'Largely inaccurate': New movie casts spotlight on B.C. firm's role in Brexit

A Canadian tech firm says it has been inaccurately portrayed in a controversial new TV movie about the highly political campaign that led to Britain's planned exit from the European Union. Brexit: The Uncivil War premiered Monday in the U.K. and will land on HBO later this month.

AggregateIQ founder portrayed in HBO film starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch plays the 'Vote Leave' campaign director Dominic Cummings in the Channel 4/HBO film Brexit. (Nick Wall/Channel 4)

A Canadian tech firm says it has been inaccurately portrayed in a controversial new TV movie about the highly political campaign that led to Britain's planned exit from the European Union.

Brexit: The Uncivil War premiered Monday on the U.K.'s Channel 4, with a North American release set for HBO on Jan. 19.

The drama is focused on real events leading up to the 2016 U.K. referendum, with Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Dominic Cummings, the strategist behind the "Vote Leave" campaign.

But the film also centres on a Canadian social media advertising specialist as playing a key role in the Leave side's victory.

Early in the film, Cumberbatch's character meets a man sitting on a park bench in London, holding a smartphone. He introduces himself as Zack Massingham, of AggregateIQ.

Massingham — played in the film by Kyle Soller — is the real-life CEO of AggregateIQ, a small, Victoria-based company hired by the Leave camp and later tied to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

'Tell them you're a junior intern'

"Technically, we use sophisticated algorithms to micro-target populations in political campaigns," Soller's Massingham explains in the film.

He's later shown setting up computer equipment in Vote Leave offices. "If anyone asks, just tell them you're a junior intern," the character of Massingham is told.

AIQ is alleged to have been used by the pro-Brexit group to circumvent campaign finance laws and overspend ahead of the referendum.

The character of Zack Massingham, right, is played by Kyle Soller. Massingham is the co-founder and CEO of AggregateIQ, a B.C.-based consulting firm who worked with the 'Vote Leave' campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum. (Nick Wall/Channel 4)

The film shows AIQ as presenting the Leave campaign with ads targeted at social media users susceptible of voting for Brexit. One ad is disguised as a soccer quiz offering an astonishing 50-million-pound prize, or about $100 million at that time.

"The odds to win are six trillion," says Cumberbatch, as Cummings. "With every click, we get to know you better, so our ads can target you better."

AIQ's actual ads were released last year by a British parliamentary committee, including ones that falsely led readers to believe Turkey would join the EU and that abandoning the EU could save Britain enough money to build a new hospital once every seven days.

One of the real ads created by AggregateIQ for the Leave campaign focused on a claim that the U.K. was sending £350 million a week to the EU — and that money could instead go toward health care under Brexit. In a scene from the film, Benedict Cumberbatch, as Dominic Cummings, is shown in front of a Leave campaign bus. ( Joss Barratt/Channel 4)

An accurate portrayal or not?

In an email to CBC News, AggregateIQ's chief operating officer, Jeff Silvester, called the film's portrayals of the B.C.-based company and Zack Massingham "largely inaccurate."

"The show was nevertheless entertaining and touched on many of the referendum's core themes," he said.

But Shahmir Sanni, a former Vote Leave volunteer who acted as a whistleblower on campaign misconduct, disagrees. "There's no other way to describe AIQ aside from 'sinister,'" he said. "I felt like it was pretty accurate, to be honest."

Watch the HBO trailer for Brexit:

Last year, Britain's information commissioner served AggregateIQ with formal notice it had broken European data protection regulations, saying the company had processed personal data "in a way [users] were not aware of, for purposes which they would not have expected, and without a lawful basis."

AIQ has appealed the commissioner's decision.

Ahead of the closing credits of Brexit, on-screen text tells viewers that Cummings "delivered an estimated one billion targeted adverts to voters through AggregateIQ in the lead-up to the referendum."

It goes onto explain that Britain's Electoral Commission found the Vote Leave campaign "guilty of breaking electoral law" in 2018.

Telling the story, as it happens

Still, some observers have suggested the movie doesn't properly highlight the need for further scrutiny of Vote Leave's tactics.

The final scene portrays Cummings as answering questions before a parliamentary committee, when, in reality, Cummings refused to appear.

"It's an imagined future," the film's writer, James Graham, told The Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr.

In the Q&A, Cadwalladr tells Graham she feels the film "whitewashed" history by sidestepping the campaign-finance violations revealed by Sanni.

The film's release comes at a sensitive time in the Brexit process. MPs are expected to vote next week on Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal.

With politicians of all stripes still voicing concern over that agreement, May faces the prospect of losing the vote, which could push the U.K. closer to a chaotic, no-deal Brexit on March 29.

"You can see why people feel it is too early" for a dramatized Brexit movie, British screenwriter and journalist Peter Jukes recently told CBC Radio's q"Is this not playing into the hands of a kind of normalization of what happened in Brexit?"

In its final moments, Brexit acknowledges it is not meant as a comprehensive history: "This story continues to unfold."


Thomas Daigle

Senior Reporter

Thomas is a reporter for a variety of CBC News programs, currently based in Toronto. Previously at CBC's London, U.K. bureau, he reported on everything from the Royal Family and European politics to terrorism. Thomas filed stories from Quebec for several years and reported for Radio-Canada in his native New Brunswick.

With files from CBC's Lily Martin


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