I write on the issue of how representative democracy can be
supported, rather than undermined, in a digital world, with particular reference to a petition ‘To establish a Public Inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU Referendum’, which this week passed the 100,000 mark, thus assuring parliamentary consideration.
The petition was created by Colin Talbot and made the case that:
‘There is now strong evidence of serious misconduct during the 2016 EU Referendum, including interference by foreign actors and governments. This must be investigated under the Inquiries Act (2005)’.
The Government responded on 24.04.19:
‘There are no plans to establish a public inquiry on the conduct during the 2016 EU Referendum’.
When the petition was originally launched in April the Government stated that it would not consider a public inquiry, justifying its decision with two assertions that are demonstrably untrue and which, in my opinion, are of particular relevance to committees’ call for evidence:
I hope that the committee will consider the following:
‘cannot state definitively that there was “no evidence of successful interference” in our democratic processes, as the term “successful” is impossible to define in retrospect. There is, however, strong evidence that points to hostile state actors influencing democratic processes. Cardiff University and the Digital Forensics Lab of the Atlantic Council have both detailed ways in which the Kremlin attempted to influence attitudes in UK politics.’
Indeed, in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on 13th November 2017, the Prime Minister herself accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake news, in an attempt to ‘weaponise information’ and sow discord in the West.
The aforementioned report also described how Kremlin-aligned media published significant numbers of unique articles about the EU referendum. The report highlighted how researchers from the campaigning organisation, 89 Up, analysed the most shared of the articles and identified 261 with a clear anti-EU bias. The two main outlets were Russia Today (RT), and Sputnik, with video produced by Ruptly.271, a video news agency owned by RT. The articles that went most viral had the heaviest anti-EU bias. The social reach of these anti-EU articles published by the Kremlin-owned channels was a staggering 134 million potential impressions, in comparison with a total reach of just 33 million and 11 million potential impressions for all content shared from the Vote Leave and Leave.EU websites respectively. The value for a comparable paid social media campaign would be between £1.4 and 4.14 million.
Data released by Twitter last year revealed too that, on the day of the Brexit vote (23.06.15, an ‘army’ of Russian trolls sent thousands of messages with the hashtag #ReasonsToLeaveEU. At one stage 3,800 fake accounts tweeted out 1,102 posts with the hashtag. In total, data from Twitter showed Russian and Iranian internet trolls sent more than 10 million tweets around the time of the referendum in an effort to spread disinformation.
The Commons Select Committee report also refers to Facebook’s removal on 17 January 2019 of 289 pages and 75 accounts from its site, accounts that had about 790,000 followers and had spent around $135,000 on ads between October 2013 and January 2019. These sites had been run by employees at the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik, who represented themselves as independent news or general interest pages. Around 190 events were hosted by these pages (the first was scheduled for August 2015 and the most recent was scheduled for January 2019).
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, wrote:
“Despite their misrepresentations of their identities, we found that these pages and accounts were linked to employees of Sputnik, a news agency based in Moscow, and that some of the pages frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and anti-corruption.”
Facebook also removed 107 pages, groups and accounts that were designed to look as if they were run from Ukraine but were part of a network that originated in Russia.
Ben Nimmo, from the Digital Forensics Lab of the Atlantic Council, has detailed attempts to influence attitudes to the Scottish Referendum, for instance, which included a Russian election observer calling the referendum not in line with international standards, and Twitter accounts calling into question its legitimacy. The behaviour of these accounts, Mr Nimmo argued, is pro-Kremlin, and consistent with the behaviour of accounts known to be run by the so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the United States 2016 presidential election and beyond.
As the Secretary of State has said, Russia also used malign digital influence campaigns to undermine the Government’s communication of evidence in the aftermath of the poisoning of the Skripals. Research by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats at Cardiff University showed how ‘sock puppet’ Twitter accounts, controlled by the St Petersburg-based ‘Internet Research Agency’, tried to fuel social divisions, including religious tensions, in the aftermath of the Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park terror attacks. Furthermore, the methods through which malign influence can be deployed are also constantly being expanded. While Twitter has been responsive in shutting down abusive and fake accounts, Facebook remains reluctant to do so. Research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the LSE Arena Program into the German 2017 elections discovered Facebook Groups created by unverifiable administrators, directing Russian state-backed media during the election period, with regularity, across social media.
The Government has been very ready to accept the evidence of Russian activity in the Skripal case, an acceptance justified by the evidence. However, it is reluctant to accept evidence of interference in the 2016 Referendum in the UK. If the Government wishes the public to treat its statements on these important matters of national security and democracy seriously, it must report the position impartially, uninfluenced by the political implications of any such report.
As the Government’s own Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport states, in common with other countries, the UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns and the Government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of the targeting of voters by foreign players during past elections. It asks the Government whether current legislation to protect the electoral process from malign influence is sufficient arguing that legislation should be in line with the latest technological developments and should be explicit on the illegal influencing of the democratic process by foreign players, urging the Government to look into this issue and to respond in its White Paper.
Although no doubt accurate, reliance on these Electoral Commission figures alone does not present an accurate picture of actual spending and its influence on the results of the EU Referendum. As referred to earlier, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake news in an attempt to ‘weaponise information’ and sow discord in the West, but the Government ignored this influence in its response. The social reach of the anti-EU articles referred to earlier, for example, represented a comparable paid social media campaign of up to £4.14 million.
Furthermore, the Government’s reliance on the figures published by the Electoral Commission alone ignores Facebook spending. We have no idea who saw what ads, what impact they had, what data was used to target people, who placed the ads, how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were. We do know, however, that Facebook illicitly harvested the profiles of 87 million people from its platform and that these were up for sale. As the Commons Select Committee has reported, for example, an organisation called Mainstream spent around £257,000 pushing a pro-Brexit advertising campaign on Facebook in 2018. Nobody knows who runs the page or where the money comes from and there are numerous examples of similarly anonymous entities that were active during the referendum campaign.
We still don’t know the origins of much of the money spent by the leave campaigns. For example, we have no idea who provided the £435,000 channelled through Scotland into Northern Ireland through the coffers of the Democratic Unionist party and back into Scotland and England, to pay for pro-Brexit ads. Nor do we know the original source of the £8m that Arron Banks delivered to the Leave.EU campaign. We do know that both of the main leave campaigns have been fined for illegal activities, and that the conduct of the referendum has damaged many people’s faith in the political system.
To conclude, for the Government to assert that there is no evidence of successful interference in the UK democratic purpose, and to rely only on Electoral Commission figures on campaign spending, is disingenuous. As the petition stated, there is now strong evidence of serious misconduct during the 2016 EU Referendum, including interference by foreign actors and governments, and this must be investigated under the Inquiries Act (2005).
Irrespective of whether one voted to remain or leave, the Government’s response to the petition simply flies in the face of publicly available evidence and, just as with the conduct of the referendum, it further damages many people’s faith in the political system. I hope that this information will support the committees’ consideration of how representative democracy can be supported, rather than undermined, as this submission demonstrates was the case in the run up to the referendum.