This Debate Pack has been prepared for the debate on the 'Russian interference in UK politics and society', to be held in the Main Chamber on Thursday 21 December 2017.Jump to full report >>
On 13 November, Prime Minister Theresa May gave the annual speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet. She had some strong words for Russia:
"It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.
So I have a very simple message for Russia.
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."
The Prime Minister was later asked in the House of Commons whether those comments could also cover Russian actions in relation to UK elections and the referendum. The usual response is that: “To date, the Government has not seen evidence of successful interference in UK elections.”
The Intelligence and Security Committee met for the first time on 23 November 2017 and indicated that it would be investigating Russian activity against the UK.
Enquiries are focusing on the more than 13,000 Twitterbot accounts that were active during the referendum campaign and were deactivated after the ballot. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that out of the 2,752 Russian Internet Research Agency accounts suspended by Twitter in the US, 419 were attempting to influence UK politics.
The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee wrote to Facebook, Twitter and Googler in October 2017 asking for details of advertisements and pages linked to Russia during the campaigns for the Brexit referendum and the 2017 General Election.
On 13 December, Twitter wrote to the DCMS Committee:
"Among the accounts that we have previously identified as likely funded from Russian sources, we have thus far identified one account—@RT.com— which promoted referendum-related content during the regulated period. @RT.com spent a total $469,900 in advertising on our platform in 2016, with $44,615.87 of that amount devoted to ads that were served users in the UK. Only $1,031.99 of that amount was spent on six referendum-related ads during the regulated period. I have provided a list of the Tweets in the attached appendix."
Damian Collins, chair of the committee, responded the next day, saying that Twitter’s statement was “completely inadequate”, that Twitter had only looked into paid advertising, and that the committee had asked a far wider range of questions than Electoral Commission was asking.
On 13 December, Facebook sent a letter to both the Electoral Commission and the House of Commons Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee in response to the Electoral Commission’s request. Facebook said that the 470 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, had paid for three advertisements related to Brexit, appearing in 200 news feeds. Facebook did not comment on non-paid posts, which had reached millions of voters in the US, nor did it investigate traffic associated with the UK general election.
Damian Collins, chair of the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee, argued that Facebook had not done a thorough job:
"Facebook’s statement to the electoral commission does not answer the questions that I put to Mark Zuckerberg. It would appear that no work has been done by Facebook to look for Russian activity around the EU referendum, other than from funded advertisements from those accounts that had already been identified as part of the US Senate’s investigation."
Google responded to the Electoral Commission on 8 December 2017, saying it had found no evidence of Russia-funded activity on its platforms. A spokesperson said: “We took a thorough look at our systems and found no evidence of this activity on our platform.”
The Electoral Commission is investigating digital campaigning – the use of data held by parties, campaigners and social media companies for targeting, how political ads are used on social media, and the use of bots – in the light of the Commission’s experience in general elections and the EU referendum, particularly with a view to campaign finance. The Commission’s regulatory powers, however, apply only to individuals or organisations or actions in the UK or to conduct that takes place within the UK. In a report issued on 14 November the Commission stated:
"We cannot use our own civil sanctioning powers on non-UK based individuals or organisations or on conduct that takes place outside the UK, although we can of course look to track and reach conclusions where non-UK individuals or organisations can be shown to have been involved in UK election-related activity."
There have also been questions about personal contacts between Russia and Arron Banks, one of Leave’s main backers.
The Electoral Commission has been recommending that legislation, which was passed in the pre-social media age, should be amended to require online election and referendum campaign material to include an imprint in the same way print material must. At present, the Electoral Commission best practice recommends that online material should include an imprint.
The EU set up the East StratCom Taskforce in 2015, a unit dedicated to countering Russian “disinformation campaigns” in the Eastern Neighbourhood countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Russia warned in November 2017 that raising the unit’s budget would harm EU relations with Russia.
Some $50 billion per year were leaving Russia and heading for Western financial centres until the oil price falls of 2014. A significant proportion of that money is the fruit of corruption, and Western financial institutions are accused of profiting from those illicit gains. The laundering of corrupt money in Western finance systems implicates Western institutions in malpractice and makes it more difficult for the West to do anything about it. It also strengthens the Kremlin’s grip on its domestic elite. Together these constitute a powerful tool against the domestic opposition, according to Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss:
"Western acquiescence in profiting from the corrupt gains of Russian elites then acts as a psychological weapon to demoralise the Russian domestic opposition, which feels abandoned and finds the Kremlin’s arguments regarding the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the West reinforced."
Although there is some evidence of coordination in favour of Leave coming from Russia, some analysts argue that it would not have been enough to swing the referendum result, and that the discontent of the British electorate was behind the vote.
Commons Debate packs CDP-2017-0255
Authors: Antonia Garraway; Ben Smith