On referendum #24L: Fake news from the fake news committee, Carole, and a rematch against the public

[Update. More fake news — claims we kept advertising during the ‘pause’ after Jo Cox’s murder. Wrong. The spreadsheet data from Facebook reflects when the ads were created, not when they were shown. AIQ was putting stuff into the system during the pause, not running ads. Again this false meme is already around the world. Alistair 45 minutes Campbell is ranting about moral cesspits. But yet again it’s fake news.

Incidentally, I opposed any pause at the time. I think the right way to deal with terrorism is to carry on with normal life, like Britain used to when it was a more serious country. (I hated the way Cameron would tweet in response to ISIS, giving them just what they want. I hated the way Cameron and Blair read out in Parliament names of people killed which had the same effect. I thought it also reflected SW1’s basic ignorance about how to deal with information operations against terrorist groups in many ways more sophisticated about communication than traditional institutions — eg. Hezbollah often does TV better than the Tory Party.) But I was outvoted by MPs who downed tools and headed back to London, giving Osborne/Dre the chance to use the news as they wished. But they botched it — in a classic case study of people fooling themselves, they thought that the country reflected the mood of Inner London. They started tweeting broken hearts and ‘we love our MP’ at each other. They therefore blew their last chance to recover from strategic misjudgements. Those who would run Remain in a second referendum remain disconnected from reality and on current form would botch a second referendum which anyway would be held in circumstances much more favourable to Leave on almost every dimension.

Also NB. Carole Cadwalladr has commented below and I will answer shortly.

Also NB. contra some reports, I was not sent the report by the Committee. I’m told they did send it to ‘witnesses’ but that did not include me. I was sent it by someone in Parliament fed up with Collins’ dishonesty and blatant use of Carole’s conspiracies for his own end of overturning the referendum result.]

A few thoughts on the last 24 hours of conspiracy theories plus a copy of the DCMS Select Committee report on fake news. They gave it to Carole for Sunday, obviously, but someone appalled at their dishonesty leaked it to me so I publish it below. It is, in keeping with their general behaviour, itself fake news.

Most of SW1 has suffered a psychological and operational implosion because of the referendum. 

Many MPs, hacks and chalatan-pundits on both sides have responded to the result by retreating to psychologically appealing parallel worlds rather than face reality — ‘the frogs before the storm’ prefer the comforting Oblonsky mental fug of groupthink.

A subset of the ERG, for example, welcomed the December agreement on the Irish backstop that actually spelled doom for their central ideas about how the negotiations were being conducted. Bernard Jenkin was so confident that he and Cash understood what was happening he cheerfully wrote that he had not needed to read it before welcoming it. This is the same group now ranting about Chequers — which was programmed by the December agreement, as are the imminent further surrenders in the autumn on Free Movement and everything else! This is the same group that tells everyone that people like me who say that serious preparations are needed to leave the EU are ‘like those peddling the Millennium Bug’. Their ideas on preparations are as accurate as their ideas on the December agreement were and of course in order to avoid facing their tragi-comic blunders of judgement over two years they are constructing parallel worlds for their minds to live in.

Hardcore Remainers are similar. They want a second referendum and this requires de-legitimising the first. They therefore hysterically spread false memes while shouting ‘liars’ at Leavers. Cash and Carole have a lot in common.

The last 24 hours has illustrated again how the entire story about Vote Leave / data / digital communications has become a great case study in contemporary politics: ubiquitous accusations of lying by people who either lie or are entirely reckless about the truth, almost nobody figuring out reality before babbling all over social media setting off cascades of false information, MPs clueless about basic legal issues also spreading false memes and so on. 

A few simple points about the new wave of fake news.

Carole has spread countless factual errors for over a year. When I explained how we had followed best practice to safeguard personal data by quickly deleting the VL electoral database containing tens of millions after the referendum, she turned this professional and ethical behaviour (not copied by the Remain campaign which kept it all) into accusations of me ‘destroying evidence’ and perverting the course of justice. This sort of thing has happened repeatedly.

Over the past 24 hours she has constructed new fake memes now spreading across the world. 

1. The latest astonishing ‘crimes’ according to Carole et al is that the VL ads did not have ‘imprints’, were ‘dark’, unethical and illegal. She has tweeted dozens of times along the lines of:

‘[Vote Leave] DELIBERATELY BROKE THE LAW by leaving off who paid for it… No wonder Dominic Cummings wouldn’t come to parliament. No wonder @facebook didn’t want to release this shit. This is truly toxic, dark, absolutely undemocratic shit at the heart of the biggest election we’ll ever see… Look at this stuff. Fake fake fake news. It’s not an ad. It’s not labelled as an ad. It doesn’t say who placed it or who paid for it or who it was targeted at or way. This is the fakiest of fake news. And until today we had no idea about any of this’. 

