New US Senate report details Russian bid to influence Brexit vote

An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds a European Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on Dec 18, 2017.
An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds a European Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on Dec 18, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - Russia's attempts to influence British democracy and the potential vulnerability of parts of the UK political system to anti-democratic meddling during the EU referendum have been detailed in a report prepared by the US Senate, The Guardian reported.

The report by Democrats on the Senate foreign relations committee, titled 'Putin's asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia and Europe: implications for US national security', pinpoints the way in which Britain's campaign finance laws do not require disclosure of political donations if they are from "the beneficial owners of non-British companies that are incorporated in the EU and carry out business in the UK".

This opacity, the report suggests, "may have enabled Russian-related money to be directed with insufficient scrutiny to various UK political actors", according to a Guardian report on Wednesday (Jan 10).

"Investigative journalists have also raised questions about the sources of sudden and possibly illicit wealth that may have been directed to support the Brexit 'Leave' campaign."

The UK Electoral Commission has already launched an investigation into the issue, The Guardian said.

The senators point out that Ukip and its then-leader, Nigel Farage, did not just fan anti-EU sentiment but also "criticised European sanctions on Russia, and provided flattering assessments of Russian President Putin".

According to The Guardian, the report adds that although officially the Russian government asserted its neutrality on Brexit, its English-language media outlets RT and Sputnik covered the referendum campaign extensively and offered "systematically one-sided coverage".

The senators also challenge the adequacy of the investigations by Facebook and Twitter into the allegations of widespread social media interference by the Russians during the referendum.

They reference University of Edinburgh research showing more than 400 Russian-run Twitter accounts that had been active in the US election had also been actively posting about Brexit.

In addition, the senators noted that research conducted by a joint team of experts from the University of California at Berkeley and Swansea University reportedly identified 150,000 Twitter accounts with various Russian ties that disseminated messages about Brexit.

The report also points to the vast flow of Russian money into the UK, including the London property market. It records how the Metropolitan police noted that a total value of £180 million (S$324 million) in properties in the UK had been put under investigation as possibly purchased with corrupt proceeds by secretive offshore companies.