Russia report: Moscow’s disinformation campaign fuelling ‘political extremism’ and division in UK

Russian accounts push views on Brexit, terror attacks and race as part of 'culture wars', expert says

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Tuesday 21 July 2020 20:37 BST
Government 'actively avoided' evidence of Russian interference in Brexit as long-awaited report released

Russian disinformation is “fomenting political extremism” around Brexit and other divisive issues in the UK, a report has warned.

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s long-awaited report on alleged interference in British democracy found that Russia was spreading fake news and attempting to influence political events “for a wide range of purposes”.

It said they include a “general poisoning of the political narrative in the west by fomenting political extremism and ‘wedge issues’, and by the ‘astroturfing’ of western public opinion”.

“Employees of the Russian state and Russian-controlled bots may masquerade as ordinary British citizens on social media and give the UK’s politicians, journalists and other people who may have power and influence the impression – simply via the sheer quantity of posts – that the views espoused are genuinely those of a majority of their country’s public,” the report added.

It described wedge issues as “highly divisive subjects which bifurcate a country’s population”, frequently into socially liberal and conservative camps that transcend traditional party-political boundaries.

The trend, particularly in the US, has been dubbed the “culture war”.

The report, which is a redacted summary of the ISC’s findings, named wedge issues including abortion and gun control in the US, and Brexit in the UK.

But previous research by the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University showed how “sock puppet” Twitter accounts, controlled by the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, tried to fuel social divisions and religious tensions in the aftermath of the 2017 terror attacks.

It found that following the Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks, 475 original messages from identified accounts were reposted more than 153,000 times.

One of the most-shared tweets following the Manchester Arena bombing called for Islam to be “banned right now”, while others amplified an infamous photo of a Muslim woman walking past a victim on Westminster Bridge.

The Cardiff University research said Russian accounts attempted to boost their reach by mentioning Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage to access supporter bases “already ideologically ‘primed’ for such messages to resonate”.

A range of celebrities and political figures, including JK Rowling, had also been used depending on the online identity of the account in question, which “propagated very different interpretations of the same events”.

Author Martin Innes, a Cardiff University professor who has led research on disinformation operations, said Russian-controlled accounts had tried to “stoke and manipulate social tensions” after terror attacks and political events.

He told The Independent messaging focused on politically contentious issues, including race relations, immigration and integration.

“This is the culture wars,” Prof Innes said. “Sometimes it’s about authoring original content and sometimes it’s about amplifying politically charged, high profile positions and trying to get those into people’s perception space.”

He cautioned that Russian tactics had changed since 2016, and that agents had got “better at hiding their activities”, adding: “Things have moved on since then and it’s got harder to attribute, more sophisticated to detect.

“It’s important to have that awareness because these things don’t stay static, they evolve and adapt and it’s got harder to identify these [Russian accounts] with any particular confidence about who it is that’s responsible.”

The ISC report said that such efforts had not solely been focused on national events, but also included local councils, although no details were given.

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It found that Russian disinformation efforts can also support the Kremlin’s preferred narratives or outcomes.

The pattern was seen following the 2018 Salisbury attack, when state media and Russian-controlled social media accounts spread a range of conspiracy theories aimed at deflecting responsibility for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

The report said: “Whilst some of the outright falsehoods which are put forward may not be widely believed, they may still succeed in casting doubt on the true account of events.”

Researchers at King’s College London’s Policy Institute previously found that RT and Sputnik published 138 separate and contradictory narratives about the Skripal poisoning across 735 articles in the four weeks following the attack.

Coverage used a “parallel commentariat” and amplified Russian government sources, with “all the features of a disinformation campaign [seeking] to sow confusion and uncertainty through a vast array of contradictory narratives and unchallenged conspiracy theories”.

Significant disinformation campaigns have also been seen around the Syrian civil war, and particularly around chemical attacks by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which are supported by Russia.

Last July, Ofcom fined RT £200,000 for “serious failures” to comply with broadcasting rules on impartiality with programmes about the Salisbury poisoning and Syrian war.

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