This is totally wrong and reflects deep misunderstandings. 

a. The campaigns were NOT legally required to carry imprints in the same way as printed  material. Carole is factually wrong about the law again. 

b. This is actually irrelevant because the VL ads that Carole claims were ‘dark’ and criminal because ‘no imprint’ actually were clearly labelled as VL. The images she is pulling from the FB data dump are raw images — they are not images of the actual ads themselves. The images sat within a ‘frame’ which everyone seeing them on Facebook would see. This included ‘Vote Leave’ and other text and also had a weblink. 

E.g Carole posts this as new evidence that I should be locked up — an image ‘without imprint’:

Screenshot 2018-07-27 11.55.21

 

(By the way, you CANNOT trust David ‘pave the road from Ankara’ Cameron on Turkey! Don’t believe me? Watch this!)

 

This is how ads actually appear on Facebook:

Screenshot 2018-07-27 11.57.39

Thousands of people are now spreading Carole’s memes across the internet. They are shocked and appalled — surely the criminal Cummings will finally be jailed etc. 

2. Amid the data dump of Facebook ads, there are claims that VL promoted BeLeave ads. This is a misunderstanding and the BBC has corrected their story. These ads appear in the 0-999 impressions box in the FB spreadsheet because the actual number of impressions was ZERO. They never ran. This issue is related to AIQ’s recent explanation of an error they made with loading audiences for BeLeave. It is detailed and technical and I won’t go into it here but in a nutshell: VL did not promote BeLeave ads. Remain, however, did do this but of course nobody cares. (It is more forgivable to make mistakes about this as it is a tricky niche issue.)

3. Another criminal conspiracy Carole is spreading across the internet concerns Brexit Central. This was set up after the vote (not by me). Grimes went to work on it and merged the BeLeave page into the BC page hence FB labels them confusingly as ‘Brexit Central/BeLeave’. Without asking anybody what it means, Carole and others have screamed ‘aha this organisation secretly existed before the vote and was illegally advertising, LOCK UP CRIMINAL CUMMINGS.’ Wrong again.

There are many other false memes spreading but there’s no point going into all of them.

Also NB. I asked months ago for Facebook to publish everything in the interests of transparency. Will Will Straw do as I did and ask Facebook to publish EVERYTHING they have about the Remain campaign? I’m not holding my breath.

HERE IS THE DCMS REPORT ON FAKE NEWS. IT IS… FAKE NEWS

The report knowingly/incompetently makes false claims regarding Vote Leave, AIQ and BeLeave. Despite nobody ever producing any evidence for Carole’s original loony conspiracy theory that I was secretly coordinating with Arron Banks, Bannon and Robert Mercer, the Committee also asks for yet another inquiry of this and of course they want the police involved to give credibility to their fantasies and legitimise their campaign for a second referendum. The MPs know Facebook has explained to them that VL COULD NOT HAVE used the notorious Facebook data acquired by Cambridge Analytica but they try to provide credibility to these conspiracy theories.

Further, these MPs have littered their report with errors and misunderstandings about the legal framework for elections, thus spreading further confusion. They haven’t even bothered to understand GDPR, which they mis-explain badly. Collins et al have shown no interest in the truth. Now MPs publish a document after months of supposed work that makes basic errors about electoral law which will debase public debate even further.

NB. I HAVE SUGGESTED TO MPS THAT I COME AND GIVE EVIDENCE AND WE ALL OPERATE UNDER OATH. NOT A SQUEAK FROM THEM.

JUST LIKE THE ELECTORAL COMMISSION REFUSED TO SPEAK TO ME OR ANYBODY ELSE FROM VOTE LEAVE OVER TWO YEARS AND THREE INQUIRIES.

WHY?

AS JACK NICHOLSON SAYS, ‘THE TRUTH? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!’

If the MPs really want to get to the bottom of this, all they have to do is promise to tell the truth. Come on guys, step up to the plate…

If SW1 put 1% of the effort it’s put into spreading fake news about Vote Leave into FIXING THE LAWS as I suggested BEFORE Carole’s conspiracy theories got traction, we would be in a much healthier state. But SW1 is rotten…

Hugo Rifkind says ‘Whatever you think of the referendum result, we can’t ever let there be a campaign like this again.’

Tough luck Hugo — if your side gets its way and there is another referendum, Vote Leave 2 will be much much worse for your side than VL1 was. VL2 will win by more than VL1 and the logical corollary will be to morph into a new party and fight the next election ‘to implement the promises we made in the referendum because the MPs have proved they can’t be trusted’. At a minimum VL2 will win the referendum and destroy the strategic foundations of both main parties. The Tories will be destroyed and maybe Labour too. The rotten civil service system will be replaced and the performance of government will be transformed for the better. Investment in basic science research will flow. Long-term funding for the NHS guaranteed by law. MORE high skilled immigrants, FEWER low-skilled. An agenda that could not be described as Left or Right. The public will love it. Insiders will hate it but they will have slit their own throats and have no moral credibility. Few careers will survive.

