Unless you have literally been living in a cave for the past three years, you cannot have failed to become engulfed in the national debacle that is Britain’s efforts to leave the European Union.
Regardless of whether you are a staunch Remainer or an ardent Brexiteer, the chances are that you are frustrated with how the process of Brexit has been managed and eager for the right resolution to be reached so everyone can get on with other things.
But as the supposed date of Britain’s departure from the EU moves ever closer with no sign of an agreement being reached, Remain campaigners have abandoned all pretence of wanting a second referendum to approve the Brexit deal and gone all our for Britain to revoke Article 50 and remain in the European Union.
The problems with the Revoke Article 50 Petition
A petition on the UK Government website has, at the time of writing, achieved just under three-and-a-half million signatories. For remain campaigners that is being seen as a huge groundswell of public opinion against Brexit, despite the number still being some fourteen million fewer than those who supported Brexit back in 2016.
But it is not just the debate over numbers which has undermined the impact of this petition but also where the signatories have come from.
The UK Government petition site doesn’t just generate a total of the number of signatories. It also gathers data on individuals who are signing up and, crucially, where they are from.
This process has actually now stopped working due to the sheer volume of people accessing the petition. But before it crashed, it revealed some startling facts about where signatories were logging onto the site from.
At the last count, there were at least 10,500 signatories from France, 5,000 signatories from Germany, 4,000 from the USA, and numerous others from countries as diverse as Russia, China, the Vatican City, East Timor, and even North Korea.
It is worth noting that these signatories are just the ones who haven’t bothered trying to hide their actual location. If someone wanted to, it would be very easy to use a VPN to sign the petition and make it appear as if you were in the UK even if you weren’t.
By signing up to a VPN such as ExpressVPN or IPVanish and then connecting to a UK-based server, the UK Government petitions website would register your location as being in the UK regardless of where you actually are.
This method could be used, not only to allow individuals to sign the petition, but could also allow bots to get in on the action too.
Are bots trying to block Brexit?
This is one theory that the BBC has reported could be influencing the rapid increase in signatures on the petition.
They spoke to three cyber-security experts and while they all agreed that the requirement to have a unique email address could deter some bots, there are easy ways around the problem which mean the threat cannot be dismissed entirely.
Lisa Forte, a partner at the cyber-security firm Red-Goat, told the BBC, “Any significant political decision such as this petition is highly likely to attract bots.”
Meanwhile, Professor Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey added, “Is there some gaming going on? I wouldn’t be at all surprised… It’s a petition, it’s not a vote – it’s not meant to be as secure as an e-voting system.”
Insufficient checks to make the petition reliable
The official referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was run as a proper democratic ballot. This meant that only people registered to vote in the United Kingdom were able to cast their vote.
However, this is not the case with an online petition. To sign that, all people need is a UK-based postal address and a unique email address. They must also check a box saying they are from the UK, but there is no system to confirm whether or not this is the case.
However, many people have multiple email address and it is worth noting that there are more than a few remain campaigners actively posting their postcode on social media and encouraging people to use it to sign the petition.
There is also no check to ensure whether signatories are genuine or not. Given that he is an active campaigner for Brexit, it is remarkable how many times Nigel Farage seems to have signed the petition.
It may well be that there is a sizable proportion of British voters who would like Article 50 to be revoked and Brexit to be cancelled. But the fact is that VPNs and the insecure nature of the online petition system, mean this is simply not a reliable way to measure public opinion.