There have been concerns that there was Russian intervention in the 2016 Brexit election, and there’s an ongoing investigation by the UK Electoral Commission, the UK Parliament’s Culture Select Committee, and the US Senate on alleged Russian interference, and this has raised questions over the legal validity of the Brexit referendum.
Following the election on the United Kingdom exiting the European Union (Brexit), the former Prime Minister David Cameron implied that Russia might be pleased with a positive Brexit referendum, and the official Remain campaign accused the Kremlin of secretly backing a positive Brexit vote.
And in March 2016, Philip Hammond, the former Secretary for Defence and Foreign Secretary, later the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the only country who would like us to leave the EU was Russia, and in December 2016, Ben Bradshaw MP maintained in Parliament that Russia had interfered in the Brexit election campaign.
February 2017, Ben Bradshaw called on the British intelligence service, Government Communications Headquarters, then under Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, to disclose any information it had on Russian intervention.
And in October 2017, Members of Parliament in the Culture, Media and Sports Committee demanded that Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media corporations reveal all adverts and details of payments by Russia in the Brexit campaign.
In November 2017, it became common knowledge that Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of the Vote Leave, was a founding member of the Conservative Friends of Russia, and had been a target asset by someone known to be a Russian operative.
On the12 December 2017, members of the US Congress Ruben Gallego, Eric Swalwell and Gerry Connolly wrote to the Director of National Intelligence asking for information on Russian intervention in the Brexit vote, and on 13 December 2017, Facebook said that it found no significant Russian activity throughout Brexit, but this clarification needed was promptly rebuffed by the committee chair, Damian Collins, as being information that was already public following US inquiries into Russian intervention.
In January 2018, a US Senate minority report suggested potential ways Russia may have influenced the Brexit campaign. It was said that the Russian government had attempted to influence democracy in the United Kingdom through disinformation, cyber hacking and corruption.
And whilst a comprehensive understanding of the extent and type of Kremlin intervention in the UK’s June 2016 election is still surfacing, Prime Minister Theresa May and the UK government have rebuked the Kremlin’s active measures, and numerous UK government entities, including the Electoral Commission and parliamentarians, have launched investigations into various aspects of potential Russian government interference.
In June 2018, The Guardian implied that Arron Banks, the largest contributor to the campaign for leaving, and co-organiser of Leave received the offer of a Russian gold mine and had a string of meetings with the Russian Ambassador.
But on the 14 June 2018, Arron Banks appeared before a Parliamentary committee hearing, where he seemed to confess to having lied about his engagements with Russians, and later walked out declining to respond to any more questions by citing a luncheon meeting with the Democratic Unionist Party.
In July 2018, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee, released an interim report on Disinformation and fake news, declaring that Russia had engaged in unconventional warfare through Twitter and other social media against the United Kingdom, created to increase support for a Leave vote in Brexit.
And on 20 September, aggregate IQ, a Canadian political consultancy and analytics company, received the first General Data Protection Regulation (GDRR) notice issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for using people’s data for purposes which they would not have expected.
Several pro-Brexit campaigns paid the company £3.5 million to target advertisements at prospective voters. While its Brexit work was before the GDPR went into force, it was fined because it retained and continued to use the data after the GDPR came into complete force.
The company is affiliated with the SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica, and Cambridge Analytica employees sometimes called Aggregate IQ, but in November 2018, a criminal investigation of Arron Banks was launched after the Electoral Commission concluded that they had just grounds to suspect that Mr Banks was not the actual source of the £8 million reported as loans and that numerous criminal aggressions may have been committed.
Arron Banks was the biggest contributor to the Brexit campaign, but previous to the donations, Southern Rock, Arron Banks underwriting company was technically insolvent and needed to obtain £60 million to meet regulations.
It was saved by a £77 million cash injection, mostly in September 2015 from another company, ICS Risk Solutions which Arron Banks claimed to own when challenged by MP Rebecca Pow, although it appeared from company filings that he didn’t own all of it.
At the time Louise Kentish from the company called STM joined the board, but the day after the election, her husband Alan Kentish, CEO of STM and other STM people joined as well. STM specialises in opaque wealth management using trusts and similar.
About the same time, Arron Banks, along with Andy Wigmore started having various meetings with Russian officials posted at the Russian embassy in London.
Furthermore, according to his South African business partner, Christopher Kimber, Arron Banks had been in Russia seeking to raise funds around that time, and Christopher Kimber said that he was eventually made aware in October 2015, and that in fact, Arron Banks had been dealing with Russians who considered investing in mines, and he was told by Arron Banks that he had gone to Russia and discuss with them the diamond opportunities as well as gold mining opportunities in Russia and that he further indicated that he would be meeting with the Russians again during November 2015.
Months following the cash injection Arron Banks began making substantial contributions to political causes including the £8 million to the Brexit campaigns.
