politics

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

I’ve been following the stories surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook for some months now, and in recent days, following stories from The Observer, The New York Times and Channel 4, the story has really blown up.

However, I do think that the story, while completely valid, and asking some really critical questions, perhaps over emphasises some aspects at the expense of others. It’s true – I tend to see cock-up rather than conspiracy in most things. But here are some of my thoughts on the two key players in this instance.

On Cambridge Analytica

My underlying belief is that Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims it’s more powerful than it actually is, and uses the “digital voodoo” to win business in the murky world of political consulting.

If nothing else, tonight’s Channel 4 News exclusive shows that aside from stories about how powerfully the company is able to target voters using sophisticated social media targeting, more than anything they’re an ethically dubious political consulting group who will do just about anything to see that their paymasters win.

On Newsnight, their CEO Alexander Nix somewhat disingenuously claimed that he was being targeted by British media. That’s certainly not what came across in the Channel 4 video.

As they themselves will admit, it’s clear that Cambridge Analytica did indeed use Facebook targeting to try to micro-target individual voters during the last US presidential election, with advertising that pushed the right buttons with those voters. So if they thought that you might be swayed with promises about jobs, then that’s the hook that they would use to get you to vote Trump. But I also think it’s true that previous campaigns have done the same – notably Obama’s.

Of course we’ve not really had many elections in the time of social media to truly measure the impact, but while the data does allow a political party or its supporters to make potentially hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of copy that might tick the right boxes amongst voters, I think that it’s incredibly naive to believe that so many are willing to change their voting intentions on the basis of a few Facebook ads. It takes more than that.

That being said, this is clearly the narrative that Cambridge Analytica have painted for themselves. They worked for a campaign that wasn’t seen as likely to win the US election and yet it did. That means that they can go out and win lots more business all over the world with the suggestion that it was them “wot won it,” – as the Sun once claimed after the Conservatives won the 1992 UK General Election.

It’s a great gimmick. Nix has been able to go out and proclaim that his company has discovered the secret to winning elections. And campaigns of every hue have been queuing up at his doorstep.*

Beyond that, it does sound as though the company has been, if not bending the rules further than it should, taking and using data it really isn’t allowed to. After months of questionning, as the big stories came out over the weekend, Facebook finally pulled Cambridge Analytica’s access to use the platform and says that it will be conducting a forensic audit on how the data was being used. Meanwhile the UK’s Information Commissioner is seeking a warrant to look at the company’s servers and databases.

I wouldn’t in any way excuse the company. If the claims made by both whistleblowers and others are proved to be true, then the book needs throwing at the company.

But I still need a lot of convincing that the company is as powerful as it would like to portray itself. Instead, I see a company who has decided to lead on it being an expert at data science in the world of political consulting to give it an edge over its rivals. And given the scale of social media networks and the way that users and the networks themselves use this data, we are more willing to believe that they are more powerful than they truly are.

On Facebook

I think Facebook has some real problems that are largely of their own making. This boils down to a few key areas, all of which they really only have themselves to blame for.

Privacy Settings

Facebook’s privacy settings have always been a nightmare for users. With a network as complicated as the one it has built, relatively few really understand what they’re sharing and who it is with. The settings change relatively frequently meaning it’s hard even for the most assiduous privacy minded user to keep up with who has access to what. What stories you like; who your photos are shared with; who your friends can further share things with and so on. It’s truly complicated.

Some people manage to lock their accounts down quite a lot, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Who can friend you? Who can share things with you? Who sees things that others have shared with you? Can you be found with your email or phone number and who can find you that way? Are you searchable via Google? When you like a company’s page, how much data is that company able to capture on you? What about when you enter a competition?