Is there enough self-awareness and self-interest among MPs to realise the consequences? Hard to say. I’m more critical of SW1 than almost any Insider and even I have been surprised by the rottenness. It will be no surprise if they slit their own throats.

So far the MPs have botched things on an epic scale but it’s hard to break into the Westminster system — they rig the rules to stop competition. Vote Leave 1 needed Cameron’s help to hack the system. If you guys want to run with Adonis and create another wave, be careful what you wish for. ‘Unda fert nec regitur’ and VL2 will ride that wave right at — and through — the gates of Parliament.

Ps. One hack who does actually pay attention to facts on this subject is Jim Waterson. It can’t be comfortable pointing out facts at the Guardian on this story so double credit to him.

[Pps. Sorry for mis-remembering Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson to those who messaged.]

On the referendum #24J: Collins, grandstanding, empty threats & the plan for a rematch against the public

The DCMS Select Committee has just sent me the following letter.

Screenshot 2018-05-24 13.51.14

Here is my official reply…

Dear Damian et al

As you know I agreed to give evidence.

In April, I told you I could not do the date you suggested. On 12 April I suggested July.

You ignored this for weeks.

On 3 May you asked again if I could do a date I’d already said I could not do.

I replied that, as I’d told you weeks earlier, I could not.

You then threatened me with a Summons.

On 10 May, Collins wrote:

Dear Dominic

We have offered you different dates, and as I said previously we are not prepared to wait until July for you to give evidence to the committee. We have also discussed this with the Electoral Commission who have no objection to you giving evidence to us.

We are asking you to give evidence to the committee following evidence we have received that relates to the work of Vote Leave. We have extended a similar invitiation to Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, to respond to evidence we have received about Leave.EU, and they have both agreed to attend.

The committee will be sending you a summons to appear and I hope that you are able to respond positively to this

best wishes

I replied:

The EC has NOT told me this.

Sending a summons is the behaviour of people looking for PR, not people looking to get to the bottom of this affair.

A summons will have ZERO positive impact on my decision and is likely only to mean I withdraw my offer of friendly cooperation, given you will have shown greater interest in grandstanding than truth-seeking, which is one of the curses of the committee system.

I hope you reconsider and put truth-seeking first.

Best wishes

d

You replied starting this charade.

 

You talk of ‘contempt of Parliament’.

You seem unaware that most of the country feels contempt for Parliament and this contempt is growing.

  • You have failed miserably over Brexit. You have not even bothered to educate yourselves on the basics of ‘what the Single Market is’, as Ivan Rogers explained in detail yesterday.
  • We want £350 million a week for the NHS plus long-term consistent funding and learning from the best systems in the world and instead you funnel our money to appalling companies like the parasites that dominate defence procurement.
  • We want action on unskilled immigration and you give us bullshit promises of ‘tens of thousands’ that you don’t even believe yourselves plus, literally, free movement for murderers, then you wonder why we don’t trust you.
  • We want a country MORE friendly to scientists and people from around the world with skills to offer and you give us ignorant persecution that is making our country a bad joke.
  • We want you to take money away from corporate looters (who fund your party) and fund science research so we can ‘create the future’, and you give us Carillion and joke aircraft carriers.
  • We want to open government to the best people and ideas in the world and you keep it a closed dysfunctional shambles that steals our money and keeps power locked within two useless parties and a closed bureaucracy that excludes ~100% of the most talented people. We want real expertise and you don’t even think about what that means.
  • You spend your time on this sort of grandstanding instead of serving millions of people less fortunate than you and who rely on you.

If you had wanted my evidence you would have cooperated over dates.

You actually wanted to issue threats, watch me give in, then get higher audiences for your grandstanding.

I’m calling your bluff. Your threats are as empty as those from May/Hammond/DD to the EU. Say what you like, I will not come to your committee regardless of how many letters you send or whether you send characters in fancy dress to hand me papers.

If another Committee behaves reasonably and I can give evidence without compromising various legal actions then I will consider it. Once these legal actions have finished, presumably this year, it will be easy to arrange if someone else wants to do it.

Further, I’m told many of your committee support the Adonis/Mandelson/Campbell/Grieve/Goldman Sachs/FT/CBI campaign for a rematch against the country.

Do you know what Vote Leave 2 would feel like for the MPs who vote for that (and donors who fund it)?

It would feel like having Lawrence Taylor chasing you and smashing you into the ground over and over and over again.

Vote Leave 2 would not involve me — nobody will make that mistake again — but I know what it would feel like for every MP who votes for a rematch against the public.

Lawrence Taylor: relentless 

So far you guys have botched things on an epic scale but it’s hard to break into the Westminster system — you rig the rules to stop competition. Vote Leave 1 needed Cameron’s help to hack the system. If you guys want to run with Adonis and create another wave, be careful what you wish for. ‘Unda fert nec regitur’ and VL2 would ride that wave right at the gates of Westminster.

