LONDON — Did Russia try to meddle in the upcoming election in the United Kingdom?
That’s the suggestion after Graphika, a social media analytics firm, published a report Monday that linked a recent leak of trade talks between London and Washington to tactics used by an established Russian disinformation operation.
The leak — that showed notes from discussions between U.S. and British officials about a potential free-trade agreement after the U.K. leaves the European Union — bears a close resemblance to “Secondary Infektion,” a Kremlin-backed online operation, according to security expert Ben Nimmo, who wrote the analysis.
“The similarities are too close for it to be a coincidence,” Nimmo said. “The big question is how did internal U.K. government documents end up on social media accounts as part of a possible disinformation campaign?”
The leak fueled division across the U.K. about whether the current ruling Conservatives would seek to privatize the country’s much-loved NHS — a key attack line of the opposition Labour party, which Boris Johnson’s government has vehemently denied. Whoever was behind the recent leak used the same combination of websites and burner accounts with matching names previously used by Russia.
UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
That included posting the documents on the social network Reddit and then peppering both U.K. politicians and journalists with emails and tweets to drum up interest in the leaks.
Nimmo, a former analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank who worked closely with Facebook on a series on investigations to highlight foreign disinformation campaigns, said it would almost be impossible to attribute the recent leak directly to Russia. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, speaking on ITV’s This Morning program, did not reveal where his party had obtained the documents but claimed no U.K. government minister had questioned the accuracy of the contents.
Whatever their origin, the documents again highlight an issue that has concerned many security officials for years, namely that the U.K. election remains susceptible to disinformation attempts — either by foreign actors or domestic groups — and it is very difficult to stop them.
The goal of such disinformation campaigns, according to experts, is not to back one side or the other. Instead, foreign actors are seeking to sow division based on hot-button issues like Brexit or immigration, hoping to build on existing U.K. concerns to weaken the country for their own gain.
“Frankly, if I was, you know, working in the Kremlin or the Lubyanka, it’s exactly the kind of thing I would want to see pushed if we had managed to hack it,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. “It strikes at a very emotive issue for the British public, it creates tensions between the U.K. and the U.S. It fits in with an overall strategy of causing mischief.”
As time ticks down to the nationwide vote next Thursday, much attention has focused on Facebook, the world’s largest social network where all political groups have flooded users with partisan messages to woo would-be supporters.
In response, the company has created a London-based unit to respond to potential threats, though in a call with reporters last month, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said that so far, his team had yet to detect foreign interference activities across the company’s services in the U.K.
Such reassurances, though, have not calmed British officials, many of whom called for a significant upgrade to the country’s campaign rules to stop potential foreign actors from interfering in U.K. elections.
Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, said basic updates — like forcing anyone buying political ads on social media to declare who was funding such messages — would reduce much of the threat, from foreign actors or from domestic groups seeking to sow dissent.
She added that other areas, notably the ability for anyone to give less than £500 to a political party without having to declare the donation, were also ripe for potential abuse, particularly if foreign groups wanted to back one side in the upcoming election.
“A lot of this comes down to political parties being aware where the money comes from,” she said. “The latest technology makes it difficult to know where such payments come from.”
With a little over a week to go until the election, the U.K.’s security agencies, social media giants and research groups will be scouring the online world to determine if Russia or other foreign groups are meddling with messages to sway British voters.
Online tactics — such as buying Facebook political ads without disclosing who bought them, hijacking popular Twitter hashtags to promote partisan messages, and using pseudo-news sites, often solely created to support one political party, to convince voters to back one side — make it difficult to determine how much disinformation comes from foreign actors.
“The key challenge is attribution,” said Teija Tiilikainen, head of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, an EU-NATO unit created to tackle foreign influence for member countries. “Many times, it’s not easy to tell who’s behind campaigns. It makes it hard to call out bad actors.”
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