Lack of Control

Such is the breadth of the data that Facebook is able to capture, that one of the most troubling aspects of this story is the general lack of control the company seems to have. One part of this story concerns the use of a personality prediction “app” on Facebook called thisisyourdigitallife. The questionnaire was completed by 270,000 users but the data captured wasn’t just for those users, but for many of their friends as well. In total that gave data for over 50 million users. Facebook refers to these as “friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.” But just how many of those people who didn’t complete the survey remember, truly realised that this kind of data could be captured? While it may only be how that data was subsequently used that broke Facebook’s terms and conditions, it’s worrying that someone is able to capture that level of data regardless of whether they’re using in accordance with those rules.

And I suspect that a very small minority of users realised just what kind of catnip they’re giving to companies like Cambridge Analytica when they complete “fun” surveys such as this. For most users they’re just communicating in a fun environment with their friends.

Advertising

Facebook has built one of the most powerful digital platforms in the world; a platform that reaches billions and one which generates nearly all its revenue from advertising. That advertising is targeted using a massive database that it has generated based on user data that the company would say users have volunteered themselves. That in itself might be troubling considering that users largely don’t really consider how that data about themselves is used. But even worse is the idea that third parties can come in and use that data to target individuals without it even being revealed who is paying for those ads. We’ve seen that with ads paid for by Russian sources during the Clinton/Trump election campaign, and we’ve seen it in other campaigns. Channel 4 News highlighted last year’s Kenyan election for example.

It’s surely critical for any platform that runs advertising to be up front and honest about who is actually paying for that advertising.

Data

Facebook captures enormous amounts of data and it’s not simply when you use the Facebook website. You might be sharing your location with Facebook via its mobile app. Third party websites incorporate what is known as the Facebook Pixel. As with other advertising networks including Google, it means that Facebook knows where else you are outside of its own network. All those helpful sites that let you log in with your Facebook account? That’s more data you’re sharing with Facebook on top of the thousands of fields of information it is already keeping about you.

This can all make it seem to users that Facebook is actually doing nefarious things like using the microphone on your phone to listen in to your conversations. It’s almost certainly not, but as I said in a piece last year, if the company is so uncannily accurate, then the perception trumps the reality.

Summary

This is serious story – scandal even. And as much as anything, I’d like to think that this is a wake up call that gives people a greater understanding about how their data is being captured used, and potentially misused.

But I suspect that Cambridge Analytica is really just another political consulting company who’s USP is that they target voters with social media. They hit the big time by working for the Trump campaign, and being allied with Steve Bannon. Yet as a result, their marketing claims have become so hyperbolic that it has led to a widespread disdain for what they do, and since this story has begun to unravel, they’ve been rowing back how impactful this aspect of what they do actually is.

Instead, based on evidence from Channel 4 News, the company is perhaps more about the grubby world of sending prostitutes to the homes of political opponents and capturing it on video, or giving the appearance of having developers pay backhanders for property deals. This is all as low rent as you like.

Facebook’s problem is that it has too much data to the point that nobody seems to be able to keep on top of things. They have so much that some users suspect them of actually listening in to them via their phones. But they truly do follow you around the internet. The danger for Facebook, beyond what are likely to be short term falls in their stock value, is that users do start to rebel and close down their accounts.

I’ve always had a problem trusting Facebook. I don’t think they’re evil as such. But they have played too fast and too loose, and have ended up in a powerful position. As a by-product – alongside Google – they have just about completely cornered the digital advertising market which brings with it its own problems for society in general.

I’m not going to underestimate the problems with “fake news” and the ability of propaganda to spread like wildfire on social media platforms. There are some serious questions to be asked about how these platforms can and should be regulated, particularly in regard to elections where we have seen continuing problems.

On the other hand, just because I can be micro-targeted using all this data, it doesn’t necessarily win elections.

