369 on EU Referendum day and published on 24th June under “How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why“.  73% of 18-24 year olds and 62% of 25-34 year olds voted to remain in the EU. It would suggest that the Leave campaign as a whole failed to reach the Twitterati.

From How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why, is the following split by age band.

Second I believe that due to its transitory nature, social media is more likely to have had a bigger influence on in those who made up their mind at the last moment, than those who voted as a reflection of long-held beliefs. But whilst 25% of Remain voters decided in the last week, just 22% of Leave voters did so. So either social media made a bigger influence on the Remain vote, or it had no significant difference at all.

Third evidence that runs counter to a Russian influence through Twitter on the Brexit vote is in the geographical distribution of the Brexit vote. In England and Wales the constituencies that voted most strongly Remain were in inner cities, particularly London, Manchester and Liverpool. The strongest pro-Leave votes were widely spread. But the many of the extreme pro-Leave constituencies in the traditional Labour heartlands in the North of England and South Wales.

I live in Manchester. This encapsulates the divide. The City of Manchester has some of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the country, whilst much of the rest of Greater Manchester was pro-Leave. But as the City of Manchester folks has the most vocal people in the region, along with the most vocal twitterati, it would seem that Greater Manchester is full of Remainers. The estimated vote by constituency gives a quite different picture.

The Leave constituencies are on the margins of Greater Manchester and form the big majority. But the most vocal opinion formers are in central Manchester. Similarly, the most vocal activists nationally are those in London, along with the University Cities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Bristol.  Brighton and Manchester are also other centers of activism.

Following the EU Referendum, there was a major online petition to Parliament that wanted to nullify the result by having a 2nd Referendum on different rules.The petition was dominated by those in London and other centers of activism. This was a petition map extract of 00.30 26/06/16.

These same centres of activism dominated the “Prevent Donald Trump making a State Visit” petition at the beginning of this year. Compare the spread of petition numbers by political constituency with the rival petition supporting the state visit. The pale orange areas have proportionately very low numbers of signatories. The red areas have proportionately high numbers. The “Prevents” are mostly in the cities, the “Supports” have a much more even geographical spread.

 

Concluding Comments

The claims that Russian-sponsored social media presence helping tip the scales towards a Brexit vote does not stand up to scrutiny. The actual evidence of spending on social media is negligible; the other forms of media and major leaders were predominantly pro-Remain; the demographics of social media users are very much in line with Remain voters; and online activists are dominated by City-based virulently pro-EU types. The continued Russian conspiracy theory is predominantly from a bunch losers who cannot recognize that most people have different views from their own.

Kevin Marshall