- Reuters/Samantha Lee/Business Insider
- MPs tell Business Insider that Theresa May’s government is “asleep at the wheel” over Russian interference in British democracy.
- They will use a Parliament debate on Thursday to pressure the government into acknowledging the Russian threat.
- Labour’s shadow digital minister Liam Byrne said laws should be changed to safeguard future elections.
- It follows concerns that the Kremlin interfered in the EU referendum, not least on Twitter, where there is evidence of Russian bots tweeting during the campaign.
LONDON – British politicians are ratcheting up the pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to tackle the issue of Russian interference in UK democracy.
MPs will debate Russia’s threat to British political discourse in Parliament on Thursday amid growing fears that Vladimir Putin’s regime may have attempted to meddle in the EU referendum last year.
Digital minister Matt Hancock will represent the government during the discussion. It is likely that he will come under significant pressure to set out a strategy for dealing with Kremlin disruption.
The government has so far been reluctant to engage with the issue, repeatedly telling MPs that it has “not seen evidence of successful interference in UK elections.” This is despite May using a speech last month to warn that Putin is weaponising fake news to “sow discord” in the west and “meddle in elections.”
Business Insider has spoken to five politicians who are unhappy with the government’s approach, particularly in light of academic research showing that thousands of vociferous Russian-based Twitter accounts switched their focus to Brexit in the days leading up to the vote.
The MPs’ disquiet comes just a day after the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee warned that Russia’s threat to the UK remains “significant,” citing evidence from British surveillance agency GCHQ that the Kremlin has attempted “basic influencing campaigns” in Europe to manipulate public opinion.
The government is “asleep at the wheel”
“What I see is the government asleep at the wheel,” Shadow Digital Minister Liam Byrne told Business Insider. The Labour MP said Russia is “driving a coach and horses through the integrity of democracies across the west” and legislation designed to protect British democracy is “no longer fit for purpose.”
Byrne wants the government to change laws in Britain to ban political advertising on social media, recognise platforms like Facebook as publishers, and give the Electoral Commission (EC) more teeth to investigate foreign money in election campaigning.
“What I’m hoping from the debate [in Parliament] is the development of a new consensus about how democracy is protected in a digital age,” he said. “The danger of complacency is that elections are no longer seen as free and fair… The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and it’s time the government opened its eyes.”
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, who secured Thursday’s debate, and his colleague Jo Swinson also said the government must take the prospect of Kremlin meddling “more seriously.”
Brake said the influence of external actors on Brexit “may have been peripheral,” but the government must put forward an “action plan” for dealing with the threat. “They should make clear to any state actor that if they try to interfere with elections here that they will be met with a very firm response,” he said.
Swinson, who worked as a business minister in David Cameron’s coalition government, added: “We need to understand what’s happened and we need to understand how we can protect ourselves in the future. There’s clearly potential diplomatic routes to take…in terms of making it clear we regard this as unacceptable.”
The Russia investigations
There are several threads of investigative work being carried out to examine potential Russian interference in Britain – none of which have been commissioned by the government.
Perhaps the highest-profile inquiry is being conducted by the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee (DCMSC), which is demanding information from Facebook, Twitter, and Google as part of an inquiry into fake news.
Damian Collins, who chairs the parliamentary committee, is trying to extract disclosures similar to those made by the tech giants to US Congress in October.
- Reuters/Mike Blake
He has not been impressed by their cooperation to date and, in a flurry of letters published last week, he reserved particular venom for Twitter, where there is the strongest evidence that Putin activists attempted to influence the Brexit debate.
Twitter handed Collins a slither of evidence about Russian accounts that paid to promote Brexit-related content, of which there was one: Kremlin state broadcaster RT.
Compare this to the revelations Twitter made in the US, where it said 30,000 Russia-linked accounts generated 1.4 million tweets during the final stretch of last year’s presidential election.
There is evidence of similar bot activity in the UK. The University of Swansea and University of California, Berkeley, claim 150,000 Russian-based accounts posted about Brexit in the run-up to the June 23 vote.
“We have received more information about activities that have taken place on your platform from journalists and academics than from you,” Collins withered in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
In parallel with the DCMSC inquiry, the EC is investigating Russian-funded activity on social media during the EU referendum campaign. Twitter has provided the Commission with the same information it sent to Collins.
Facebook has done the same, revealing that Russia’s Internet Research Agency spent less than $1 (75p) on ads that were seen by 200 people in Britain. Collins, the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe, is also pushing Facebook to disclose more information.
- Jack Taylor / Stringer
Separately, the EC is formally investigating if Arron Banks, a major donor to anti-EU campaign group Leave.EU, acted as an agent for other donors. It follows questions about his connections to Russia, which he has branded “complete bollocks.” He told The Guardian in April: “Not a single penny of Russian money has been put into Brexit.”
Then there’s the Information Commissioner’s Office probe into online voter data being used as a political weapon, which could turn up dirt on Russia. And finally, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has promised to ask Britain’s spy chiefs about Kremlin subversion.
Call for judge-led inquiry
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has called for a judge-led inquiry into the matter – on the scale of Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. Bradshaw said he will continue to press the government during Thursday’s debate.
In a quote provided to Business Insider, influential Labour MP David Lammy echoed the call for a deeper inquiry.
“We clearly need to act quickly and decisively to set up an investigation so that Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is able to get to the bottom of the murky links between Leave.EU, Russian influence, and some of Trump’s acolytes,” he said.
As a marker of how seriously the issue is being treated in the US, even Trump’s administration has acknowledged the threat Russia poses. Published this week, the White House’s National Security Strategy made clear that the Kremlin is “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.”
The UK’s own defence strategy contains no such reference. MPs argue it’s time for a rethink.