People who work in advertising always love to tell you about how their methods work – explaining that they built the biggest brand in the sector using their methods. That’s the same in politics too. Saatchi & Saatchi were widely credited with helping Margaret Thatcher win the 1979 General Election with their famous “Labour Isn’t Working” outdoor poster. The poster did indeed sum up very nicely the prevailing political landscape. But did it actually win the election, or was the country moving away from Labour anyway? It was a sizeable win for Tories. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a poster “wot won it” that time, and I’m pretty sure that a company led by an old Etonian with some Facebook data wasn’t actually responsible for Trump (or Brexit) either.

Further Reading:

A really decent piece from the New Statesman that seems to accurately summarise the full Facebook data part of the story.

It’s been said in some more breathless quarters of the internet that this is the “data breach” that could have “caused Brexit”. Given it was a US-focused bit of harvesting, that would be the most astonishing piece of political advertising success in history – especially as among the big players in the political and broader online advertising world, Cambridge Analytica are not well regarded: some of the people who are best at this regard them as little more than “snake oil salesmen”.

A Verge piece that really gets into psychographics and microtargetting and what it can and cannot do.

Taken altogether, it seems like Facebook was taken in by a shady firm that misused data and lied about it. When Facebook found out, it did nothing. And making matters worse, we can’t even point at Cambridge Analytica’s deception as the reason Trump was elected: a closer look at its methods suggests they might not even work.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing says that he doesn’t think Cambridge Analytica is actually able to do what they say they can.

So, as I’ve written before, we should take Cambridge Analytica’s claims to Svengali-like mind-control with a boulder of salt, because until Sunday, they made these claims to drum up business (now they’re busily declaring that they are no more persuasive than any other ad agency, of course, because they’ve gotten in trouble for it).

Antonio García Martínez at Wired magazine on the noisy fallacies of psychographic targeting.

For the impatient, my fundamental thesis is this: Cambridge Analytica’s data theft and targeting efforts probably didn’t even work, but Facebook should be embarrassed anyhow.

* In a strange radio related twist, Cambridge Analytica’s offices at 55 New Oxford Street are in the same building as many of the UK radio industry’s offices including Radiocentre, RAJAR and Digital Radio UK! But it’s a largish office, and other companies share the building too.

Vote Tellers

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If you’re British and live in the UK, you will hopefully be voting today. Indeed you may have already done so!

My constituency is considered marginal – it could go one of two ways. And marginals are key to any election win, so parties target them.

As I went into my Polling Station this morning, a man approached me authoritatively outside the polling station itself. He was wearing a blue rosette without any other clear identification and asked me for my polling number. This is printed on the card that you get sent through confirming your eligibility to vote.

Now you don’t need to bring your polling card with you when you vote. Lots of people know that, but not everyone.

But if you do, the tellers would quite like to right down your number. And if there are tellers from multiple parties, they’re likely to share the numbers between them. The reason is that back at the local party base, members have big electoral lists where they’ve marked down voters according to likely preferences and likely voting proclivities, based largely (but perhaps not solely), on doorstep interviews and so on.

Later on in the day, they’ll start ringing up or knocking on the doors of homes of people they expected to vote for them, but haven’t so far.

Tellers don’t actually know which way you voted.

However the key point here is that just because a party might like to know whether or not you’ve voted, you absolutely don’t have to tell them.

And I genuinely don’t think a lot of people know the rules, and more to the point that you can completely ignore tellers.

As I was leaving the polling station this morning a lady entering in behind me was asked for her voter number. She looked a little surprised and slightly apologetic: “I’m sorry. I didn’t think I needed to bring my card with me.”

The teller told that, no, she didn’t. And because she didn’t know, he left her on her way.

But people widely think that they have to pass on their details.

We’re British. We’re polite. “Of course you can see my card.”

There are rules on what tellers can and can’t do. They can wear rosettes (although not all do), but they shouldn’t be spreading any particular message.

However they’re unofficial, and you can politely say, “No thanks,” as I did when asked for my number this morning.

In a world where political targeting is getting more sophisticated, I’m not inclined to pass on any information to the parties. I’m not a member of a party, and perhaps if I was, I might feel different.