And Russia’s efforts to influence British democracy and the possible vulnerability of parts of the UK political system to anti-democratic interference during the EU election were revealed in a report prepared by the US Senate.
The report which was titled Putin’s asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia and Europe included implications for US national security, it pinpointed the way in which UK campaign finance laws did not need disclosure of political contributions if they were from the beneficial owners of non-British companies that were included in the EU and carried out business in the UK.
This opacity, the report implies, may have enabled Russian-related money to be directed with insufficient scrutiny to various UK political actors, and investigative journalists have also raised questions about the sources of the sudden and perhaps unlawful wealth that may have been directed to support the Brexit Leave campaign. The UK Electoral Commission has now launched an inquiry into the matter.
The senators point out that UKIP and its then-leader, Nigel Farage, did not simply fan anti-EU sentiment but further criticised European sanctions on Russia, and provided flattering assessments of Russian President Putin.
The report adds that even though officially the Russian government declared its impartiality on Brexit, its English-language media outlets RT and Sputnik covered the election campaign widely and offered systematically one-sided coverage.
The senators further challenge the adequacy of the investigations by Facebook and Twitter into the allegations of extensive social media intervention by the Russians during the election. They reference University of Edinburgh research showing more than 400 Russian-run Twitter accounts that had been active in the US election had further been actively posting about Brexit.
In addition, the senators noted that research led by a collective team of experts from the University of California at Berkeley and Swansea University reportedly identified 150,000 Twitter accounts with numerous Russian ties that distributed information about Brexit.
The report further points to the huge surge of Russian money into the UK, including the London property market. It records how the Metropolitan police noted that a cumulative value of £180 million in properties in the United Kingdom had been put under investigation as perhaps obtained with fraudulent proceeds by secretive offshore companies.
The fundamental responsibility of all leaders and citizens of a democracy is to protect its elections from subversion, but we’ve learned a lot about Russia’s alleged involvement in the EU election.
Theresa May stated that Vladimir Putin’s government was attempting to undermine free societies and was farming bogus stories to plant discord in the West, even though the Prime Minister then seemed to relax her language and told parliament that if Labour MPs bothered to look at the address that she gave they would see that the examples that she gave of Russian interference were not in the United Kingdom.
But if Russia has been cited of interfering in recent elections in America, France and elsewhere, what about Britain? And to understand the accusations of Russian involvement in the EU election we should first look at its reported links to the US presidential election.
Many of the accusations focus on the Russian Internet Research Agency. The company, based in Saint Petersburg which creates online media posts that are beneficial to Russian government interests. The Agency was making the headlines as far back as April 2015, when Donald Trump was still the guy off the Apprentice and Brexit was a word whispered only in the back rooms of the Conservative Party headquarters.
At the time, the Guardian published an investigation “Inside a Russian troll house”. They found hundreds of bloggers who were paid to swamp forums and social networks at home and abroad with anti-western and pro-Kremlin comments, and it’s thought that this is the home of the Agency and the nexus of Russia’s efforts to use social media to influence overseas politics.
But if we skip forward to January 2017, six months post-referendum and six weeks after Mr Trump’s election, the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence published a report that concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.
However, more was found out about how the Agency works, after a former employee reported to an independent TV channel that the company’s intention wasn’t to turn Americans toward Russia, the aim was to set Americans against their own government, to provoke unrest, provoke dissatisfaction, and to diminish Barack Obama’s ratings.
The New York Times reported that Russian agents and disseminated inflammatory posts had reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service before the US presidential election.
The reports were extracted from detailed disclosures sent to Congress by companies whose products were amongst the most widely used on the internet, and a BuzzFeed investigation affirmed that the Russian government made wire transfers to more than 60 Russian embassies between August and September 2016.
BuzzFeed reported that the transfers were sent with a message “to finance election campaign of 2016.” And a spokesperson for the Russian government stated that the money was intended to help embassies cover the expense of helping Russian nationals living overseas to vote in the country’s own parliamentary election, which took place in September 2016.
What’s not clear is whether any of this activity was connected to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, that question will be clarified in the course of the five federal investigations that are underway in the US.
It’s also worth pointing out that some efforts to uncover Russian-controlled bogus accounts have been fallacious when a report from the Scotsman determined that an alleged Russian online troll identified on a leading news website was really a security guard from Glasgow.
So, did Russian bogus accounts attempt to influence the EU election? Well, according to reports, the Russian Internet Research Agency built up a notable social media presence in the run-up to the US presidential election, which was allegedly able to reach hundreds of millions of users.
But what about the United Kingdom? What proof do we have so far of Russian sway on the Brexit referendum?
In October 2017, research from City, University of London discovered that a 13,500-strong Twitter bot army was present on the social media site about the time of the election.