A second referendum would be bad for the country and I hope it doesn’t happen but if you force the issue, then Vote Leave 2 would try to create out of the smoking wreck in SW1 something that can deliver what the public wants. Imagine Amazon-style obsession on customer satisfaction (not competitor and media obsession which is what you guys know) with Silicon Valley technology/scaling and Mueller-style ‘systems politics’ combined with the wave upon wave of emotion you will have created. Here’s some free political advice: when someone’s inside your OODA loop, it feels to them like you are working for them. If you go for a rematch, then this is what you will be doing for people like me. 350m would just be the starter.

‘Mixed emotions, Buddy, like Larry Wildman going off a cliff — in my new Maserati.’

I will happily discuss this with your colleagues on a different committee if they are interested, after the legal issues are finished…

 

Best wishes

Dominic

Ps. If you’re running an inquiry on fake news, it would be better to stop spreading fake news yourselves and to correct your errors when made aware of them. If you’re running an inquiry on issues entangled with technologies, it would be better to provide yourself with technological expertise so you avoid spreading false memes. E.g your recent letter to Facebook asked them to explain to you the operational decision-making of Vote Leave. This is a meaningless question which it is impossible for Facebook to answer and could only be asked by people who do not understand the technology they are investigating.

On the referendum 24I: new research on Facebook & ‘psychographic’ microtargeting

Summary: a short blog on a new paper casting doubt on claims re microtargeting using Facebook.

The audience for conspiracy theories about microtargeting, Facebook and Brexit is large and includes a big subset of SW1 and a wider group (but much smaller than it thinks it is) that wants a rematch against the public. The audience for facts, evidence and research about microtargeting, Facebook and Brexit is tiny. If you are part of this tiny audience…

I wrote a few days ago about good evidence on microtargeting in general and Cambridge Analytica’s claims on ‘psychographics’ in particular (see HERE).

Nutshell: the evidence and science re ‘microtargeting’ does not match the story you read in the media or the conspiracy theories about the referendum, and Vote Leave did not do microtargeting in any normal sense of the term.

Another interesting paper on this subject has been published a few days ago.

Background…

One of the most influential researchers cited by the media since Brexit/Trump is Michal Kosinski who wrote a widely cited 2015 paper on predicting Big 5 personality traits from Facebook ‘likes’: Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans.

Duncan Watts, one of the leading scholars in computational sociology, pointed out:

‘All it shows is that algorithmic predictions of Big 5 traits are about as accurate as human predictions, which is to say only about 50 percent accurate. If all you had to do to change someone’s opinion was guess their openness or political attitude, then even really noisy predictions might be worrying at scale. But predicting attributes is much easier than persuading people.’

Kosinski published another paper recently: Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion (November 2017). The core claim was:

‘In three field experiments that reached over 3.5 million individuals with psychologically tailored advertising, we find that matching the content of persuasive appeals to individuals’ psychological characteristics significantly altered their behavior as measured by clicks and purchases. Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to-experience level resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their mismatching or unpersonalized counterparts. Our findings suggest that the application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences.’

If this claim were true it would be a big deal in the advertising world. Further, Kosinski claimed that ‘The assumption is that the same effects can be observed in political messages.’ That would be an even bigger deal.

I was sceptical when I read the 2017 paper, mainly given the large amount of evidence in books like Hacking the Electorate that I touched on in the previous blog, but I didn’t have the time or expertise to investigate. I did read this Wired piece on that paper in which Watts commented:

‘Watts says that the 2017 paper didn’t convince him the technique could work, either. The results barely improve click-through rates, he says — a far cry from predicting political behavior. And more than that, Kosinski’s mistargeted openness ads — that is, the ads tailored for the opposite personality characteristic — far outperformed the targeted extraversion ads. Watts says that suggests other, uncontrolled factors are having unknown effects. “So again,” he says, “I would question how meaningful these effects are in practice.”‘

Another leading researcher, David Lazer, commented:

‘On the psychographic stuff, I haven’t see any science that really aligns with their [CA/Kosinski] claims.’

Another leading researcher, Alex Pentland at MIT (who also successfully won a DARPA project to solve a geolocation intelligence problem) was also sceptical:

‘Everybody talks about Google and Facebook, but the things that people say online are not nearly as predictive as, say, what your telephone company knows about you. Or your credit card company. Fortunately telephone companies, banks, things like that are very highly regulated companies. So we have a fair amount of time. It may never happen that the data gets loose.’

I’ve just been sent this paper (preprint link): Field studies of psychologically targeted ads face threats to internal validity (2018). It is an analysis of Kosinski’s 2017 experiments. It argues that the Kosinski experiment is NOT RANDOMISED and points out statistical and other flaws that undermine Kosinski’s claims:

‘The paper [Kosinski 2017] uses Facebook’s standard ad platform to compare how different versions of ads perform. However, this process does not create a randomized experiment: users are not randomly assigned to different ads, and individuals may even receive multiple ad types (e.g., both extroverted and introverted ads). Furthermore, ad platforms like Facebook optimize campaign performance by showing ads to users whom the platform expects are more likely to fulfill the campaign’s objective… This optimization generates differences in the set of users exposed to each ad type, so that differences in responses across ads do not by themselves indicate a causal effect.’ (Emphasis added.)