This election, for the first time, I’ve been targeted on a massive scale online. No longer do I see posters beyond those put up by people inside or outside of their homes. I’ve not seen any newspaper ads. But I have seen a lot of advertising across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And it’s all for one party. They know I live in a marginal, and they’d like me to vote for them. (The advertising is all negative, incidentally. It has all been about why I shouldn’t vote for the other lot. Well, if you can’t stand on your own policies, then I’m definitely not voting for you. Simple as that. You can take your US election tactics and keep them.)

There’s a lot of talk about how “big data” is being used to tightly target voters. and indeed put off some people from voting at all. While I’m not inclined to believe that these database-driven campaigns are as powerful as they’re sometimes portrayed in media reports, I’ve certainly come to the view that I’m not contributing to these databases.

EU Referendum: Immediate Post Mortem Thoughts

Women's Tour of Britain - Stage 4 - Cheshunt to Welwyn via Hertford-1

  • Cameron has to take a massive amount of blame for all of this. He probably didn’t think he was going to win the last General Election, and therefore including something in his manifesto to keep UKIP at bay was probably just a sop to them. But he won unexpectedly and so felt he had to carry through to prevent party divisions. This despite knowing it was a dangerous ploy, despite knowing that this is a complicated argument to make to the electorate, and despite nearly losing the Scottish referendum previously. He didn’t make the case strongly enough, and he’s now fallen on his sword, possibly to be remembered as the prime minister who ended our membership of the EU, saw the end of the Union, and possibly worse.
  • Osborne must be a dead duck. His Project Fear didn’t work. The “emergency budget” he talked about was just too extreme to be taken seriously. I don’t doubt that there will need to be remedial action, and we’ll find out in the days and weeks what that’ll be. But he over-egged the pudding, and voters saw through it. He was planning to be the next PM, but now his career must be in tatters.
  • Remain did not remotely make their case. It’s hard to prove a negative, and easier to say we should do something rather than continue as we are: “Something must be done!” But there’s no doubt that the Remain campaign was abysmal. It’s now pretty clear that while they reached the educated population, who understands why the economy is important. To many less educated, that’s just a nebulous thing. As the exchange rate tanks this morning, to many people that only really matters to them when it comes to changing some holiday money. They don’t think it affects them. The importance of the EU on jobs and trade wasn’t made clear in a way that reached the politically illiterate. There are a lot of people I’d class in that group. They will get out and vote, even if they don’t truly understand what they’re voting for. That’s not the whole story of course, but for some it truly is as you heard people giving the most awful reasons for leaving during the campaign.
  • Jeremy Corbyn was useless. I’m sorry — I’m sure he was a lovely guy — but he didn’t lead from the front. In the early part of the campaign there was silence from Labour, because the whole thing seemed to be about in-fighting Tories. They woke up a bit latterly, but there’s a suspicion that he’s actually a bit of a Eurosceptic. His call for invoking Article 50 immediately seems misplaced. But mostly, it was about not campaigning hard enough or loud enough. You need more charisma than he seems to exude. While I’m sure he’s a compelling speaker in a hall somewhere, most voters only see or hear candidates on television. I can’t think he really thought a Leave win would so damage the Tories, that Labour would be able to win through the middle. He must be wondering if Labour are going to replace him in time for any general election that might follow the Conservatives choosing a new Prime Minister, because I can’t see him prospering in the next election.
  • Immigration. The dirty word that Leave bandied around the whole time, but that Remain did little to really counter. When it comes down to it, this is the issue. Whether people really think they’re losing their jobs, or there’s just a little bit of racism, I’m not sure. I suspect some of both. But this was the key issue.
  • No facts. Electors were being asked to make a decision about something they didn’t really understand. This goes back to Cameron calling a referendum in the first place. But with a biased printed press, and a broadcast media forced to play a straight bat and counter any claim with a counter claim, it left people with little real understanding and no way to tell truth from lies.

