Show Hide image

Brexit astroturfing: did fake grassroots groups help swing the EU referendum?

Campaigns like "Vapers For Britain" might have been inside the letter of the law, but did they breach its spirit?

Bangla for Britain; Historians for Britain; even Vapers for Britain, with its snappy tagline: “it’s time to quit… the EU”. At first glance, the Twitter and Facebook feeds belonging to these hyper-specific campaigns appear to be independent, grassroots affairs.

In fact, they’re among a dozen “outreach groups” backed by the Vote Leave campaign, which was this week found to have overspent and cheated during its campaign by the Electoral Commission.

Some of these groups were tied to lobbying organisations, founded by known Tory campaigners, shared offices with Vote Leave, or had web addresses traceable to Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott. LGBT+ campaign group Out and Proud trumpeted its independent status as “not … affiliated to any political party” despite being headed by a council candidate who is deputy chairman of his local Tory party, the New Statesman found.

These outreach groups were operated by real individuals who genuinely supported the Brexit campaign. But their failure to adequately disclose their ties to Vote Leave and the Conservative Party, and the fact these groups were then used by Brexit campaigners as evidence of grassroots support for the Leave campaign, means their actions were disingenuous at best.

Vote Leave has now been referred to the police, but the social media activity of some of these groups illustrates a subtler threat to our democratic process than the outright flouting of electoral law the Commission described. This is because they are real-world political activists coordinating to present themselves as spontaneous grassroots campaigners.

This process is known as astroturfing.

In a heavily critical briefing concerning Vote Leave circulated prior to the referendum, the Electoral Commission noted that the pro-Brexit group was supported by “a range of ‘For Britain’ styled offshoots purporting to represent special interests … however, these organisations are all either directly or very closely linked. Many are hand-in-glove operations established by Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott, for the purpose of declaring support for himself.”

Electoral Reform Society chief Damien Hughes tells the New Statesman these groups sometimes operated “inside the law [but] not in the spirit of the law”, taking advantage of outmoded rules about electoral coordination that have not been updated since 2000 to engage in “Wild Western referendum behaviour”.

The “outreach groups” are just one example of an electioneering tactic which is increasingly prevalent around the globe – often in far cruder and more worrisome forms. As such, Hughes and other political scientists are calling for urgent reform to bring our electoral regulations up to scratch for the social media age.

Fake grassroots

“Astroturfing” predates the internet as a political technique. The term itself dates back to 1985, when a US senator used it to refer to a “mountain” of lobbying letters stacked on his deck which he believed were generated by the insurance industry.

However, it is during the social media explosion of the last 15 years that astroturfing has really become an effective tool. Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda project, describes contemporary astroturfing as “a form of online manipulation campaign that is not automated but is actually using humans to disseminate content and engage in a social media context… what those humans are doing is exactly like anyone else on social media, [but] the difference is they’re doing that with an agenda”.

Typically, Neudert says, this would involve paid commenters who might even be given a script to follow. Contemporary examples include China’s “50 cent army”, government employees named after the rumoured payment they receive for every pro-Beijing comment they plant online.

While bots operate via “mass flooding”, Neudert points out that humans can post “content that’s perfectly convincing, often personal, often emotional”. This is effective because it shows that “people like you and I on the streets” appear to be subscribing to a particular political agenda. She gives the example of fraudulent Amazon reviews – for some products, more than one-third, and in some cases as much as two-thirds, of reviews are faked or suspicious, according to a Washington Post report – and puff-pieces in favour of the pharmaceutical and oil industries.

The first big example of mass astroturfing was the 2016 US presidential election, where social media groups focusing on specific sections of society were set up by a Kremlin-backed organisation based in St Petersburg called the Internet Research Agency. The effect of these intrusions into the American political process is still being explored, but the scale of the operation is clear from the indictment filed by Bob Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, which described scores of operatives hammering away in Facebook groups and comments sections across the internet for nefarious ends.

Authoritarian regimes from Turkey to the Philippines use what Freedom House call “armies of opinion-shapers” to post government propaganda online, in clear-cut instances of astroturfing. But as Neudert says, the process is “often a little bit more mild” than an onslaught of copy-and-pasted Facebook comments or bot-posted tweets.

Legal ambiguities

A classic “astroturf” campaign, like the one the Russian agency allegedly operated in America, saw employees posing as members of the public online. The actions of the Vote Leave-tied “outreach groups” are not of a comparable scale, and do not, based on present evidence, involve outright deceit.

