- Questions have been bubbling away for months about the Kremlin’s role in Brexit.
- Major news outlets are now running in-depth reports on Russia-linked activity.
- The government says their is no evidence of Russian meddling in recent votes.
- Some MPs think the government is “stonewalling” and want a full inquiry.
Britain has suddenly woken up to the prospect that Russia may have interfered in last year’s EU referendum.
In the week when Prime Minister Theresa May accused Vladimir Putin’s regime of weaponising fake news to “sow discord” in the west and “meddle in elections,” the British press is awash with stories detailing Kremlin attempts to subvert Brexit.
These questions have been bubbling away for months and, as US investigators make progress in establishing whether Russian influenced last year’s presidential election, they have risen to the surface in the UK as well.
Citing findings from the University of Swansea and University of California, Berkeley, The Times said over 150,000 Russian-based accounts posted about Brexit in the days leading up to vote on June 23, 2016.
The majority were in favour of the campaign to leave the EU, the newspaper said, a position thought to align with Putin’s ambition to destabilise the west.
- The Times/The Guardian
And it’s not just Twitter. This week, Facebook stopped short of denying that Russian activists used the social network to exert influence over Brexit.
Meanwhile, the National Cyber Security Centre confirmed on Wednesday that Russia has attacked the UK’s media, telecommunication, and energy sectors.
Britain is “woke” but the government is “stonewalling”
“Britain is woke,” was the response to the coverage from Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist for The Observer, who has been closely following alleged Kremlin interference in UK democracy.
Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP who has for months been doggedly prodding the government on the question of Russian interference, tweeted: “At long last, the mainstream media wakes up to the scandal some of us have been banging about for more than a year.”
Bradshaw told Business Insider last month that he wants a full judge-led inquiry into the matter, akin to Robert Mueller’s probe into the US election last year and President Donald Trump’s potential links to the Kremlin.
This, incidentally, is supported by Leave.EU, the Brexit campaign supported by Nigel Farage.
But Bradshaw thinks the government is “stonewalling” on the issue because “it doesn’t want to undermine the referendum result or embarrass Donald Trump and jeopardise a post-Brexit trade deal.”
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, May gave no indication that she is about to interrogate some of the newspaper reports about Twitter bots.
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) November 15, 2017
In response to a question from Labour MP Mary Creagh, May backed Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said last week that there is no evidence that Russia has interfered in British democracy.
May added that her own observations about the Kremlin, in her speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet this week, related to other nations.
Russian influence is being investigated
Even if the government refuses to launch an independent inquiry, a number of other investigations into Russian interference have sprung up in recent months, which may provide answers.
The parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee also wants answers on Russian potential subversion from Twitter and Facebook as part of its inquiry into fake news.
And although not directly linked to Russia, the Information Commissioner’s Office is probing online voter data being used as a political weapon. It followed Leave.EU saying it worked with Cambridge Analytica – the data firm credited with helping Trump to win the US election – to use “creepy” profiling technology to persuade Brits to vote for Brexit. Cambridge Analytica strongly denied that it worked with Leave.EU.
Britain may now be alive to the issue of Russian interference in its most important election in generations, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered.