Anyone looking at the Independent’s front page the other day – or at least its electronic mock-up, made primarily for social media and TV paper reviews – will have seen a bombshell of a headline: ‘Illegal Facebook spending “won 2016 vote for Leave”’. That’s a seismic claim if it can be confirmed: the once-in-a-generation vote to leave the EU was won through what we now know was an illegal overspend of £500,000 or so. Except the Independent adopted an old newspaper trick: the biggest news is in quotes, suggesting that it’s not the newspaper claiming it, but rather someone else.
At first, that someone looks credible. It is from a witness statement submitted to the high court by Professor Philip Howard, the director of the respected Oxford Internet Institute. This is a man and an institution to be taken seriously. Which is a shame – as the quality of Howard’s research would shame an undergraduate.
Prof Howard’s logic runs as follows: Leave won the referendum by 1.3 million votes, and so if 650,000 of those people had switched their votes, Remain would have won. He then takes a figure of 80 million people having seen Vote Leave adverts, and assumed that 10pc of these would have interacted with those (this, he says, is an industry standard), and of those 10pc would have changed their mind – leaving 800,000 voters whose minds were changed by adverts on Facebook. Case closed.
But this reasoning is better suited to the back of a fag packet than to evidence in a court room. Here are some of the ways it falls apart.
As Professor Chris Hanretty and others noted, there aren’t 80 million voters in the United Kingdom: there are around 46.5 million (of whom only 33 million of those voted), only 55pc of whom are on Facebook.