Co-ordinating behind the scenes wasn’t limited to the Leave campaign. Then-prime minister David Cameron liaised closely with FTSE 500 bosses and former military chiefs, in an effort to give the impression of a spontaneous rush of support for remaining in the EU – think “astroturfing”, but only involving the upper echelons of society.

In the context of UK elections (regulations covered the two official referendum campaigns in the same way they cover political parties in general election campaigns) co-ordination with outside groups is only illegal if “spending on regulated campaign activity… is incurred as part of a common plan or other arrangement with another non-party campaigner or campaigners”. Regulated campaign activity might mean agreeing to cover separate voting bases or topics, throwing joint events, or allowing another campaign to influence your web posts or strategy.

The Electoral Commission has found that Vote Leave broke electoral law by funnelling more than £600,000 through youth outreach group BeLeave, as first revealed by whistleblower Shahmir Sanni. It has now referred Vote Leave to the police. 

In the case of the majority of the “outreach groups”, however, no money is alleged to have changed hands. It costs little to fund a Twitter feed and Facebook page, as the Electoral Reform Society’s Darren Hughes points out. But this does not mean the campaign is above reproach.

“There’s two important points about electoral law,” he says. “One is the straight test: how much can you spend and when … but then there’s a second, much harder to enforce area: a morality test. In countries that conduct fair and free elections you rely on the participants complying with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.”

Similarly, in his study of the practice, political scientist Edward Walker defines astroturfing campaigns as not just those where money changes hands or explicitly fraudulent statements are made, but any strategy where “an elite campaign masquerad[es] as a mass movement”.

The activity of some of Vote Leave’s outreach groups appears to fall into this latter camp. In its pre-election review of Vote Leave’s behaviour, the Electoral Commission wrote that “Endorsement and funding from a handful of millionaires giving a professional veneer to a few newcomers to anti-EU campaigning does not make a new organisation like Vote Leave a credible or representative ‘leave’ campaign for the forthcoming EU referendum … It is overly Conservative-focused, supported chiefly by front organisations.”

Outreach groups

In essence, it appears these groups have in some specific instances actively been dishonest about their ties to the Tory Party, Vote Leave and larger campaigns. More generally these groups have been presented by Leave campaigners as embodying grassroots support for the Brexit cause without reference to these ties – a subtler case of astroturfing by omission, rather than commission.

For example, LGBT+ outreach group Out and Proud states: “Some people asking if we’re affiliated to any political party, we’re not. We welcome anyone who wants to debate #LGBT right[s] and the EU.” However, its founder Adam Lake is the deputy chairman of his local Conservative Party, ran for election as a Tory councillor in 2014 and did so again in 2018.

Likewise, the Bangladesh Caterers Organisation is presented by Vote Leave as one of the groups which “appointed’ themselves when they decided to campaign for a ‘Leave’ outcome” – but its vice-president has since gone on the record stating that “They came to us – the mayor of London Boris Johnson, and cabinet minister Priti Patel.”

Following these overtures, the “Bangladesh for Britain͛” group was set up by an organiser of the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh. No mention of these ties to lobbying organisations or the Tory party is made in its social media presence.

It is immediately arresting that eight out of the 12 “outreach groups” listed alongside BeLeave on the Vote Leave site use the name “_____ for Britain”, plus identical “_____4Britain” handles on Twitter. The Electoral Commission found that a further 20 “for Britain” addresses can be linked with Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott’s email address, from Software Engineers for Britain to Pets for Britain, while Women for Britain and Muslims for Britain were “clearly both… registered by the same source” on the same night.

Both BeLeave and the outreach group Historians for Britain shared Vote Leave’s offices – the latter of the two, which describes itself as “an independent and non-partisan academic” organisation, was actually organised by the Vote Leave business director, and listed the same address and phone number as Vote Leave online.

Vote Leave is at pains to describe the outreach groups as entirely autonomous. “It is obviously important that you decide how your group is set up, how it runs and the message you want to say,” it writes on its website in a call for groups to join its campaign.

On multiple occasions, then-prominent pro-Brexit campaigners like former MP Sir Edward Leigh and Twitter blowhard Robert Kimbell highlighted a batch of these groups alongside one another to juxtapose the seemingly-grassroots Leave campaign against what Leigh calls the “millionaires” of Remain.

But the links many of these groups have to lobbying organisations, BeLeave and Tory campaigners tell a different story.

Out of date

In a recent, typically rambling blog post, Vote Leave campaign chief Dominic Cummings cites the formal definition of coordinated spending (summarised as “controlled expenditure pursuant to a plan or other arrangement”) to mock and dismiss it. “Nobody really knows what this means,” he says.

