Recently, Zelo Street attended a gathering of media people where the subject being discussed by the invited speakers was Brexit, and its potential aftermath. Among the questions asked afterwards was one notable intervention from a well-known writer whose name does not need to be disclosed. His pitch was basically “yes, but what about all the Dark Money?” This was a most prescient question, as we are now discovering.
We now know that both “designated” campaigns, Britain Stronger In Europe and Vote Leave, are being investigated for potential spending irregularities, but this is a mere “Look Over There” item - the Dark Money is beyond conventional investigation. But we do know that the Dark Money has been a part of the referendum campaign.
Why we can say that the presence of Dark Money, most probably emanating from the USA, is rather more than the conspiracy theory some would have us believe, is that the tip of this particular iceberg is now in plain sight. Moreover, the bulk of that iceberg is becoming clearer with each new revelation. We start in Northern Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) spent just over £58,000 on its 2015 General Election campaign. But somehow, it managed to spend £425,000 on the referendum. What’s more, most of that money was expended on mainland British campaigning. How so? As the Guardian has reported, the DUP “spent £282,000 on a pro-Brexit advert in a newspaper that is not published in Northern Ireland, according to documents released by the Electoral Commission”. They bought a wrap-round in the Metro freesheet.
So who paid? As the Guardian has also told, “Under a provision in funding rules dating to the Troubles, which allows Northern Irish political parties to accept anonymous contributions, the identity of the donors to the DUP campaign had not been made public”. And despite the later claim “the DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson revealed on Friday that the little-known pro-union Constitutional Research Council (CRC) had donated”, that does not tell us where the money originated. Thus the invasion of the Dark Money.
And it gets worse: also in that paper’s sights is the leave.EU campaign fronted by the likes of Arron Banks and Nigel “Thirsty” Farage, and here the sums potentially dwarf the DUP’s Metro advert. Here’s the intro: “Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of a British company, SCL Group, which has 25 years’ experience in military disinformation campaigns and ‘election management’, claims to use cutting-edge technology to build intimate psychometric profiles of voters to find and target their emotional triggers. Trump’s team paid the firm more than $6m (£4.8m) to target swing voters”.
Who owns Cambridge Analytica? Hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and the connection to the EU referendum? You’ll love this: “the longstanding friendship between Nigel Farage and the Mercer family led Mercer to offer his help - free - to the Brexit campaign”. This is what is referred to as a “benefit in kind”.
Following the money - and the money you can't see
So what was the game? “The strategy involved harvesting data from people’s Facebook and other social media profiles and then using machine learning to ‘spread’ through their networks … the campaign used this information, combined with artificial intelligence, to decide who to target with highly individualised advertisements and had built a database of more than a million people, based on advice Cambridge Analytica supplied”.
And how did this pan out? “Two weeks ago Arron Banks, Leave.eu’s founder, stated in a series of tweets that Gerry Gunster (Leave.eu’s pollster) and Cambridge Analytica with ‘world class’ AI had helped them gain ‘unprecedented levels of engagement’. ‘AI won it for Leave,’ he said”. But what was that about benefits in kind?
Well, any benefit in kind worth more than £7,500 must be reported to the Electoral Commission. They have no such item from Mercer, or leave.EU, filed as yet. How much might Cambridge Analytica’s services have been worth? If the Trump campaign shelled out the thick end of £5 million, what leave.EU got is probably going to be well into seven figures. And thus a further, more subtle, invasion of the Dark Money.
On top of all that is the possibility that opinion formers - newspaper pundits, solo and group blogs, and other social media warriors - have been suckling at this particular teat as well. More Dark Money, and more probably untraceable Dark Money, at that.
Who might those beneficiaries be? Well, Mercer has now been revealed as one of the owners of the Breitbart News Network, that convocation of the irredeemably batshit that has turned the proliferation of Fake News into its own particular speciality.
But the money is only one aspect of this invasion: as the description of the Cambridge Analytica methods shows, the potential is also there for wholesale misuse of personal data, an area where the Information Commissioner may want to get involved.
One should not dismiss the Information Commissioner’s powers too readily: this is, after all, the body that brought an end to the (mainly) illegal information gathering operation of Steve Whittamore back in 2006. Another Operation Motorman could well be in the offing.
The elephant in the room is, of course, that the referendum has been held and the damage done. But who drugged the beast and paid the bills are still to be uncovered. More later.