Kosinski et al reply here. They admit that the optimisation of Facebook’s ad algorithms could affect their results though they defend their work. (Campaigns face similar operational problems in figuring out ways to run experiments on Facebook without FB’s algorithms distorting them.)

I am not remotely competent to judge the conflicting claims and haven’t yet asked anybody who is though I have a (mostly worthless) hunch that the criticisms will stack up. I’ll add an update in the future when this is resolved.

Big claims require good evidence and good science — not what Feynman called ‘cargo cult science’ which accounts for a lot of social science research. Most claims you read about psychological manipulation are rubbish. There are interesting possibilities for applying advanced technology, as I wrote in my last blog, but a) almost everything you read about is not in this class and b) I am sceptical in general that ideas in published work on using Big 5 personality traits could add anything more than a very small boost to political campaigns at best and it can also easily blow up in your face, as Hersh’s evidence to the Senate shows. I strongly suspect that usually the ‘gains’ are less than the fees of the consultants flogging the snake oil — i.e a net loss for campaigns.

If you believe, like the Observer, that the US/UK military and/or intelligence services have access to technological methods of psychological manipulation that greatly exceed what is done commercially, you misunderstand their real capabilities. For example, look at how the commander of US classified special forces (JSOC), Stanley McChrystal, recruited civilians for his propaganda operations in Afghanistan because the military did not know what to do. The evidence since 9/11 is of general failure in the UK/USA viz propaganda / ‘information war’ / ‘hybrid war’ etc. Further, if you want expertise on things like Facebook and Google, the place to look is Silicon Valley, not the Pentagon. Look at how recent UK Prime Ministers have behaved. Look at how Cameron tweeted about rushing back from Chequers in the middle of the night to deal with ISIS beheadings. Look at how Blair, Brown and Cameron foolishly read out the names of people killed in the Commons. Of course it is impossible from the outside to know how much of this is because Downing Street mangles advice and operations and how much is failure elsewhere. I assume there are lots of good people in the system but, like elsewhere in modern Whitehall, expertise is suppressed by centralised hierarchies (as with Brexit).

On campaigns and in government, figuring out the answers to a few deep questions is much more important than practically anything you read about technology issues like microtargeting. But focus and priorities are very hard for big organisations including parties and governments, because they are mostly dominated by seniority, groupthink, signalling, distorted incentives and so on. A lack of focus means they spread intelligent effort too widely and don’t think enough about deep questions that overwhelmingly determine their fate.

Of course, it is possible to use technology to enhance campaigns and it is possible to devise messages that have game-changing effects but the media focus on microtargeting is almost completely misguided and the Select Committee’s inquiry into fake news has mostly spread fake news. There has been zero scrutiny, as far as I have seen, on the evidence from reputable scholars like Duncan Watts or Eitan Hersh on the facts and evidence about microtargeting and fake news in relation to Trump/Brexit. Sadly they are more interested in grandstanding than truth-seeking, which is why the Committee turned down my offer to arrange a time to give evidence and instead tried to grab headlines. I offered friendly cooperation, as the government should have done with Brexit, but the Committee went for empty threats, as per May and Hammond, and this approach will be as successful as this government’s negotiating strategy.

On the referendum #24H: Facebook, data science, technology, elections, and transparency

This blog has two short parts: A) a simple point about Wednesday’s committee hearing, B) some interesting evidence from a rare expert on the subject of data and campaigns, and a simple idea to improve regulation of elections. (And a PS. on hack Jane Merrick spreading more fake news.) There is a very short UPDATE re Facebook posted the next day, highlighted in BOLD below.

A. Re Wednesday’s Select Committee and Facebook letter

Correspondence from Facebook was published and used by the Committee to suggest that Vote Leave/AIQ have lied about when they started working together.

Henry de Zoete was introduced to AIQ on 31 March 2016. (This is all clear in emails that I think have been given to the Electoral Commission — if not they easily could be.)

AIQ did zero work for VL before then and, obviously, did not have access to VL’s Facebook page before we had even spoken to them.

If Facebook is saying that AIQ was running ads for VL in February 2016, then Facebook is wrong. [UPDATE: actually, if you read Facebook’s letter carefully, they correct their own error in a table where they use the timeframe for AIQ activity of “15 April – 23 June”. “15 April” of course fits with the date of VL’s introduction to AIQ I gave in this blog, and is the first day of the official campaign. The MPs either didn’t read the letter properly or chose to use the date which gave them a news story.]

VL was running stuff on FB in February as Facebook says. But this was done by us, NOT by AIQ.

Probably Facebook has looked at the VL FB page, seen activity in February, seen AIQ doing stuff shortly after and wrongly concluded that the earlier activity was also done by AIQ. It wasn’t and any further investigations will show this.

