As Brits head to the polls today to vote in the U.K.’s General Election, a debate over Russian interference during the election has only just begun.
The vote, which will be the third General Election in five years, comes after an election campaign largely marred with controversy, particularly regarding voter lethargy, campaign blunders and misinformation tactics. Analysis by non-profit organization First Draft revealed yesterday that 88% of recent adverts posted by the Conservative Party on Facebook contained content which had already been labelled misleading by Full Fact, a fact-checker which works with the social media giant.
But another, more international dispute regarding misinformation has been raging online, with accusations of Russian meddling – raising serious concerns regarding Russian interference more generally in U.K. politics.
On 21st October – a week before MPs backed plans for a General Election – Reddit lit up with a post by a user called gregoratior, under the title ‘OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE: Great Britain is practically standing on her knees working on a trade agreement with the U.S’. The post provided links to a 451-page report, which detailed U.K.-U.S. talks leaked from the Department for International Trade, regarding trade agreements. Most significantly, the report also included details on the threats the U.K.’s beloved National Health Service might face post-Brexit.
Suggesting that the post about the report would “make some noise”, gregoratior summed up the details of key pages – including the suggestion of U.S. preference for a ‘no-deal Brexit’ – concluding: “Based on the content of these documents, we can now imagine what a terrible price Britain will have to pay to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States - from betraying partners and the interests of own citizens to betraying her national policies.”
The BBC news has since reported that this initial post only received five comments. But after the Reddit post apparently flopped, a Twitter account under the same name was created, to drum up interest in the documents. Tweeting a volley of similar-looking posts to public figures, which included British bookstore Waterstones and American singer and actress Bette Midler, the account went quiet on 11th November – but the Reddit post was also shared onto the platform 4chan.
It was beginning to gain traction: and on 19th November, during a televised debate broadcast on ITV between Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, Corbyn began to thumb through redacted versions of the leaked documents.
“You’re going to sell our National Health Service,” he said furiously, jabbing towards Johnson on the opposing podium, to applause from the audience.
Corbyn revealed the full documents at a press conference the following Wednesday, with NHS doctors and nurses, dressed in scrubs, handing out copies to journalists. It was not revealed how the Labour Party had accessed the documents.
And though the true impact of the documents is yet to be seen – with queries regarding the suggestion by Corbyn that the documents prove the NHS is ‘for sale’ – it is the origin of the leak which is most concerning. Johnson has said an investigation is needed into the source of the report – and Reddit has also recently looked into the original post.
In a post on Friday 6th December, the Reddit Security team, who banned 61 accounts following the investigation, said: “We believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.”
In a comment beneath this initial post, the Reddit Security team also encouraged users, moderators, and third parties to report unusual content on the site, stressing that they “do have systems in place for catching coordinated behavior on the platform”, but believe “there will always be more that we can do.”
Graphika, a cyber-intelligence firm, had since released a report into the documents, published on 2nd December. Their work – alongside the Atlantic Council, revealed that the leak bore similar signatures to that of Secondary Infektion, a known Russian disinformation campaign, exposed in June this year. The Atlantic Council’s Digital 2 Forensic Research Lab noted that Secondary Infektion had been active on blogging platforms, including Reddit.
The introduction to Graphika’s report read: “The similarities to Secondary Infektion are not enough to provide conclusive attribution but are too close to be simply a coincidence. They could indicate a return of the actors behind Secondary Infektion or a sophisticated attempt by unknown actors to mimic it.”
One of the tell-tale signs suggesting similarity between the leak and Secondary Infektion was the language errors strewn across the initial post – Graphika’s report cited the example: ‘Why the Democrats collude with Ukraine?’.
Their report also stressed that Secondary Infektion also consisted of single-use burner accounts, with the same usernames, and operation accounts addressed posts to prominent journalists and politicians on social media – all of which were also present in this case.
Ben Nimmo, Director of Investigations at Graphika and author of their report, told Hromadske that “the way the leaks spread online was exactly the way a known Russian interference operation worked. Reddit confirmed that the assets on their platform were connected to that operation. The big difference is that this time, the operation used leaks of real documents, rather than creating a fake. We don't yet know how the operation obtained the documents - whether they were leaked in the traditional way, or hacked. That's the big question that still needs to be answered."
But this is a question which may not be answered soon. The Conservative Party has faced intense criticism for its decision to stall the release of a much-anticipated report into potential Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes – including during the 2016 EU Referendum.
And concerns have also been raised regarding Russian monetary influence in UK politics: at the end of November, statistics were released showing the donations given to all of the major UK political parties in the first week of campaigning. The Conservatives were given £5.7 million during this period – with one of the largest donors being Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of the Russian oligarch Vladimir Chernukhin, who donated £200,000.
By tomorrow, the result of the election should be known, and another chapter of British politics closed for the next five years. But allegations of Russian interference will remain and fester – and time will tell just how far they have burrowed beneath the skin of British politics.
/By Juliette Bretan
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