Was Brexit also Putin’s fault?
The simmering anti-Russia hysteria that has emerged in the UK recently has finally boiled over, and it appears last night’s story in the Times of London claiming that a swarm of Twitter bots reportedly created by a troll farm possibly linked to Russian intelligene (sound familiar?) posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum to try and “so discord” among the public was the grain of rice that tipped the scale.
Details that will sound familiar to anybody who’s been following the ongoing hysteria surrounding the multiple investigations into Russian influence in the US election, the suspicious twitter accounts shared messages that promoted both the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns, purportedly a “sophisticated” ploy to confuse and bewilder voters.
Most of the tweets seen by this newspaper encouraged people to vote for Brexit, an outcome which Russia would have regarded as destabilising for the European Union. A number were pro-Remain, however, suggesting that the Russian goal may have been simply to sow division.
“This is the most significant evidence yet of interference by Russian-backed social media accounts around the Brexit referendum,” said Damian Collins, the Tory MP who chairs the digital, culture, media and sport select committee.
“The content published and promoted by these accounts is clearly designed to increase tensions throughout the country and undermine our democratic process. I fear that this may well be just the tip of the iceberg."
According to the Times, more than 150,000 accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, switched attention to Brexit in the days leading up to last year’s vote, according to research for an upcoming paper by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley.
In other words, after months of tweeting about pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, these bots started firing off messages amplifying the voice of the ‘Leave’ campaign into the void.
The researchers said Russian activity spiked on June 23, the day of the referendum, and on June 24 when the result was announced. From posting fewer than 1,000 tweets a day before June 13, the suspicious accounts posted 39,000 tweets on June 24 before dropping off almost entirely.
The Swansea and Berkeley paper says that a “massive number of Russian-related tweets was created a few days before the voting day, reached its peak during the voting and the result and then dropped immediately afterwards”. Tho Pham, one of the paper’s authors, said that “the main conclusion is that bots were used on purpose and had influence”.
Of course, the Times report neglected to explain the Swansea researchers methodology. Facebook, Twitter and Google used the inadequate standard of having one’s browser language set to Russian. It’s unclear whether these researchers something that, like browser language, can be easily changed or mimicked by other groups.
On Monday, Theresa May accused Moscow of using fake news to “sow discord” and of meddling directly in elections. Her remarks followed a brief, impromptu meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at an Asian economic summit in Vietnam.
In what appeared to be an attempt to deflect attention away from a challenge to her leadership, UK Prime Minister Theresa May blasted Russia Monday evening, using her speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet to accuse them of interfering in foreign elections.
May accused Moscow of attempting to "weaponize information" as part of a "sustained campaign of cyberespionage and disruption." Russia's actions were "threatening the international order," she said.
"We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us," May said.
May listed off a litany of ills she ascribed to Russia since its annexation of Crimea, including fomenting conflict in eastern Ukraine, violating the airspace of European countries, and hacking the Danish ministry of defense and the German Parliament. Russia has also been accused of interfering in elections in the US, the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the independence vote in Catalonia.
Following May’s speech, reports emerged that individuals working on behalf of the Kremlin tried to set up meetings with conservative MPs, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Last night, one of the UK's cyber-defense chiefs adding to the anti-Russia sentiment by accusing Russian intelligence of attacking Britain's media, telecommunications and energy sectors over the past year.
Ciaran Martin, chief executive of GCHQ's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), echoed May’s claim that Russia was "seeking to undermine the international system."
Of course, there were at least two prominent British polls who decided to question the dubious accusations of interference.
Jeremy Corbyn wants to “see more evidence” that Russia is trying to undermine Western democracy, his spokesman said Wednesday.
And of course, as we noted yesterday, Nigel Farage pointed out during a speech at the European Parliament that financier George Soros has spent billions of dollars to push his political agenda across Europe, the US and the UK.
“How many of you have taken money from Open Society?” He asked his peers, referring to Soros’s Open Society foundation.
While the Russian hysteria has been raging for a year in the US now, in the UK, it’s only just beginning. In time, we will see of May’s government will continue to use Vladimir Putin as a boogeyman on which they can blame their failure to successfully negotiate amenable Brexit terms for the UK.