This isn’t actually important viz the legal claims and the EC investigation but I make the point in the interests of trying to clarify FACTS — so far the fake news inquiry has spread fake news around the world and clarified little. Also note how the Committee drops correspondence on the day of the hearing to maximise their chances of creating embarrassing moments for witnesses. This is the behaviour of people happy to see false memes spread, not the behaviour of truth-seeking MPs.

The Committee is now threatening me with ‘contempt of Parliament’. Their behaviour in seeking headlines rather than cooperating with witnesses over dates for evidence is  the sort of behaviour that has increased the contempt of the public for MPs over the last 20 years, which of course contributed to the referendum result. The Committee doesn’t understand Vote Leave. We had to deal with threats from MPs every day for a year, including from the PM/Chancellor and their henchmen who could actually back up serious threats. We ignored that. Why would you think we’re going to worry about EMPTY threats? If you think I care about ‘reputational damage’, you are badly advised.

B. Rare expertise on the subject of data and elections from Eitan Hersh to US Senate

Eitan Hersh wrote a book in 2015 called Hacking the Electorate. It’s pretty much the best book I’ve seen on the use of data science in US elections and what good evidence shows works and does not work.

As I wrote after the referendum, we tried hard in Vote Leave to base decisions on the best EVIDENCE for what works in campaigns and we spent time tracking down a wide variety of studies. Usually in politics everything is done on hunches. Inevitably, the world of ‘communications’ / PR / advertising / marketing is full of charlatans flogging snake oil. It is therefore very easy to do things and spend money just because it’s conventional. Because we were such a huge underdog we had to take some big gambles and we wanted to optimise the effectiveness of our core message as much as possible — if you know the science, you can focus more effectively. The constraints of time, money, and the appalling in-fighting meant we never pushed this nearly as far as I wanted but we tried hard.

For example, one of the few things about advertising which seems logical and has good evidence to support it is — try to get your message in front of people as close to the decision point as possible. That’s why we spent almost the whole campaign testing things (via polls, focus groups, online etc) then dropped most of our marketing budget in the last few days of the campaign. Similarly, Robert Cialdini wrote one of the few very good books on persuasion — Influence — and ideas from that informed how we wrote campaign materials. We were happy to take risks and look stupid. We came across a study where researchers had used as a control a leaflet with zero branding only to find, much to their surprise if I remember right, that it worked much better than all the other examples. We therefore experimented with leaflets stripped of all branding (‘The Facts’) which unleashed another wave of attacks from SW1 (‘worst thing I’ve seen in politics, amateur hour’ etc), but sure enough in focus groups people loved it (the IN campaign clearly found the same because they started copying this).

Of course, all sorts of decisions could not be helped by reliable evidence. But it is a much healthier process to KNOW when you’re taking a punt. Most political operations — and government — don’t try to be rigorous about decision-making or force themselves to think about what they know with what confidence. They are dominated by seniority, not evidence. Our focus on evidence was connected to creating a culture in which people could say to senior people ‘you’re wrong’. This is invaluable. I made many awful mistakes but was mostly saved from the consequences because we had a culture in which people could say ‘you’re wrong’ and fix them fast.

This is relevant to Hersh’s evidence and the conspiracy theories…

Hersh’s evidence should be read by everybody interested in the general issues of data and elections and the recent conspiracy theories in particular. I won’t go into these conspiracies again.

Here are some quotes…

‘Based on the information I have seen from public reports about Cambridge Analytica, it is my opinion that its targeting practices in 2016 ought not to be a major cause for concern in terms of unduly influencing the election outcome…

‘In every election, the news media exaggerate the technological feats of political campaigns…

‘The latest technology used by the winning campaign is often a good storyline, even if it’s false. Finally, campaign consultants have a business interest in appearing to offer a special product to future clients, and so they are often eager to embellish their role in quotes to the media…

‘I found that commercial data did not turn out to be very useful to campaigns. Even while campaigns touted the hundreds or thousands of data points they had on individuals, campaigns’ predictive models did not rely very much on these fields. Relative to information like  age, gender, race, and party affiliation, commercial measures of product preferences did not add very much explanatory power about Americans’ voting behavior…

‘Many commercial fields simply are not highly correlated with political dispositions. And even those that are might not provide added information to a campaign’s predictive models…

‘Nearly everything Mr. Nix articulates here [in a video describing CA’s methods] is not new. Based on what we know from past work,  it is also likely to have been ineffective. Cambridge Analytica’s definition of a persuadable voter is someone who is likely to vote but the campaign isn’t sure who they will vote for. This is a common campaign convention for defining persuadability. It also bears virtually no relationship to which voters are actually persuadable, undecided, or cross-pressured on issues, as I discuss in Hacking the Electorate… Cambridge Analytica’s strategy of contacting likely voters who are not surely supportive of one candidate over the other but who support gun rights and who are predicted to bear a particular personality trait is likely to give them very little traction in moving voters’ opinions. And indeed, I have seen no evidence presented by the firm or by anyone suggesting the firm’s strategies were effective at doing this 

