Vote Leave’s letter to Fake News Chair Damian Collins

Vote Leave’s letter to Fake News Chair Damian Collins

Dear Mr Collins

Vote Leave supports and welcomes your Committee’s desire to banish misinformation, alias “fake news”, from our public life and media. In seeking to do so the Committee no doubt sets the highest standards of truthful and balanced reporting and conclusions for itself. We also understand that the regulatory framework and conduct of the EU referendum has created issues which your Committee must consider in this context.

It is nonetheless disappointing to read the following statement from paragraph 150 of your Interim Report on Disinformation and Fake News: “..evidence to the Committee from Facebook showed that BeLeave used AggregateIQ datasets covering the ‘exact same audiences’” (as Vote Leave). This statement falls into three of your Committee’s own definitions of ‘fake news’: manipulated content, misleading content and false context of connection, as can be definitively proved from evidence you provide with your own Report:

The Facebook letter of 14th March 2018 to which this refers and contained in your evidence actually said “…the investigations to date have found that there was one Data File Custom Audience, one Website Custom Audience and one Lookalike Audience that were used to select targeting criteria for potential ads during this period by both the Vote Leave and BeLeave pages. They were the exact same audiences, ie one was not a subset of the other.” Crucially the letter goes on to say “BeLeave created 16 ads with targeting criteria using one or more of these three common audiences, all of which appears to have taken place on 15th June 2016. It appears that BeLeave did not then choose to run any of these ads” (our underlining).

On 16th May 2018 your Committee then quizzed Mr Jeff Silvester of AggregateIQ (“AIQ”) about the contents of this letter (which he had not seen at that point). He was in particular not aware of the background to the Facebook account but his lawyers wrote to your Committee on the same day (the letter is again contained in your own evidence) saying that he had subsequently reviewed the circumstances of the targeting criteria selection and produced evidence to show that in the entirely internal AIQ preparation for taking on the BeLeave account on 15th June 2016, and totally unknown to either Vote Leave or BeLeave, a junior AIQ executive had used the same targeting criteria for BeLeave as that for Vote Leave. This had been quickly corrected, again internally, and BeLeave ads began to be shown “without reference to the Vote Leave audiences” on 17th June 2016. The letter states “Mr Silvester had confirmed that none of the information regarding any of those Vote Leave audiences were ever shared with anyone from BeLeave and no adds were ever run for BeLeave using those audiences.  These ad accounts were only ever accessed by AggregateIQ in the circumstances noted above.” (our underlining)

The truth is simple and was clearly available to you from your own records: BeLeave and Vote Leave did NOT use the same audience datasets for their campaigns.

However the ramifications of this spreading of a false allegation, clearly fake news according to your own definitions, have been enormous. Over and again, from the BBC through to major newspapers through to swarms on Twitter, the allegation has been that BeLeave and Vote Leave “used” the same data. The Information Commissioner’s Office even managed to distort this matter further, in using the Facebook letter to state that BeLeave did not send out any advertisements at all. 

An additional piece of misinformation created by your Committee was its description of BeLeave’s ads as those of “BeLeave/BrexitCentral”, when BrexitCentral simply did not exist in any form till months after the referendum.  Your Committee has also published two BeLeave ads as having been put out by Vote Leave during the campaign, which was again false and very damaging; these ads were not in the confirmatory set Facebook sent to us at Vote Leave. All this in turn has spawned and will continue to spawn even further nonsensical conspiracy theories, unless you immediately retract these further textbook examples of fake news.

Since it comes at the end of the same paragraph 150 of your Report, your mistaken audience dataset assertion has clearly led your Committee to suggest that the “precise nature of the coordination between the different organisations and campaigns should be investigated further”.  That conclusion would be more becoming to a fair and balanced Report and less partisan if your Committee had at the same time investigated the advertising agencies, audiences used by the various Remain campaigns and how the latter were coordinated.

The logic of your concern about the common use of AIQ as a Leave advertising agency means that you should be equally concerned about the common use of at least three advertising agencies among the Remain campaigns – a fact you must surely know from the expertise you have displayed on these matters. You could have asked those agencies whether they shared “Audience Files” or used them to generate “Lookalike Audiences”. Similarly you could have looked at the advertisements and videos used by the Remain side.  You could have asked Facebook to give you those advertisements and asked Facebook what the audiences were for each of them.  You could have invited those Remain campaigns, particularly the four campaigns created less than one month before the end of the referendum period, to explain how they coordinated their activities, whether their daily meetings were minuted, and to demonstrate that they did not collude.

Your failure to do any of this to date exposes your Committee to allegations of partisanship and bias. It is all the more curious when you yourself tweeted at 19:07 on July 26th that “it should never have been possible for these audiences files to be shared”. The only possible meaning of this tweet must be that you are saying that in a referendum, no campaigns, if they are on the same side of the question, should be allowed to use the same advertising agency. Only then could your desire, that it would “never be possible” for audience files to be shared, be possible. This novel view is not shared even by the Electoral Commission, who entirely cleared Veterans for Britain in this regard, even though the Electoral Commission’s latest investigation into Vote Leave was allegedly initiated because of what they claimed was new news to them – that Veterans for Britain had, just like Vote Leave and BeLeave, used AIQ as an advertising agency

We therefore call on you immediately, publicly and explicitly to withdraw the untruthful and misleading statement in para 150 of your Report that “BeLeave used AggregateIQ datasets covering the “exact same audiences” as well as the false references to BrexitCentral, and to remove the BeLeave ads from your published Vote Leave set. You will also have the opportunity in your Final Report to reiterate the evidence based facts we set out above and to include a completely fair, even handed, thorough and detailed investigation of the Remain campaigns, their advertising agencies and particularly their coordination over the last month of the Referendum campaign. That could be the only fair and unbiased justification for your pressing on with your suggestion that the “precise nature of the coordination between the different organisations and campaigns should be investigated further”.

In summary, the above points make it clear why Vote Leave has reason to view the activities of your Committee with great concern.  Your Committee’s interim findings have led to a swathe of false news, conspiracy theories, and further bias, all of which inappropriately point toward a conclusion, desired by many, that the referendum was inappropriately run.  We are sure that you would not want your Committee inadvertently to be the source of these many wrong impressions, which inevitably – and with considerable irony – undermine a very important Report which is dedicated to eliminating such regrettable misinformation.

Yours sincerely

Daniel Hodson

Director Vote Leave