In the meantime, the nearest A&E to me has closed down, and is currently being redeveloped as housing. And the only other hospital in my borough with an A&E department is now described as “unsafe” and “unsupported.” So I’m looking forward to learning in which week we’re going to get a shiny new hospital as promised by Leave. We’ll ignore the nitty gritty about not being in power, and there not being any staff to support such a new facility – at least not without lots of immigration.

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John Oliver on Brexit

On Sunday night, HBO in the US aired a new episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The second half of the show was a long explanation/opinion piece from Oliver about what Brexit is (this is a show aimed at Americans after all), and was essentially a 15 minute piece imploring Britain to Vote Remain. It’s very good and hits the nail on the head.

On Monday morning the HBO had posted the full 15 minutes on YouTube.

In fact some of the videos from Last Week Tonight put on YouTube are blocked in the UK by the uploader – i.e. HBO. But this one wasn’t. The reason is almost certainly because Sky Atlantic has the rights to the show in the UK, and Sky prefers to limit access to clips from the show to its own subscribers.

But in this instance, UK viewers could watch — almost certainly because Oliver and his producers knew that the piece wouldn’t be broadcastable in the UK until the Brexit referendum had finished.

I noticed quite early on Monday that the piece was unbroadcastable under UK election guidelines, and later on Monday, Sky Atlantic pulled its planned broadcast from Monday night when new episodes of the show usually air. Sky Atlantic will instead broadcast the show on Thursday after polls close.

Now if you were to believe a certain section of the “Twittersphere” this is because Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and his papers in particular are rampantly “Leave.”

But the truth is that Sky Atlantic couldn’t have shown the programme whether or not they had wanted to (Murdoch doesn’t fully own Sky either, although he certainly exercises a lot of control).

In the UK we have strict rules about impartiality in the run-up to an election or referendum. The UK regulator Ofcom, publishes a Broadcast Code which all UK commercial broadcasters have to adhere to (The BBC also adheres to some parts of the code).

Section Six of the code deals with Elections and Referendums, and is based on UK law:

Relevant legislation includes, in particular, sections 319(2)(c) and 320 of the Communications Act 2003, and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Broadcasters should also have regard to relevant sections of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (as amended) (“RPA”) – see in particular sections 66A, 92 and 93 (which is amended by section 144 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000).

Ofcom told broadcasters earlier this year that the “referendum period” would run from 15 April 2016 until 10pm 23 June 2016.

Rule 6.3 is critical during this time:

Due weight must be given to designated organisations in coverage during the referendum period. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to other permitted participants with significant views and perspectives.

It’s pretty clear that Sky Atlantic wouldn’t have been able to balance John Oliver’s piece appropriately, and so, they postponed the episode until after the election.

Topical comedy programmes are always tricky during election periods, and it’s notable that the current run of Have I Got News For You has been interrupted until after the referendum now. You can broadcast topical comedy, but you have to have “balance” in your comedy too.

What if Sky had broadcast the programme anyway? What could have happened?

Well Ofcom regularly finds broadcasters in breach of it’s code. Only this week the Discovery owned Quest (and Quest+1) channel was found to have breached several rules when they broadcast a post-watershed programme, complete with multiple swearwords, in an early-morning pre-watershed slot.

In this instance, the finding was simply a rap on the knuckles (Discovery was extremely apologetic, and put in place new compliance procedures to ensure that the mistake was not repeated), but no further sanction. Broadcasters who repeatedly breach rules can face fines or in extreme cases, have their broadcast licences revoked. In essence they can be shut down. This is rare, and for the most part has only happened to adult channels who have repeatedly breached rules. But a multi-billion pound broadcaster like Sky, reporting to shareholders, cannot possibly risk the loss of its licence.