‘As many journalists have observed, building a psychological profile by connecting Facebook “likes” to survey respondents who took a personality test would lead to inaccurate predictions. Facebook “likes” might be correlated with traits like openness and neuroticism, but the correlation is likely to be weak. The weak correlation means that the prediction will have lots of false positives…

‘In campaign targeting models I have studied, predictions of which voters are black or Hispanic are wrong about 25-30% of the time. Models of traits such as issue positions or personality traits are likely to be much less accurate. They are less accurate because they are less stable and because available information like demographic correlates and Facebook “likes” are probably only weakly related to them…

‘In a series of experiments, a colleague and I found that voters penalize candidates for mis-targeting such that any gains made through a successful target are often canceled out by losses attributable to mistargets… 

I am skeptical that Cambridge Analytica manipulated voters in a way that affected the election 

[Hersh then says ‘The skepticism I offer comes with a high degree of uncertainty’ and describes some of the gaps in what we know about such things. He also calls on Facebook to make its data available to researchers.]

‘News, both real and fake, is disseminated among users because it feels good to share. The kinds of news and content that often piques our interest appeals to our basest instincts; we are drawn to extremism, provocation, and outrage.’

Transparency — two simple ideas to improve things

In the last section Hersh discusses some broad points about transparency and social media. These things are important as I said after the referendum. Sadly, the focus on conspiracy theories has diverted the media and MPs away from serious issues.

I have zero legal responsibility for Vote Leave now — I ceased to be a director as part of our desperate rearguard action during the coup that kicked off on 25 January 2016. But I wouldn’t mind if Facebook wanted to take ALL of Vote Leave’s Facebook data that may be still sitting in ad manager etc — data normally considered very sensitive and never published by campaigns — and put the whole lot on its website available for download by anybody (excluding personal data so no individuals could be identified, which presumably would be illegal).

Why?

  1. In principle I agree with Hersh and think serious academic scrutiny would be good.
  2. In the interests of the VL team, it would prove what I have been saying and prove aspects of the conspiracy theories wrong. We never saw/used/wanted the data improperly acquired by CA. We did practically no ‘microtargeting’ in the normal sense of the term and zero using so-called ‘psychographics’ for exactly the reason described above — we tried to base decisions on good evidence and the good evidence from experts like Hersh was that it was not a good use of time and money. We focused on other things.

Here is another idea.

Why not have a central platform (managed by a much-reformed and updated Electoral Commission with serious powers) and oblige all permitted participants in elections to upload samples of all digital ads to this platform (say daily?) for public inspection by anybody who wants to look. After the election, further data on buy size, audience etc could be made automatically available alongside each sample. This would add only a tiny admin burden to a campaign but it would ensure that there is a full and accurate public record of digital campaigning.

Of course, this idea highlights an obvious point — there has never been any requirement on the parties to do this with paper documents. Part of the reason for the rage against Vote Leave in SW1 is that the referendum victory was something done to SW1 and the parties, not something done by them, hence partly their scrutiny of our methods. (This is also partly why the MPs are struggling so much to get to grips with the consequences.) There are no silver bullets but this simple measure would do some good and I cannot see a reasonable objection. Professional campaigners and marketers would hate this as they profit from a lack of transparency and flogging snake oil but their concerns should be ignored. Will the parties support such transparency for themselves in future elections?

One of the many opportunities of Brexit, as I’ve said before, comes in how we regulate such things. American law massively reflects the interests of powerful companies. EU law, including GDPR, is a legal and bureaucratic nightmare. The UK has, thanks to Brexit, a chance to regulate data better than either. This principle applies to many other fields, from CRISPR and genetic engineering to artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, which in the EU will be controlled by the ECJ interpreting the Charter of Fundamental Rights (and be bad for Europe’s economies and democracies). MPs could usefully consider these great opportunities instead of nodding along as officials do their best to get ministers to promise to maintain every awful set of EU rules until judgement day.

The issues of data-technology-elections is going to become more and more important fast. While the field is dominated by charlatans, it is clear that there is vast scope for non-charlatans to exploit technology and potentially do things far more effective, and potentially dangerous for democracy, than CA has claimed (wrongly) to do. Having spent some time in Silicon Valley since the referendum, it is obvious that it is/will be possible to have a decisive impact on a UK election using advanced technology. The limiting factors will be cash and a very small number of highly able people: i.e an operation to change an election could scale very effectively and stay hidden to a remarkable degree. The laws are a joke. MPs haven’t mastered the 70 year old technology of TV. How do you think they’d cope with people using tools like Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) — never mind what will be available within five years? The gaps in technical skill between commercial fields are extreme and getting wider as the west coast of America and coastal China suck in people with extreme skills. Old media companies already cannot compete with the likes of Google and the skill gaps  — and their consequences — grow every day.

