US Billionaire’s Interference In Brexit Campaign Has Relevance For Russian Hacking of US Election
Ever since it became clear that the Russians were interfering in our US elections, I have wondered what role they might have played in the Brexit referendum. After all, there is ample evidence that the Russians were working on the US election concurrently to the Brexit referendum and a vote to “leave” would nicely dovetail with the Kremlin’s policy to weaken the EU and NATO as evidenced by their subsequent interference in the Dutch and French elections.
There have long been rumors that UKIP has received funding from the Russians. This would not be surprising as the Kremlin has monetarily supported European far right parties such as Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, Northern League in Italy, and France’s Front National, which, it has been documented, received nearly $10 million in loans from Russian-backed banks. The suspicion about UKIP was further increased when MEPs from those above-mentioned parties voted against an EU measure that would require greater transparency of donations to EU parties that came from outside the EU. That suspicion was further compounded when Nigel Farage’s successor at UKIP, Diane James, declared that Vladimir Putin was one of her three political heroes, along with Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill. I’m pretty sure the latter two would be horrified to be put in the same company of the former.
But no evidence has ever surfaced confirming those suspicions. Similarly, no real evidence has surfaced showing any sustained Russian interference in the Brexit vote. A report from the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) described a denial of service attack on the site to register for the Brexit referendum just about an hour and a half before deadline. That attack possible prevented thousands of Britons from being able to participate in the referendum. The report states that “Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear.” But it did not definitively name Russia or China as the culprit, merely concluding that “PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.”
Now, however, the Guardian is reporting that the most impactful “foreign interference” may not have come from Russia at all but, incredibly, from the United States. The story indicates that there was collusion between the two leave campaigns, Vote Leave and Leave.EU. That collusion would be illegal under UK law and was facilitated by funding and research provided by Robert Mercer, the American billionaire who has funded Steven Bannon and Breitbart and provided the much needed monetary support for the Donald Trump campaign.
Leave.EU and Vote Leave had two vocal leaders, both charlatans and rank opportunists, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, respectively. Farage, as leader of UKIP, saw the Brexit referendum as validating and strengthening the power of his party. Johnson was simply and cynically positioning himself to succeed David Cameron. Both have admitted the did not expect their Brexit campaign to succeed.
These two campaigns may have had the same stated goal, but the voter targets of each were vastly different. Leave.EU focused on UKIP members and the disenchanted working class Labour voters whose defections had become the source of their electoral power, especially in the North. Vote Leave focused on more middle class voters in middle England, emphasizing immigration, EU restrictions, and the lie that 350 million pounds a week could be saved by leaving the EU and invested in the NHS.
UK law prohibits two campaigns from working in concert without jointly declaring their expenditures. This comports more generally with British law restricting campaign spending and prohibits circumvention of that law by financing allied straw campaigns. According to the Guardian, Leave.EU hired the research firm Cambridge Analytica to help with its campaign. Cambridge Analytica also worked with the Trump campaign and has promoted its unique capabilities in using “big data” to identify political preferences of huge numbers of individuals who then could be almost individually targeted by political campaigns. Vote Leave, on the other hand, used the research firm Aggregate IQ. That was an interesting choice because Aggregate IQ was a Canadian company with just 10 employees. Yet by far the biggest expenditure of Vote Leave campaign went to the work done by Aggregate IQ.
The Guardian’s investigation showed that both Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ are essentially controlled by the American billionaire Robert Mercer and that the two companies were in fact sharing their databases during the Brexit campaign. At the time of the Brexit referendum, Steve Bannon was nominally head of Cambridge Analytica. In fact, Aggregate IQ’s intellectual property exclusively belonged to SCL Elections, essentially a holding company that created Cambridge Analytica under Mercer’s ownership. In addition, Mercer, apparently provided Cambridge Analytica’s services gratis to UKIP and Leave.EU, a potential violation of UK law in that it avoided camping spending limits and the foreign funding of campaigns.
Vote Leave also apparently funded other supposedly independent media campaigns such as BeLeave and Veterans for Britain which also used Aggregate IQ data to target social media campaigns, again another break of UK law on campaign spending.
The article is well worth reading in its entirety and the connections are admittedly complex. But it makes clear that there was a degree of coordination, whether witting or unwitting among their principals, between Leave.EU and Vote Leave and that the nexus of that coordination was data and political targeting run by firms controlled by Robert Mercer and whose services may have been provided for free. All this is pretty clearly in violation of UK law. As MP Steven Kinnock states, “There are so many issues. Thousands of pounds of work apparently unaccounted for. Evidence of coordination between multiple campaigns. Multiple breaches of data protection. And this question of foreign influence, of a foreign billionaire buying influence in a British election, goes right to the heart of our entire democratic process.”
The revelation of this kind of interference in the Brexit campaign from Robert Mercer actually raises more questions about Russian interference in the US election. Nigel Farage has called the Brexit campaign a “petri dish” for the tactics used in the Trump campaign. According to Farage, “We shared a lot of information because what they were trying to do and what we were trying to do had massive parallels.” Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, were enormous funders and supporters of Trump and were the reason Steve Bannon ended up as Trump’s campaign manager. It now appears that they were also engaged in a massive effort to illegally influence the Brexit campaign.
It does not take a large logical leap to think that it is possible, if not probable, that a significant part of the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians actually involved the passing of Cambridge Analytica data to the Russians so that they could sophisticatedly target distinct US voters with a massive disinformation campaign. Having illegally and successfully succeeded with Brexit, it is not beyond belief that the Mercers would essentially “use” the Russian cyber capabilities to illegally and successfully get Donald Trump elected President.
I’ve also written about this and other issues on my personal blog at [tidalsoundings.blogspot.com]