Inquiry asks if Russian social media influenced Brexit

Posted on November 3, 2017

 

Elections regulators in the UK are probing the possibility that Russia used social media to influence the outcome of the Brexit referendum.

The UK Electoral Commission’s political finance director, Bob Posner, has revealed that he is asking big questions of Twitter and Facebook about who financed a wave of political advertisements during the build up to the referendum, which took place in June 2016, as well as the General Election in May 2017. He said:

“Any receipt of impermissible donations by registered campaigners or political parties campaigning at the EU referendum, either from the U.K. or overseas, would be a serious breach of law.”

Posner added that any gathered evidence of illegal activity would be passed on to the police, and if a change of law is warranted, on to Parliament.

Both social media platforms have come under heavy fire in recent days for the millions of dollars’ worth of ads sold to Russian influencers in the run up to the US presidential race. It’s widely believed that this had a measurable significance in the victory of Donald Trump.

The probe is one of many that are assessing attempts by Russia to skew the Brexit vote in its favour. Insurance magnate Aaron Banks, who funded the Leave campaign to the tune of £6 million, is also under investigation. Banks enjoyed meetings with Russia’s British ambassador during the campaign, and is a self-confessed admirer of Vladimir Putin.

Posner made clear that misinformation regarding the referendum was not the Commission’s remit, but instead the laws surrounding political advertising. Anyone not a resident of the UK, other than citizens living abroad, is not allowed to buy political advertising, and also forbidden from contributing money to political parties.

So far, both social media companies have issued cautious statements. A spokesperson for Twitter said that the company:

“…recognizes that the integrity of the election process itself is integral to the health of a democracy. As such, we will continue to facilitate and support formal investigations by government authorities into election interference as required.”

Meanwhile, Facebook has batted away claims by saying that it has not observed any co-ordinated attempt from Russia to buy ads or influence the debate surrounding Brexit.

Currently, political print adverts in the UK are required to include a statement about who has paid for them, but this doesn’t apply to online adverts. Posner added:

“The time has come for these important matters to be legal requirements.”

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