But but but — technology alone will very rarely be the decisive factor: ‘people, ideas, and machines — in that order’, shouted Colonel Boyd at audiences, and this will remain true until/unless the machines get smarter than the people. The most important thing for campaigns (and governments) to get right is how they make decisions. If you do this right, you will exploit technology successfully. If you don’t — like the Tories in 2017 who created a campaign organisation violating every principle of effective action — no advantage in technology or cash will save you. And to get this right, you should study examples from the ancient world to modern projects like ARPA-PARC and Apollo (see here).

Anyway, I urge you to read Hersh’s evidence and ponder his warnings at the end, it will only take ~15 minutes. If interested, I also urge you to read some of the work by Rand Waltzman who ran a DARPA project on technology and social media. He has mostly been ignored in Washington as far as I can see but he should not be. He would be one of the most useful people in the world for MPs and hacks interested in these issues to speak to.

https://www.eitanhersh.com/uploads/7/9/7/5/7975685/hersh_written_testimony_senate_judiciary.pdf


PS. I’ve just been sent a blog on The Times website by Jane Merrick. It includes this regarding the latest odd news about a C4 drama:

‘Yet as with Mandelson, Cummings seems to complain about everything that is ever written about him, and so his reaction from his Twitter account — @odysseanproject (don’t ask) — was this: “What’s the betting this will be a Remain love-in and dire.” Oh how humbly he does brag!

I’ve had hacks email me asking me to ‘defend’ things on that Twitter account.

1. That is not my twitter account — it is a fake account. It’s interesting how many hacks complain about fake news while spreading it themselves. If you’re going to make claims about anonymous Twitter accounts (as she does elsewhere in her blog), try not to get confused by obvious parodies.

2. She also doesn’t mention that her husband, Toby Helm, was the SW1 equivalent of the guy in Scream chasing me and Henry de Zoete around Westminster for two years with a carving knife and a scream mask. The Observer promised the lobby I’d be marched out of the DfE in handcuffs. Nothing happened. Why? Because hate clouded their judgement, they botched the facts, and their claims were bullshit. Sound familiar?

[Update: The Times has cut that passage from the blog.]

On the referendum #24E: Facebook proves central allegation in Observer/Channel 4 conspiracy theory is wrong

Facebook has provided evidence to Parliament and the ICO and Electoral Commission relevant to the recent stories about whistleblowers and the referendum.

It proves exactly what I have said about the Observer/C4 conspiracy theory that Vote Leave/I were secretly coordinating with Leave.EU/Cambridge Analytica and using the infamous Kogan/Cambridge Analytica data.

TIYDL refers to the infamous data collected by Kogan and given to Cambridge Analytica.

Use of TIYDL data – When an advertiser runs an ad campaign on Facebook one way they can target their ads is to use a list of email addresses (such as customers who signed up to their mailing list). AIQ used this method for many of their advertising campaigns during the Referendum. The data gathered through the TIYDL app did not include the email addresses of app installers or their friends. This means that AIQ could not have obtained these email addresses from the data TIYDL gathered from Facebook. AIQ must have obtained these email addresses for British voters targeted in these campaigns from a different source. We also conducted an analysis of the audiences targeted by AIQ in its Referendum-related ads, on the one hand, and UK user data potentially collected by TIYDL, on the other hand, and found very little overlap (fewer than 4% of people were common to both data sets, which is the same overlap we would find with random chance). This further suggests that the data from TIYDL was not used to build AIQ’s data sets in connection with the Referendum campaigns, although only AIQ has access to complete information about how it generated these data sets.’ [Emphasis added]

Note — this is not a statement about probabilities, it is certain: ‘AIQ could not have… AIQ must have…’ The emails used by AIQ for targeting ‘COULD NOT HAVE’ come from CA. This flatly contradicts Wylie.

Further, Facebook looked to see if there was evidence of targeting via a different route and found that the overlap with TIYDL data is ‘the same overlap we would find with random chance’. This flatly contradicts Wylie. 

The central claims of the Observer, Channel 4, Michael Crick, Jon Snow, Wylie, Shahmir et al used to support their overall conspiracy theory are factually wrong. As I said weeks ago, Wylie’s claims about VL’s use of data were obviously technically laughable. Other libellous claims by the Observer/C4 concerning the ‘destruction of evidence’ on the VL google drive will similarly be shown to be factually wrong, showing neither who or what the Observer/C4 claimed.  

Hopefully honest and professional media organisations will not repeat their conspiracy theories.

As I have said repeatedly, no reasonable person could think that the battle between Vote Leave/me and Leave.EU/Banks to control the official campaign really was a deep cover operation to hide our secret coordination over data.

There are serious issues concerning data, marketing and elections as I said before this conspiracy theory got going. It would be much better for the media to focus on these issues than persist Trump-like with claims that black = white.

Facebook evidence here

https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/culture-media-and-sport/Written-evidence-Facebook.pdf