No, 73p of Russian Facebook spending wouldn’t shift a Brexit vote, but it’s dangerous to take that at face value
There’s a depressing trend in our current political discourse – likely encouraged by 140-character debate and Google skim-reading replacing actual research – to see things in absolute terms. The state of debate on Russian interference in both the US election and Britain’s EU referendum is one such example, and falls almost exclusively down partisan lines.
Those who didn’t get the result they wanted will say that this is the smoking gun that proves democracy was tainted and we need a rerun. Those who did will point to the same evidence and respond that it couldn’t possibly have shifted enough opinion to change the result so we shouldn’t concern ourselves. The strange thing about these arguments is that they both begin from legitimate starting points, but then run off down a partisan cul-de-sac stuffing logic in a bin somewhere along the way. This shouldn’t surprise anyone with an understanding of confirmation bias, but it’s still disappointing.
And so it is with the latest news about Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, where nuance has been abandoned as debaters come to grips with the fact that Facebook has found evidence of just 73p being spent on pro-Brexit Facebook ads. If you’re wondering what the cost of two and a bit Freddo bars can buy you on Facebook, that came to just 200 UK ad impressions over four days.
Given the EU referendum was won by a margin of 1,269,501 votes, such a finding would have made no difference. Even if you swallow the incredibly patronising and insulting line that Leave voters would be swayed by a tiny piece of propaganda that fleetingly was on their screens.
In fact, you can scale this argument up to every piece of evidence discovered so far. Twitter found that the state-owned Russia Today spent $1,031.99 to buy six Brexit-related adverts. Again, not enough to swing a referendum, and even if it were, given everything we know about how bloody hard it is to change people’s political opinions, would it really matter even if they’d spent $1,000,000? $10,000,000? $1 billion?
When logic veers into propaganda
These are all valid points, but before I overstate it, I’d just like to slam on the brakes and show what happens when we veer off the logical path and stray into propaganda for simpletons:
What Mr Farage – last seen sharing his own brand of electoral success with Roy Moore’s campaign in Alabama – either doesn’t understand or is disingenuously ignoring are the actual words in the article he’s linked to. The 73p spend refers to just a single company – the Internet Research Agency – which has been proven to have pushed ads to disrupt the US election last year. It’s possible this is the only non-British company to spend advertising money on the EU referendum, but it’s not hugely likely.
As Damian Collins – chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee – put it in the same article that Farage didn’t read: “It would appear that no work has been done by Facebook to look for Russian activity around the EU referendum, other than from funded advertisements from those accounts that had already been identified as part of the US Senate’s investigation.”
He’s requested a full response to the government’s request for information – although that assumes even Facebook can tell where all of its adverts come from. Laundering Russian rubles into less traceable currency isn’t beyond the wit of man, and even if it were, this just applies to paid advertising. We know paid adverts are only one weapon in nation states’ arsenal when it comes to spreading propaganda, and there are troll factories in St Petersburg where employees are paid to put pro-Kremlin perspectives on international affairs across the internet. Indeed, last month it was revealed that 150,000 accounts based in Russia were tweeting about the EU referendum during the campaign window.
But this is all conjecture: we have no idea how widespread the problem is, or even if it’s particularly efficient at achieving its goals – as I say, changing people’s’ minds is hard, if not impossible. Even if Facebook was the most transparent organisation in the world (spoiler: it isn’t), it would be impossible to tell whether the vote would have played out dramatically differently without Russian interference, but my gut says it’s unlikely.
At the same time, anyone saying we can, therefore, disregard the problem is far more sinister than paid Russian operatives. There’s an important debate to be had here – but both those who see reds under the bed wherever they look and those who deny the bed even exists are doing us no favours whatsoever.