He goes on to allege that if the Leave campaign took advantage of legal ambiguity around what constitutes coordination, so too did Remain, quoting lines from a referendum memoir about the “In campaigns for the various political parties” participating in a daily group telephone call and discussing how to “stick … to our line” on subjects like immigration.

When asked by the New Statesman if he thought the way these groups presented their relationship to Vote Leave and the wider Brexit campaign was dishonest, Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott placed a similar focus on the bipartisan nature of the issue. “There were a range of groups on both the Remain and Leave sides in the referendum who had different relationships with the official campaigns depending on how close they were,” he said, observing that groups like Out 4 IN or LGBT for Europe similarly spread material from the wider Stronger In campaign.

“I’m struggling to see how what happened on the Leave side differed to what happened on the Remain side… I don't see this as being a bad thing – it meant that both sides were able to engage with a wider audience.”

That said, there were fewer seemingly grassroots campaign groups backing Stronger In, and independent groups on the Remain side presented their messaging in a less cohesive fashion.

Charles Pascal Crowe is a political scientist who investigated the interactions between the outreach groups for a postgraduate research project. (He also helped the author with research for this article.) Among other instances, he points out Aussies for Britain and Bangladesh for Britain boosting one another’s tweets in support of non-EU migrants; smaller campaign groups picking up hundreds of retweets boosting Vote Leave messages during TV debates; LGBT campaign group Out and Proud inviting BeLeave’s Darren Grimes to its launch party, and uploading selfies together with BeLeave on the campaign trail.

He highlights the example of Out and Proud, which emphasises its independence from political affiliation – but also released a viral launch video featuring Vote Leave figurehead Boris Johnson spouting Vote Leave’s slogan “take back control” and barking the LGBT acronym into the camera as though he has heard it for the first time 30 seconds before.

Crowe observes that Johnson’s viral appearance using the Vote Leave slogan has brought its messaging to a wider audience, among a demographic the larger campaign might struggle to reach – but could not be considered “coordination” under the laws as they currently stand.

“There was definitely interaction between the groups and they definitely knew about each other,” Crowe says. “What this implies more than attribution of blame to any individual is that the current regulations are fundamentally unfit for purpose in the age of social media.”

In general, a tweet that costs nothing can now reach millions of people – yet the law continues to focus on what the ERS’ Darren Hughes calls “cost containment”, taking expenditure as the key metric to judge whether campaigns are co-ordinated.

“Much of our electoral legislation dates from 2000,” he says. “Social media didn’t even exist when this law was written … while people can conform to the mechanics of the 2000 legislation, political actors are not interested in complying with the spirit and that’s the dilemma we have now and why laws need reforming.” As Elliot admits, “social media has fundamentally changed campaigning” to the point that “the current regulations need clarifying or updating”.

Cynical politicians of any stripe can take advantage of this lack of clarity.

Reform

Hughes and Crowe agree on the importance of “beefing up the technical rules”, in Hughes’ words, to ensure the spirit of free and fair elections is preserved.

Crowe proposes a stricter test on what constitutes coordination between campaigns, and a “transparency principle”, meaning that all online political adverts should come with a strapline telling you who paid for it, and who stands to benefit from its message. Facebook announced it would be rolling out the same measure ahead of Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing over the Cambridge Analytica allegations.

But Hughes also pushes for a more fundamental change, in part tracing the recent rise of astroturfing to a public hunger for authentic voices in political debate. “It doesn’t feel like there’s been many genuine opportunities for citizens to have their say,” he says. The Leave campaign effectively used the concept of “taking back control” as a stick to beat its rivals with, portraying Remainers as out-of-touch elites.

It appears that at least some of the Vote Leave outreach groups failed to mention its ties to political classes, taking advantage of legal shortcomings to come across as more connected to the grassroots than they really are. Hughes believes this shows people want to see their voices represented in politics, and proposes “citizen’s assemblies” – echoing calls by Jeremy Corbyn’s teams – as a way to ensure grassroots organisations and ordinary citizens really can influence our political processes.

Fear of astroturfing and disingenuous campaign co-ordination should not prevent us from hearing the concerns of real grassroots organisations across the political spectrum. But the disparity between many of these groups’ actual origins and the way they present themselves online paints a grim picture of the future for the democratic process, if steps are not taken to bring the law up to scratch with the rapidly-evolving realities of political life.

These campaign groups were minnows swimming alongside the Vote Leave shark, through uncharted digital waters. Next time round, they will have grown teeth.

Additional research by Charles Pascal Crowe.