You can be certain that Ofcom and potentially the Crown Prosecution Service would take greater exception to rules surrounding elections and referendums being broken by a large broadcaster. The Representation of the People Act would potentially leave senior people at an infringing broadcaster personally responsible for illegal actions, and subject to being prosecuted under the law.

Indeed, here’s what Ofcom published with respect to a much smaller local election recently:

Ofcom will consider any breach arising from election-related programming to be potentially serious, and will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, in such cases, including considering the imposition of a statutory sanction. (i.e. the removal of a broadcast licence.)

Furthermore, the fine that Ofcom can choose to impose can be informed by that company’s turnover. Sky’s 2015 turnover was around £11.3bn.

Since broadcasting the Oliver piece without “balance” would be deemed quite deliberate by Sky, the cumulative fine, risk to broadcast licence and the potential for personal prosecution means that there was no way Sky was ever going to broadcast it.

It’s not a conspiracy — just the law.

Note: I’m not a lawyer, and these are just my interpretation of the rules as I understand them.

Satire, Parliament and Dennis Skinner

Commons

Last week Labour stalwart Dennis Skinner was ejected from the House of Commons for the rest of the Parliamentary day for calling the Prime Minister “Dodgy Dave” during his statement on his father’s off-shore affairs to Parliament. The Speaker, John Bercow, didn’t like it, and Skinner was forced to leave.

Skinner regularly entertains with his witty and acerbic comments, so this wasn’t out of character. In this instance, Skinner had a particular interest in the subject and had confronted Cameron on it previously.

What’s interesting is how the news was later reported beyond the day’s news reports.

On Friday, Have I Got News For You covered it, pointing out that Parliamentary rules prevented them from showing clips on a satirical TV programme. They instead used an “artist’s impression” as shown above.

Now I’ve written about this issue before – here in 2009, and again in 2011.

As the licences to use material from Parliamentary coverage make clear:

no extracts of Parliamentary proceedings may be used in any light entertainment programme or in a programme of political satire;

This is despite some changes in copyright legislation which, to my non lawyer’s eyes, would seem to be at odds with them.

So it was slightly surprising to sit down and watch Monday night’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sky Atlantic, originally transmitted by HBO on Sunday evening, and see footage of Commons, lifted from the BBC’s website, and used by Oliver for, well, satirical purposes!

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Of course in the US, they have separate copyright rules and restrictions, and they don’t have to adhere to UK rules. Fair Use probably applies, and so the footage was used. And programmes like this, The Daily Show and many others, regularly use C-SPAN coverage of US government business to illustrate their stories. Only the Supreme Court remains off limits to cameras (Oliver has notably used a “court” of dogs to illustrate exchanges, alongside audio recordings which are allowed).

I was slightly surprised to see that Sky Atlantic didn’t edit that segment before UK broadcast however, since it does seem that they’re in violation of Parliamentary rules. I wouldn’t be surprised if a trimmed down version is used for any rebroadcasts, although at time of writing the full unexpurgated episode is available on Sky Go.

It’s a ridiculous rule of course, and the point is that the footage is widely available.

Last month Rupa Huq MP, sister-in-law to Charlie Brooker, requested that it was lifted, but her request was denied by Chris Grayling MP, leader of the House of Commons.

As Brooker is quoted is the Telegraph as saying, “”Have I Got News For You can’t use clips from the House of Commons, whereas This Week can – with funny music dubbed on top.”

And of course, you can very easily view the footage, including Skinner calling Cameron “Dodgy Dave” on at least two occasions before he was required to leave the Commons by the Speaker for “Disorderly Conduct.” Here it is on the BBC website for example.

I can even go ahead and make an animated GIF of it!

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But for goodness sake, don’t let the footage end up on a satirical television programme in the UK. Whatever would happen then?

The Power of Newspapers… Or Lack Thereof

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After the 1992 election when John Major defeated Neil Kinnock, The Sun published a now famous headline: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.” I suspect that this is now a standard text that pupils examine in their GCSE Politics courses. Did The Sun really win it? Or were they just reading the runes and backing the winners?

