Election Unease: How IDOX Conspiracy Theories Undermine Genuine Concerns
Though there are legitimate questions around election management IT systems, Brendan O’Brien explains how wild disinformation inhibits valid analysis.
In the few weeks since December’s general election, a belief in election-rigging that centres on an IT services company called Idox has shaped itself on Twitter into a full-blown conspiracy theory, complete with detailed, purported modi operandi.
The theory’s premise is that postal votes were rigged with the connivance of Idox, a company quoted on the London Stock Exchange and with a market capitalisation of £160 million that provides electoral services software to some councils.
The specific allegations range from Idox’s software rejecting the ballots of known anti-Tory voters right through to Idox conspiring with other agencies to intercept postal voting packs and fill them in themselves.
The theory has been derided as implausible, indeed impossible, by a smaller band of counter-tweeters that includes council staff who have worked in electoral services departments as well as party activists and serving councillors from the Labour and Lib Dem parties.
Although the theory massively took off in December, it first emerged in relation to Scotland several years ago, particularly after the independence referendum. The theory was expounded, in general terms, on alternative news websites, for example a 2016 article in TruePublica. It did not, however, acquire specific modi operandi until over the Christmas period after the general election.
Disappointment and rage after the general election may underlie Twitter’s take-up of a theory which would mean that Labour and Remainers did not lose the election after all. Proponents of the theory are usually – but not exclusively – supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Many are strong Remainers. Whilst Labour is the commonest party allegiance, there are also many Lib Dem subscribers, some of whom appear to have left the Labour Party relatively recently over its Brexit position(s).
The theory builds on some elements that are objectively true facts. It is true, for example, that Peter Lilley, a former Tory minister, was in the past a director of Idox (thus making it “a Tory-owned company” according to the theory’s proponents).
Equally true is the counter-tweeters’ point that his shareholding amounts to a meagre 0.1% and that he had a non-executive role that required only eight hours a month. It is also true that according to news reports in 2014, an IT error by Idox compromised personal confidentiality (though not voting) when electoral roll data was accidentally released for marketing purposes.
Historic news stories about voting irregularities have been co-opted. A BBC story from September 2019 – ‘High Court overturns Highworth election count error’ – has been re-posted in support of the theory, even though the story is that no fraud was found, or even alleged in the first place and it does not mention Idox. Headlines of real cases of postal voting fraud have been brought to bear – though the fraud identified in them was not by official agencies or private companies but by party activists.
what the papers don’t say
Growing concerns about the integrity of public life are likely to have fed the Idox theory.
The conduct of the EU referendum – the claims on the side of the bus, the findings about funding and about Cambridge Analytica – may have created an atmosphere in which some people are willing to believe almost anything about the UK’s democratic processes.
The illegal prorogation of parliament was the opener to a general election whose result left many in uncomprehending despair.
Bizarre as the Twitter storm is, the fact that it has erupted at all may give public officials and politicians pause for thought. A number, albeit still a relatively small number, of citizens are now willing to believe in outright vote-rigging, and this may prompt some valid post-election questions.
Amid the high emotion under the Twitter #IDOX hashtag, there can be found a few reasonable questions. Does the postal voting system enjoy the confidence of the public? If not, what changes could be made to restore confidence? Should the Electoral Commission conduct and publish a review of third party IT systems that are commonly supplied to councils’ electoral services departments?
But for now, Idox has firmly joined the pantheon of conspiracy theories.