Ahead of the official campaigning period beginning tomorrow, the Vote No Borders campaign have called an end to the “first stage” of their referendum campaign. After 28 days, the controversial project, campaigning for a No vote in September’s referendum, dropped the “Donate” page from their website, and replaced it with another.
We know this because we’ve been keeping a VERY close eye on the Vote No Borders website.
During this time, we’ve found evidence that suggests a whopping 93% of received donations registered over £500 but below the £7500 limit required for declaration before the referendum.
Even more incredibly, more than 72% of the amount raised was attributed to donations between £7000 and £7500, allowing those donors to remain anonymous until after the vote.
What follows surely removes any remaining doubt that Vote No Borders is an astroturf campaign, funded by anonymous wealthy backers who are deliberately avoiding public scrutiny, to give the impression of a campaign that has popular grassroots support.
Launched on the 1st May 2014, Vote No Borders claims to be a “non-party political campaign” seeking to build grassroots support for a No vote in September’s referendum. Unexpected and unknown, there was frenzied interest in what was the first serious group outside of Better Together campaigning for a No vote.
Despite being relatively unexpected and unknown, Vote No Borders somehow managed to go from a complete unknown one day, to enjoying media-wide coverage the next. That coverage led to criticisms that the mainstream media were offering unprecedented and uncritical coverage of Vote No Borders that has not been repeated, and likely never will, for any other group in this campaign.
During this time however, it was discovered that Malcolm Offord, principal founder of Vote No Borders, is a long time Tory donor based in London. Offord is joined by Fiona Gilmore, who just happens runs a London-based consultancy, Acanchi, which specialises in “country positioning strategies”. Before long, the Vote No Borders domain records also connected a Gary Waple from the campaign back to Acanchi, while evidence on professional networking site Linkedin, suggested Acanchi had been tasked with planning this campaign as far back as 2012.
From the very first days of this campaign, the profile of their backers meant it was highly questionable whether this really was a non-party political campaign never mind a “grassroots” one. We sought to investigate just how this campaign was being funded.
Using some very basic software tools, we’ve been monitoring the Vote No Borders website every 5 minutes for the last 4 weeks using a very simple web scraper.
Put simply, web scraping is a means of extracting data from websites. Such a tool automates tasks we do on a daily basis: load a website, read some information, pick out certain data, etc. Assuming the structure of the page is pretty static and unchanging, loading the page automatically and extracting some basic data is simple.
In this instance, it took 10 minutes to write a simple tool that loads the Vote No Borders “Donate” page and extracts the total amount donated to their campaign. Furthermore, it’s equally simple to repeat this task every 5 minutes, all day, every day.
So we did.
Since 2nd May, we’re been logging the amount donated to Vote No Borders via their website. Every five minutes, the date, time and the amount raised was logged.
We also logged how many “public interactions” were noted on the donation page – this included some information about people who were sharing the page on social media, donating, etc. This lasted 4 days before the feature was disabled so that it was no longer possible to view this information.
While useful, the tool only detects changes in the total amount raised as displayed on the Vote No Borders website. As such, it can only give a rough indication of when and what donations were made.
So what did we find?
The Data: Grassroots or Astroturfing?
We found that between the 2nd May and 28th May, our tool only detected 121 changes to the total amount raised as declared on the Vote No Borders website. While it is almost certain that multiple donations were occasionally made in the same 5 minute period, the low rate of donations suggests this was rare.
Despite this, it looks certain that the Vote No Borders website received no more than 150 different donations. Yes, that’s one-hundred-and-fifty. A campaign that exploded into the referendum campaign in a blaze of publicity and nationwide coverage has averaged less than 7 donations for each day of the campaign to date.
Rather than the number of donations to the campaign increasing as their message spreads to an increasing number of people – as would be the case in a true grassroots campaign – there is clear evidence that this has not happened. In fact, in the past week, there has been a decrease in the number of detected donations.
Despite this, in less than 4 weeks the campaign has managed to raise a staggering £106,683. That eye-watering sum equates to an average donation in the region of £881. There is also a clear contrast in the frequency of donations and the amount raised: Lows of £255 from 11 donations on 9th May, to highs of £24,609 from 5 donations on 7th May or £21,200 from just 4 donations on 18th May.
Where the analysis of this campaign get’s really interesting is in the individual amounts donated. Less than 1% of the donations detected were valued at less than £50. In total, just over 6% of detected donations were of a value that were less than or equal to the £500 limit that requires regulation. This means that over 93% of the money donated to Vote No Borders will be regulated and require declaration to the Electoral Commission.
While this is true, only sums donated over £7500 must be registered before September’s referendum. To date, there have be no donations that meet this criteria meaning every donation we detected will avoid regulation until after the poll.
However, the most alarming data in this study concerns the money donated to Vote No Borders that appears designed to avoid pre-poll regulation. The Vote No Borders has a maximum pre-configured donation value of £5000. If any donor wishes to donate more, they must manually enter that value before proceeding – paying attention to the following useful reminder on the same page:
Please note that whilst, under Electoral Commission rules, we have the responsibility to check the source of all donations over £500, only donations totalling over £7,500 have to be published publicly on their website. The £7,500 threshold is per campaign, therefore any donations to other campaigns are not taken into account.
With this in mind, we found that a full £78,508 (73.59%) of money donated fell in the £7000-£7500 range. That’s 11 5 minute periods over 4 weeks where the total amount donated via the Vote No Borders website suddenly jumped by over £7,000 but less than the £7,501 required for pre-poll regulation. This is surely a clear attempt to avoid declaration and scrutiny between now and September 18th.
Futhermore, two separate donations of £7,000, which were made within 30 minutes of each other on Sunday 18th May between 7am and 8am, are surely deserving of scrutiny from the Electoral Commission to determine whether they (amongst others) are from the same source and subject to regulation via pre-poll reporting.
The table below highlights the 11 donations detected between £7,000 and £7,500.
While it is possible that this is all above board, there is clearly a coordinated campaign of secrecy behind the funding of Vote No Borders and a clear risk that multiple donations from the same source may have breached the £7500 limit.
* The £7,010 amount is likely to be one of the raise occasions where two donations we’re made in the same 5 minute window (ie: one donation of £7,000 and one donation of £10).
With no more than 150 detectable donations and a flat, or even declining, trend in the number of donations received per day, this is clear confirmation that Vote No Borders is anything but a grassroots campaign. Analysis of the actual amounts donated via the Vote No Borders website underlines that this is a wealthy campaign seeking to influence the independence referendum under the pretence of popular public support.
The data above highlights a campaign that is generously funded by a small group of wealthy individuals who wish to remain anonymous while hiding behind the manufactured perception of a grassroots campaign. By definition, there can be no doubt this is a blatant astroturf campaign.
Suspicious levels of donations give clear indication that donors are explicitly trying to avoid regulation before the referendum and the Electoral Commission must act to ensure that Vote No Borders are not receiving multiple donations from regulated donors that total more than £7500. The official campaign period may begin tomorrow, but it is clear that campaign funding to date requires far greater scrutiny.
The Campaign Continues…
With the first stage complete, the second stage has just begun and immediately more questions are raised. Within 15 minutes of their new “Donate” page going online and our modified web scraper being configured, the Vote No Borders website immediately indicated that £6000 had been raised toward their new target of £150,000.
That’s right. 15 minutes. £6000. Further donations of £250 and £50 today bring the current total to £6300.
The Vote No Borders campaign is clearly the very definition of astroturfing and the Scottish people deserve to know who is funding this campaign.