Of course there’s no question. Murdoch has only ever wanted to back a winner. You don’t sell more papers than anybody else by ignoring your readers.

But whatever the extent of The Sun’s impact on that election, more than thirty years ago now, it’s all frankly rather quaint that we’re still talking about the importance of UK newspapers in this election in 2015.

I love newspapers as I’ve often expressed on this website. I still buy an actual paper copy every day. But they’ve long been in decline in their paper format. Here’s a chart I’ve lifted from The Media Briefing (Sadly, ABC figures are not easy to source historically if you’re not a subscriber). It’s a year or so old, but it shows how far we’ve come.

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Yes, there is an internet readership for most of these titles, but there’s much less loyalty – search or social media is as likely to drive a reader to your site as any kind of brand loyalty. Do you really think that people who browse the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame at work in their lunch-hour really care what the editorial line of the print paper is?

So I believe that it’s only fair to conclude that with fewer people reading paper copies, they have less influence than ever.

Which I think makes it almost endearing that so many people have such an interest in which way papers suggest we should vote. Newspapers are actually pretty lucky that television and radio are bound by impartiality rules in the UK, unlike the US. With the BBC and ITV playing a straight bat with news, it’s down to newspaper to add opinion, and partisan politics. And to make coverage interesting, broadcasters turn to print to get a sniff of some of that opinion. Hence “Newspaper Reviews” on the news channels. (You never see a newspaper paying as much interest to Panorama or Dispatches.)

The vast majority of our national press is right wing. But then so are their older readers. The young don’t buy newspapers. The best they might do is pick up Metro in the morning. And nobody really cares about Metro’s editorial line.

I rather think we’ve reached a turning point now and that frankly newspapers can say whatever they like – even if in the case of The Independent that seems to go against everything their readers believe. In a double-Lebedev-whammy, the London Evening Standard came out for the Tories today, when in fact they’re likely to lose a decent number of seats in the capital to Labour.

But simply put, newspapers won’t affect the outcome of this election. So stop frothing about it on Twitter. The Sun might be reprinting an old photo of Ed Miliband, but I’m only seeing it because left-leaning people on Twitter are getting angry about it. I care no more than if it had been another Royal baby photo.

There’s a lot of hysteria on front pages at the moment. Yet is there a single buyer of the Daily Mail who’s going to vote Labour? They’re simply preaching to the choir… The Independent notwithstanding.

Why should we care what the papers say any more than what Buzzfeed says? Or Zoella? Or the Lad Bible? Or Mumsnet? Or Digital Spy? Frankly, those people and sites might have more sway were they to express an opinion.

Polling and the Scottish Referendum

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What an interesting few weeks it has been for poll-watching. I say that from my London perspective. Obviously north of the border, this is a debate that has been running for years now, and us southerners have only really woken up to it recently.

In particular, we woke up to it following a Sunday Times poll a few weeks ago that suggested that the Yes camp might actually win – and Scotland leave the Union.

However, in terms of the science of polling, there are some fascinating pieces being written about the difficulties faced by polling companies in this referendum. They would seem to boil down to the following:

– Nobody has polled a referendum like this before, making it really hard
– The potential “shy Noes”
– An actual result ~50% has the biggest margin of error possible

Let’s go through those one by one.

Polling companies tend to rely very heavily on previous voter behaviour to predict what is going to happen. They can try to weight for actual behaviour last time when trying to predict what will happen this time. They know which groups are likely to vote (the elderly) and which aren’t (the young). And they’ve got solutions in place for issues that they’ve encountered before.

For example on last week’s More or Less on Radio 4, the example was given of Conservative voters in the 90s. People were a bit nervous about admitting that they would vote Conservative – even to pollsters. Polling organisations have to take account of that.