Twitter bots are accounts that are not managed by actual people but rather post content automatically. The accounts sometimes assume a bogus persona to draw real users to their posts, and it’s thought that these accounts established a chain of zombie agents.
Yet, there was no indication that bots served to cast bogus news, rather, they were invested in feeding and echoing user-curated, hyper-partisan and polarising information, and in the four weeks preceding the referendum, the accounts posted a total of 65,000 tweets about the election, tweets that were described as showing a definite slant towards a Leave campaign.
Nevertheless, it’s worth saying that the researchers didn’t suggest any Russian involvement, but that additional research into Twitter bots and the Brexit referendum was published by the Oxford Internet Institute.
It looked at 22.6 million tweets and cross-referred them with 2,752 accounts that the US Senate has identified as creations of the Russian Internet Research Agency, and researcher Yin Yin Lu said that she found 416 tweets from the Russian accounts from March to July 2016, the months preceding the EU election.
She was careful to point out that the number of these tweets was important to highlight. So there are about 400 tweets here out of 22.6 million. That’s a really infinitesimal fraction. So the word interference was possibly a tad inflated, although the tweets did seem to be ordered, with accounts clearly retweeting and sharing each other’s content.
A second report this time from the University of Edinburgh found a greater amount of tweets about Brexit from the Russian Internet Research Agency, with researchers identifying 419 accounts running from the Agency that were endeavouring to influence UK politics. The accounts were on the roster of 2,752 accounts suspended by Twitter in the US.
Separately, an upcoming paper from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Swansea University was set to unveil an even wider network of pro-Brexit Russian bots, and the research which had been seen by a newspaper tracked over 150,000 Russian accounts that used the hashtag “Brexit”, most of which was advocating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
One account, “Svetal1972”, posted 92 tweets between 20 and 24 June, including one that called for Britain to “make June the 23rd our Independence Day”. But why would Russia want Brexit to happen anyhow? Well, there’s some indication of Russian involvement in spreading pro-Leave sentiment online, although nothing implied interference on the same scale as is alleged in the US, but if the rumours are correct, what’s in it for the Kremlin?
Some analysts have implied that Russia prefers Brexit because it believes it will weaken the EU’s bargaining stance when it fronts up to Moscow on matters like the Ukraine. This hypothesis appears believable when looking at a tweet from the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyahin, who penned that “With Britain, there won’t be anybody in the EU to defend sanctions against us so zealously.”
Michael McFaul a former US ambassador to Russia put the case in similar terms, tweeting that Putin benefits from a weaker Europe and that a UK vote to leave the EU makes the EU weaker, and that it was just that simple, but what about Arron Banks? Separate from the question of social media influence, Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave. The EU Campaign is currently under investigation by the Electoral Commission.
They’re looking into whether Arron Banks violated campaign finance rules in relation to contributions and loans at the EU election, and the company “Better for the Country Limited” of which Arron Banks is a director is also part of the probe.
The investigation examined whether Arron Banks was the actual source of loans reported by a referendum campaigner in his name and whether “Better for the Country Limited” was the actual source of contributions made to referendum campaigners in its name, or if it was operating as an agent.
The announcement by the Electoral Commission makes no mention of Russia or any Russian participants, and it doesn’t say whether there were any specific third parties being investigated as part of the investigation.
Arron Banks said that the Leave. EU campaign was financed by himself, Peter Hargreaves and the general public, and that his sole relationship with the Russians was a boozy 6-hour lunch with the Ambassador where they drank the place dry.
And in an interview with Arron Banks, he was cited as saying that they had no Russian money into Brexit.
The Remain campaign alleged that the Kremlin was covertly supporting a Brexit to undermine the European Union, and in the former Prime Minister David Cameron, President Vladimir Putin might be happy if Britain left the EU.
So, is the Kremlin leader loving a Brexit?
Mr Putin told journalists the election result brought “positives and negatives”. He talked about the negatives, including the unsettling impact on economic markets, and the United Kingdom and EU have been plunged into financial obscurity.
Every country gets the propaganda it deserves because the lower the aptitude of the people, the more rudimentary the propaganda gets, but now the ruling regimes in the USA and Great Britain have debilitated their victims to such a remarkably absurd degree that it’s virtually impossible to comprehend.
Just a few years ago one wouldn’t have thought that these regimes would actually endeavour to invent something as primitive as this entire parody about Russian interference in elections, yet here we are, but the greater the lie, the more inclined people are to accept it, and that’s the repulsive truth.
Nevertheless, here is history repeating itself and then the Free World again looks up to Russia, hoping that Russia will yet again cure it of another bout of disease, but nobody is that ignorant to imagine that the UK is getting it right, but this isn’t only a UK problem, every country gets the propaganda it deserves and Putin’s Russia warrants plenty.