In Depth

Brexit: did Russia trick Britain into voting to leave the EU?

In Depth: Brexit campaign funding and social media strategies under fire

“We know what you are doing and you will not succeed,” Prime Minister Theresa May told Vladimir Putin in mid-November, warning the Russian leader not to “weaponise information” through fake news, hacking and electoral interference.

The PM stopped short of blaming Russia for the Brexit referendum result, but what if Britain’s decision to leave the European Union really was manipulated by the Kremlin? 

Vote Leave argues that Britons were simply fed up with a decade of economic uncertainty and social inequality, allowing a small majority of Brexiteers to swing the vote, with a narrow 52%-48% victory - a difference of 1.3 million votes. There are growing fears, however, that the Kremlin may have interfered in the Brexit campaign and UK politics generally - and even in the health service, by spreading rumours about flu and measles jabs to further destabilise Britain.

What once sounded like the plot of a sci-fi thriller moved into the realm of possibility last week when the Electoral Commission announced an investigation into how much was spent by the “Vote Leave” pro-Brexit campaign, led by Tory grandees Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

The elections watchdog wants to know whether Vote Leave skirted the £7m campaign limit by funnelling an extra £625,000 to a fashion student for a social media campaign, along with a further £100,000 to pro-Brexit group Veterans for Britain. Vote Leave spent 98% of its budget on online adverts - including a burst of Facebook ads days before the Brexit vote. The Electoral Commission is demanding to know more.

“The surface has been scratched,” says The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr. “It’s what lies beneath that should concern us. What still lies buried.”

What lies beneath

The evidence so far indicates only a small-scale effort by Russia to interfere in Brexit, “but new information is being dug out of online archives week by week”, says The Economist

The smoking gun may be in the hands of US tech giants Facebook and Twitter, who agreed this week to give the Government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee its UK-specific information on Russian-linked accounts. The first tranche from Facebook should arrive in mid-December.

Britons started asking questions after Twitter told a US congressional inquiry that more than 2,700 Russian accounts run by the Internet Research Agency - a so-called troll farm linked to the Kremlin - posted tweets about American politics. Hundreds of the same Twitter accounts also tweeted about #Brexit.

Three Twitter accounts, in particular, illustrate the type of messages that have been flagged to the Government.

@Sveta1972, who claimed to live in the Russian town of Gelendzhik, on the Black Sea, signed up for Twitter in May 2016, one month before the Brexit vote. In the four days before the referendum, @Sveta1972 posted or retweeted at least 97 messages with the hashtag #Brexit, often repeating conspiracy theories, The Times reports. (The Twitter account is no longer active.)

@Col_Connaughton (also no longer active) was notable for the account’s prolific output. @Col_Connaughton tweeted twice a day before 4 January 2016, but then fired off an average of 1,400 tweets a day up to 21 May 2017. 

@SouthLoneStar - identified as Russian by Twitter during US inquiries - used anti-Muslim rhetoric to try to convince voters that leaving the EU was the only way to remain safe, according to Wired.

In one tweet, for example, @SouthLoneStar posted a photo of a Muslim woman looking at her phone as she crossed London’s Westminster Bridge in the wake of the March terror attack. Instead of showing her horror at the incident, the picture of her was taken out of context, with the message: “Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.”

Although all the evidence gathered so far is not conclusive, “dismissal of the Russian connection would be premature”, The Economist says. “Researchers have not been given access to equivalent information by Facebook.”

The ‘Brexit Big Five’

Britons have also started asking questions about who bankrolled the Leave campaign. Almost two-thirds of the £24.1m donations came from just five businessmen, The Sunday Times reports.

One of the “Brexit Big Five” names stands out: Arron Banks, the insurance tycoon who loaned or donated more than £8m to Leave campaigns. 

Banks is now the focus of two Electoral Commission investigations examining where that money came from, whether Banks was acting as a middleman, and whether the campaign was linked to Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that also worked for Donald Trump and that asked WikiLeaks to share hacked emails relating to Hillary Clinton.

Banks dismisses allegations of wrongdoing as ludicrous.

“The only people concerned are those that still can’t come to terms with the fact that they lost the referendum so they will come up with more and more ludicrous excuses,” Banks said, according to Reuters.

Manipulating public opinion

So how likely is it that British public opinion about Brexit was manipulated? Very likely, say researchers at Swansea University, who collaborated on a study with the University of California, Berkeley.

The academics concluded that “automated software agents”, or “bots”, were used to spread both Leave or Remain Twitter messages before, during and after the Brexit referendum, driving the two camps further apart.

Other studies are equally intriguing. A Financial Times analysis of 70,000 tweets from the seven days leading up to the EU referendum, on 23 June 2016, indicated high levels of automation in the most prolific accounts - which tweeted between 150 and 1,000 times a day. 

Weighing the evidence

Britain and the US aren’t alone in wondering whether Russia is attempting to hijack democracy.

France and Germany believe their elections have been targeted too, while Spain says its struggle with Catalonia separatists may have been exacerbated by outside forces trying to divide Europe.

But did Russia also swing Britain’s Brexit vote? The Financial Times’ Tony Barber shrugs off the allegations against Russia, noting: “Seeking to exert influence over other countries is what governments do... In this respect, the Russians are like the Americans, British, Chinese and everyone else. The question is whether the methods used are illegal or so flagrant as to be unacceptable to a host government.”

The Guardian’s Nick Cohen, meanwhile, wonders whether, with Britain’s prosperity tied to a successful Brexit transition, May’s government is deliberately turning a blind eye to Russian meddling.  

“Here’s a puzzle: although Britain is the only country to do exactly what Russia wanted it do and leave the EU, there is no British equivalent of the FBI investigation,” Cohen says. “On the rare occasions it bothers to discuss the subject, the British state says that ‘it can’t happen here’, even though ‘it’ is happening everywhere else.”

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