The UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, chaired by MP Damian Collins, has travelled to Washington this week to interview Internet and Social Media giants Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter about fake news and Russian interference in Brexit.
Initially it was claimed there had been no Russian activity in Brexit at all, despite already growing evidence to the contrary.
Prior to the evidence session Twitter had written to Collins in January, stating they had already uncovered some Russian accounts active during the Brexit referendum among thousands of accounts identified as pushing messages for the leave campaign.
In reply to the written submission, Collins ordered the company to look again.
“Russian election interference is a threat not just to the United
States, but to all Western democracies. @SenatorBurr and I are working
with our British counterparts to combat this real and continuing
The US Senate initially faced a similar situation with both Twitter and Facebook, commencing with denials, and ending at the most recent Twitter review with almost 4,000 Russian troll farm accounts being uncovered, operating alongside around 50,000 automated accounts, to push hundreds of thousands of pro-Trump/anti-Clinton messages and disinformation.
Twitter alone has been forced to notify 677,000 US citizens they liked or shared Russian propaganda, and have established the messages were seen no less than 450 million times.
Collins also met with Senator Mark Warner, a leading figure in the Russia Probe in the US Senate, who has slammed the tech companies for their role in the Kremlin’s attack on the 2016 presidential election.
Collins described the meeting as “excellent”, while Warner tweeted: “Russian election interference is a threat not just to the United States, but to all Western democracies. @SenatorBurr and I are working with our British counterparts to combat this real and continuing threat.”
Though YouTube’s evidence session focused primarily on questions surrounding advertisements and direct payments from Russia relating to Brexit, which unsurprisingly has not yet yielded a result, they have been ordered to look again and provide the committee with more information.
The situation with YouTube has not been a focus at Byline, in part due to how convoluted the network of disinformation actors is, from Prison Planet and InfoWars to Britain First and other such groups.
steps to strip income from extreme and untruthful content providers
confirms the streaming giant is well aware the problems on its platform
are not as clear cut as ad buys in roubles because of its structure.
Britain First, for example, is intrinsically linked to Russia by far-right figure Jim Dowson, not least by his appearances on Kremlin-managed state operation RT and his attendance at the International Conservative Forum in St Petersburg with former BNP leader Nick Griffin in 2015. He is also tied to Kremlin-friendly groups in Hungary and Serbia through an organisation known as Knights Templar International, who have been reported by Wired as gaming social media to pump extremist content to millions of Britons.
The UK situation is more opaque than in the US, though the scale of
Russian-sponsored pretence as local groups including Black Lives Matter
and Antifa is expanding constantly as the Senate investigation drags on.
As a second example, Prison Planet (Paul Joseph Watson) has regularly been involved in now known Russian narratives post-terror attacks and has regularly attacked Sweden with confirmed Russian disinformation. He was barred from tweeting in the nordic country in 2017, along with Arron Banks’ Westmonster.
Watson has also vocally opposed YouTube’s measures to demonetise fake news and extremist content.
In of itself, steps to strip income from extreme and untruthful content providers confirms the streaming giant is well aware the problems on its platform are not as clear cut as ad buys in roubles because of its structure.
“Twitter…found…accounts active during Brexit, directly connected to the Kremlin-funded Internet Research
Agency (IRA) – the troll farm in in St Petersburg which runs the
thousands of accounts identified so far in the US”
Twitter essentially reiterated its previously written response to Collins, saying it had so far found a limited number of accounts active during Brexit, directly connected to the Kremlin-funded Internet Research Agency (IRA) – the troll farm in in St Petersburg which runs the thousands of accounts identified so far in the US.
It is already known the IRA directly spent $1,000 on Twitter ads during Brexit, but significant questions remain around foreign funding during the referendum, specifically centred around the Leave groups connected to Nigel Farage.
Farage and his partner Arron Banks are substantively linked to Russia through a number of direct and indirect routes, not least with them constantly appearing front and centre in the Russia collusion web surrounding troubled President Donald Trump’s White House administration.
Their campaign group is being investigated by both the ICO and the Electoral Commission in the UK and Farage remains a person of interest to the FBI in the Mueller inquiry, under which key Leave.EU figures have been interviewed by agents.
Twitter were ordered to continue looking, and it is known this is largely due to the heel-dragging by the company in the US Senate Inquiry of which Collins has specifically been made aware.
Committe MP Ian Lucas responded to Facebook’s Milner saying: “it’s a
matter for you to comply with the law because you are facilitating an
Facebook’s exchanges were tense, with the Social Media company deflecting any responsibility for what ads it publishes and what money it takes being poorly received by the Committee.
Policy director Simon Milner was challenged on accepting foreign payments during UK election campaigns, confirming the company was fully aware this was illegal yet did not prevent it from happening, saying: “my understanding is it’s a matter for the Electoral Commission to investigate it.”
Committe MP Ian Lucas responded to Facebook’s Milner saying: “it’s a matter for you to comply with the law because you are facilitating an illegal act.”
The company also stated it was struggling to examine its own data without ackowledgement of Russian interference and a steer from the UK intelligence services – something which has played out openly in the US where much more accountability exists.
Only in December 2017 did the UK security services and the parliamentary oversight committee begin to officially acknowledge the scale of the Russian threat, though an inexplicable void exists around the referendum despite a significant and constantly growing body of publicly available evidence.
Facebook were ordered to continue examining Russian activity during Brexit and to explain whether the 30,000 accounts deleted during the Macron election in France were also Russian – something they declined to expand upon in the open hearing.
The company said it would respond to the committee’s requests in private at the end of February.
The interesting difference between the US and the UK is that Russia
did not need to invest as directly or overtly because of the extensive network of ground assets it has
to push disinformation and engage in other targeted disruption.
This adds a layer of complexity and obfuscation to the Brexit inquiry which will make for a challenging investigation.
Header Image: Parliament TV