Did the Russians Influence Brexit?
Battlefield of the trolls
In some countries trolls are born and trained in factories, but in some others, they flourish at any climate and place as long as there is access to Facebook and Photoshop, so that fake news is coupled with the right fake image to support it. Some of us might have played the role of a keyboard warrior or troll at least once in our lives, but we would never admit it. It’s freedom of speech after all, and everyone is invited to partake in it. No harm done, you would say. But when thousands of manufactured stories target particular political events or groups, exploit terrorist acts to misrepresent them, or manipulate stories to alter peoples’ opinion of a situation, then this changes into something much bigger and sinister.
Such kind of warfare is now fought with information, and the crazier it is and the more it encourages individuals’ limited view of the world, the more it wounds democracy and truth itself.
Putin might have explained that he didn’t interfere in any political elections or referenda, including the Brexit one, but the vote to leave the EU must have been welcomed by Kremlin which wants a fragmented EU. As the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael Faul, said: the vote to leave the EU was “a giant victory for Putin’s foreign policy objectives.”
Fake Russian accounts posting about Brexit and immigration
It has surfaced that Russia has not only meddled with the US elections but also with UK politics. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh examined 2,752 accounts that were suspended by Twitter in the US and identified 419 of them operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) with the purpose of influencing UK politics. According to Professor Laura Cram, director of the neuropolitics research at the university, at least 419 of those accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times after the referendum took place. She said that the content was aimed at “wider disruption. There’s not an absolutely clear thrust. We pick up a lot on refugees and immigration.”
The Times reported that around 45,000 messages about Brexit were posted by Russian Twitter accounts, while scientists at Swansea University and University of California found that 150,000 accounts based in Russia started posting Brexit-related stories during the same period. The news of the Russian accounts comes at a time when Russian interference in British politics is being investigated and Twitter and Facebook have been asked to give evidence about the possible meddling of Russia into foreign politics and the dissemination of false content.
It has also emerged that a picture during March’s Westminster Bridge terror attack was photoshopped and planted to enrage and divide public opinion. The image allegedly showed a Muslim woman ignoring a victim of the attack and checking her mobile phone. It was posted with the caption: “Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.” The anti-Islamic post was also reported by Mail Online and the Sun as a true fact, helping to spread the fake news further.
The archives of the deleted Russian accounts show that the people using them pretended to be a US Navy veteran, a Tennessee Republican and a Texan patriot, all of them defending Brexit. Just your everyday, stereotypical American.
No reason to look far enough to find such fake stories then. When Theresa May gave a speech on Monday, complaining about Russia’s cyber-operations, the Russian international TV network funded by the Russian government, sought to ridicule the accusations and the concerns of the UK Prime Minister. RT UK laughed at Theresa May’s speech, and tried to undermine the significance of the situation, by perpetuating the naïve assumption, recently expressed by President Trump himself: “Putin told me they didn’t meddle in the US election campaign; he told me so, so that is true, I believe him.” So, if Russia tells us that they didn’t do it, we should believe them.
In the article published in RT UK, and shared on Facebook with the comment “Who us, astonished face emoji,” May is attacked for her “racy, lacy ensemble,” and for being bothered for little things like “some tweets and Photoshop.” Obviously, there weren’t some tweets but thousands of them, but who’s counting. The article was especially caustic about May’s statement that Russia “is seeking to weaponise information deploying its state run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.” For the Russian channel, and for the Russian government, May’s speech was the “real fake news,” and they proceeded to attack the PM, highlighting the insignificance of tweets and images. But Putin knows very well that informational wars are waged every day, as information is money and power. With the line between the real and the fake, truth and lies being blurred day by day, it is hard for people to discern fact from fiction, since anything goes. But how far did the Russians go to influence Brexit, is something we might never know.