Vote Leave faces scrutiny over £50m football contest

Carole Cadwalladr
Entrants had to name the winner of every game in Euro 2016 – won by Portugal – to claim £50m. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

A data-harvesting competition that offered football fans the chance to win £50m is at the centre of new questions about pro-Brexit campaigning before the 2016 EU referendum.

Last week the select committee for digital, culture, media and sport released a letter Facebook sent to the Electoral Commission in which it said that two campaigns, Vote Leave and BeLeave, used three sets of data to target audiences, noting that they covered “the exact same audiences”.

The two campaign groups are under investigation over whether there was collusion and coordination during the referendum campaign, circumventing spending limits. Under British electoral law, it is illegal for campaigns to work together in any way unless they declare their spending jointly, which Vote Leave and BeLeave did not. Both organisations deny any collusion.

Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, admitted that the competition to win £50m was a data-harvesting exercise. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty

BeLeave created 16 adverts using targeting criteria from one or more of the three common audiences on 15 June 2016, but did not ultimately run any of the adverts. Vote Leave created 2,189 adverts based on the same common audiences, and ran about half of them.

Now it has emerged that a data set referred to by Facebook, called “50million_remains”, is likely to be a competition that Vote Leave ran, in which it offered fans the chance to win £50m if they correctly predicted the outcome of every game in the European Championships that year.

On a blog written after the referendum, Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, admitted that the competition to win £50m was a data-harvesting exercise. Talking about the necessity of data in targeting voters, he said: “Data flowed in on the ground and was then analysed by the data science team and integrated with all the other data streaming in. This was the point of our £50m prize for predicting the results of the European football championships, which gathered data from people who usually ignore politics.”

The MPs’ committee announced on Friday that it would be reporting Cummings for contempt of parliament for refusing to appear and answer MPs questions.

To enter the competition, fans had to input their name, address, email and telephone number, and also how they intended to vote in the referendum. Last year, Martin Moore, director of the centre for the study of media, communication and power at King’s College, London, and the author of an upcoming book, Democracy Hacked, told the Observer that he’d tried to find details of the quiz and exactly what information it had gathered but that the site had been taken down and he could find no trace of it on the internet. “I saw an advert for it at the time. And I couldn’t figure out why it was being done or for what purpose and it was only afterwards that I read Dom Cummings’s blog and I realised that actually it was very clever. Data is very difficult to collect in the UK and they were starting with nothing. But working out what to send what message to what audience was absolutely crucial.

“What’s clear from the ad is that they had identified a particular group of people who are really hard to reach. Working-class young men who actively ignore and reject politics. It’s hard to get their contact details and hard to get them to turn out to vote but this was central to Project Waterloo – increasing turnout among particular demographics, especially young working-class males by sending them messages that Leave knew would provoke a response.”

Adverts for the competition are still online and show two men in hi-viz jackets – “Gary and Kev” – sitting in a pub drinking beer and talking about football. The prize is £50m, one of them says, because “that’s how much Britain gives the EU every day”. Though no one won the £50m prize, Vote Leave said £50,000 was awarded to one entrant.

In a letter published on the Electoral Commission’s website about the competition, a Vote Leave spokesperson said: “Vote Leave’s football score predictor competition raised awareness of the UK’s daily budget contributions to the EU. Facebook confirmed to the DCMS committee that BeLeave did not run any adverts using data sets resulting from this competition or from any other Vote Leave data in its digital advertising campaign. Claims to the contrary are completely incorrect and typical of the sloppy journalism and lies being spread by the Guardian and Observer in their attempt to delegitimise and overturn the referendum result.”

Darren Grimes of BeLeave did not respond to a request for comment.