But when you have no historical data to work from, and when so many new registrations have been made, leading to what will surely be a record turnout, you really don’t know for certain what’s going to happen.

The “shy Noes” are a good example of this. There’s a view that the noisy and vociferous “Yes” campaign has caused those who are voting “No” to keep shut up – some even claim to be scared of admitting in public that they’re a “No.” Not living in Scotland (although I did for year in the early 90s), it’s hard to know what the truth is. I do know that when I watched the BBC debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, it felt like Salmond won as much for the much louder cheering he got from the audience. It’s not at all surprising that “Yes” can be made to feel much more positive than “No.”

Statistically, if the true result is somewhere in the region of 50% behaving one way, the margin of error is worse than if the results was say 10% or 90%. With a result down the middle, you get a bigger margin of error, or you need a significantly bigger sample to mitigate against this. Even if polling organisations do the latter, there’s no guarantee that they’ll not end up wrong though because of the first two issues I’ve raised.

There are some worthwhile pieces of reading from Anthony Wells of YouGov and Ben Page of Ipsos MORI that get into this in a bit more detail.

Also of interest is the fact that Betfair is paying out for “No” ahead of the vote. Bookies are rarely wrong.

My own personal belief is that, despite that polling scares, the “No” vote will get it. I think the margin will be bigger than the currently reported 4% in the polls, as I think the “shy Noes” are a real thing. Added to which older “No” voters are more likely to get to Polling Stations that younger “Yes” voters and actually cast their votes. Indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if the margin was as big as 8-10%.

You can give me a large slice of humble pie to eat on Friday morning if I’m wrong.

As for which way Scots should vote? Well my grandfather was Scottish, and thus I could represent Scotland in many sports (were I good enough); I’ve been on holiday there many times; I’ve lived there for a time; and my name is Scottish – affiliated with the McDonald Clan, you can find a Ben Bowie near the southern edge of Loch Lomond. I love Scotland. But for the life of me, I can’t see that a “Yes” vote would be anything other than disastrous for the people. The oil reserves are a big unknown – improved extraction techniques not withstanding. Salmond still hasn’t given a satisfactory answer as to how he could use the pound (and he won’t be using the Euro). Prices will have to rise – it’s the cost of doing cross-border business. And I can’t see any way now that Scotland won’t get devomax. So in many respects it’s a win for Scotland anyway. The complaints of about lack of representation in Westminster are no worse than much of northern England. Getting into the EU isn’t a given (Spain won’t be in a rush to let Scotland in for example).

Oddly enough I find Alex Salmond the weakest part of the “Yes” campaign. Beyond his lack of a cogently-argued economic policies, his brown-nosing of Rupert Murdoch is worse than anything Tony Blair did. And his obsequiousness towards Donald Trump, as highlighted in Anthony Baxter’s excellent You’ve Been Trumped (and apparently, in his follow up that I’ve yet to see – A Dangerous Game) did not endear me to the man. I’m told that in Scotland, the “Yes” campaign is more than just about Salmond. But you wouldn’t know that from afar.

Interestingly, the Scottish Sun has failed to come out for the “Yes” camp as many had been suspecting. But as much as anything, this will be a commercial decision made by Murdoch, much as he’d like to give Westminster a bloody nose after the whole phone hacking fallout. It’s never so much “The Sun Wot Won It” as “The Sun backs the winner.” This time around they don’t know who the winner will be. And backing the wrong horse could endanger sales.

I think one of the toughest things after this campaign, is the Scottish people reconciling their futures with one another. Whichever way the vote goes tomorrow, half the people are going to be disappointed – bitterly disappointed in many cases. That’s going to take more getting over than a general election, where you always know that within 4-5 years, you’ll get another chance.

Finally, if you’ve not seen John Oliver on this, then he’s very much worth a watch. And they’ve un-geoblocked this segment for us Brits especially!

(Just nobody point this out to them. I can trust you on that can’t I? Mum’s the word.)